Climate Compass Blog

How to reduce home energy costs this winter

“Oh the weather outside is frightful.” That line from the classic song “Let it Snow” usually heard this time of year is a reminder winter is upon us, bringing hot chocolate, holidays – oh, and higher energy bills.

But we can all sing a happy tune about saving energy and money, and reducing our impact on the climate, if we’re a little smarter about how we stay toasty in our homes this winter.

Most homeowners’ largest energy expense comes from space heating, which accounts for nearly 30 percent of a typical household’s annual utility bill (and 40 percent of home energy use).

As for environmental impact, the energy used in residential buildings -- for space heating and cooling, water heating, appliances, electronics and lighting -- is responsible for more than one-fifth of total U.S. energy-related carbon emissions.

Space heating accounts for almost 30 percent of a typical home’s energy bill.  Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Replacing older space and water heaters with new, more efficient models is a key way to save energy. And using natural gas, instead of electricity, for space and water heating results in less carbon emissions. Installing energy-efficient windows and insulation also can make a difference on home heating bills. But all of these projects can be expensive and involved, so be sure to take the time to consider what’s right for your home.

If it’s not the right time to upgrade your home or its systems, saving money can be as simple as adjusting the temperature.

Setting your water heater to a cooler temperature (120 degrees F) can reduce fuel consumption by 5-10 percent. (Putting on an insulating blanket on the water heater is another energy-saver.)

Installing a programmable thermostat and setting it to anything lower than 68 degrees when you are out could save you up to 15 percent on your heating bill.

Today, consumers also can take advantage of new technologies that let you remotely control your home’s heating and cooling, lighting, and more – all from your smart phone. Online access makes it more convenient to adjust the lights and thermostat if you’re away. Some products even try to learn your preferences over time, making it easy to “set it and forget it.”

These sophisticated energy management technologies treat your home like a system rather than a collection of plugs. The information they provide let homeowners make better decisions about when and how to use energy. One smart technology company touts 10 percent savings on energy bills.

This winter, take advantage of the many opportunities to better manage your home’s energy use to save money and lessen your impact on the climate. It could be something to sing about.

Finding the 'Secret Sauce' to define and motivate your target audience

Most people can agree that being efficient consumers of energy is a good thing. And yet encouraging energy efficiency can be challenging, in part because the potential audience can be huge and diverse, and in part because making a change, even if it saves you money, typically requires effort.

That’s why it’s essential to find the people who are most likely to give energy-efficiency programs a try. Intelligent use of customer data can help target and inform a receptive audience. Members of this audience will then be encouraged to take action with some motivation.

I recently moderated a panel at the Behavior Energy and Climate Conference in Washington, D.C., where three experts discussed innovative ways to strategically target energy-efficiency programs, address factors that make people hesitant to join, and then scale the program.

For example, the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (NEEA) wanted to encourage customers to switch to more efficient water heaters, an effort that, if successful, could save 500 megawatts, the amount of power consumed by the homes in Seattle and Boise combined.

Becca Yates, the alliance’s marketing and communications manager, said the group narrowed down its audience from more than 12 million customers of some 100 utilities by using its own customer data plus information from other sources, including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Census Bureau. The alliance identified a potential customer base of likely early adopters in certain areas, then created segments using criteria such as use of electricity for heating, home value, and income.

NEEA needed to persuade customers to buy an energy-saving product that had a rather high upfront cost. It achieved increased sales by targeting online ads to sites focused on home and garden, appliances, remodeling, energy efficiency, and green living. It also used cookies to re-target customers who did not act the first time they saw the ads, which helped generate awareness. NEAA also used direct mail campaigns, getting better results after urging customers to meet a rebate deadline.

In the Rocky Mountain region, Questar Gas wanted to encourage customers to take part in its appliance rebate and efficiency program, even though customers’ rates in the natural gas-rich region are among the lowest in the nation.

Ted Peterson, Questar’s energy efficiency program manager, said the company was already sending customers reports comparing their energy use to their neighbors’, based on a range of home sizes, building ages and other general factors. But the utility found ways to provide better comparisons, based on specific home sizes, weather zones, service contracts, and a new mathematical formula that ensured only the most similar customers would be compared.

The utility also emulated companies like Netflix and Amazon, which make product recommendations like, “Customers who bought this product also bought…”  to recommend products like a new water heater or furnace, showing the amount the customer would save.

Using data to target and inform your audience is a critical step, but members of this audience may need additional motivation. This motivation was demonstrated by utilities in North Carolina and Vermont, which wanted to get more customers to use ENERGY STAR-certified LED light bulbs. LED bulbs use about 80 percent less energy than traditional 60-watt incandescent bulbs and last up to 25 times longer. But customers are sometimes reluctant to buy them because they’re more expensive and harder to find.

Working with Home Depot and Costco in North Carolina, Duke Energy set up in-store events to promote a sale that put the cost of a bulb at about $5. With plenty of stock on hand, representatives used a lighting strip to demonstrate ease of use. Customers signed cards pledging to convert one bulb in their home to an LED. The in-store promotions resulted in an almost 900 percent increase in sales, and area residents’ daily energy use dropped significantly in the month after the events. In addition, 84 percent of those who participated in the in-store event said the next light bulb they bought would be an LED.

In Vermont, students at one elementary school sold LED bulbs at a reduced cost as a fundraiser. The goal of the drive was to get customers to change all the incandescent bulbs in one room to LEDs. The results: 87 homeowners bought a total of 1,022 bulbs. In an Efficiency Vermont customer survey, 78 percent said they planned to buy an LED bulb in the future.

Wesley Schultz, a professor of psychology at California State University and advisor to the ENERGY STAR program, who did a case study on the projects, said customers in both the Duke Energy and Efficiency Vermont promotions reduced their overall energy use in the weeks after buying the LED bulbs.

Driving participation in energy-saving programs doesn't have to be a hit-or-miss strategy. These efforts show that intelligent use of data can help identify a target audience and break down barriers, so customers will be more open to a new, more efficient technology. This is how we will move toward a more sustainable future.


Why Lima was so tough

It was clear heading into the U.N. climate change conference in Lima that countries would punt all the toughest issues until next year in Paris, when a grand new global deal is due. All they really needed in Lima were a few procedural decisions setting the stage.

So why did it take more than 30 hours beyond the conference deadline to deliver something so modest?

The answer is that even a seemingly trivial procedural issue can be freighted with substantive implications, so countries fret over every nuance, lest they let something slip that will come back to haunt them later. In Lima, like so many times before, their biggest worry was how responsibility will be distributed across developed and developing countries.

At the start of the global climate effort, developed countries were comfortable with a stark division assigning most of the responsibility to them. But 20 years later, China is now the world’s largest carbon emitter, and developed countries no longer accept the so-called firewall between the two groupings.

The 2011 Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, which launched the current round of negotiations, said the Paris agreement would be “applicable to all.”  But just what that means was left to be sorted out later, and will likely be the central challenge in Paris.

The handwriting is on the famous firewall – it’s coming down. China’s willingness to stand side by side with the United States last month to jointly announce their post-2020 emissions goals is a tacit acknowledgement of that. The question is what if anything takes its place.

Clean energy banks could foster private investment in charging stations

The electric vehicle (EV) market got a jolt of good news this fall with the announcement that dozens of non-profits, schools, and utilities are purchasing electric fleets and installing workplace charging stations.

The challenge is to encourage more fleet operators – and the general public -- to adopt EVs on a similar scale. And that’s not likely without more charging stations that the public can use.

Governments have played a central role in deploying the public EV charging infrastructure we now have, but private investment is needed to get more charging along major highways and at popular destinations, multi-unit residential buildings and workplaces.

A new C2ES report explores the role that state clean energy financing organizations, such as clean energy banks, can play in unlocking private investment to expand EV infrastructure. The analysis is part of a joint project by C2ES and the National Association of State Energy Officials on ways to finance alternative fuel vehicle refueling infrastructure.

The need for more public EV charging is clear. A recent C2ES study noted a lack of access to public charging stations in many parts of Washington state, for example. Despite having one of the largest per-capita charging networks in the country, the study concluded EV drivers in Washington could still have a hard time getting to many locations outside the immediate Seattle area.

Attracting private investment in EV charging has been difficult because the business case for EV charging is very challenging, and high start-up costs have kept potential investors on the sidelines.

5 ideas for EPA's Clean Power Plan

The proposed Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants is a long overdue turning point in America’s response to climate change.

EPA’s approach gives the states tremendous flexibility to design strategies that work best for them. States have always been incubators of innovation, and they will drive technological and policy innovation as they encourage low-cost solutions to implement the plan.

We need to encourage that innovation – by cities, states, and businesses -- to show the path forward to a clean energy economy.

C2ES submitted comments today as part of the EPA’s process to seek stakeholder input to the proposed rule before finalizing it in June 2015.

Here are five suggestions that could make EPA’s framework even better.