Why don’t we have electric cars (EVs)—or for that matter, all manner of energy-efficient technologies in our homes and businesses? Some clues are in Maggie Koerth-Baker’s New York Times Magazine piece, “Why Your Car Isn’t Electric,” which explores the socio-economic reasons for adopting one technology over the other.
Koerth-Baker chronicles the century-old battle between electric and gas-powered cars (guess which one), as well as the decision consumers once made about electric versus gas-powered refrigerators. And from this we can extrapolate three keys to selling energy efficiency.
1. Make it Easy
In both the cases of cars and fridges, the easier technology for people to embrace won. Early on in the development of the mass-market automobile, gas vehicles were easier to come by. EVs were often just leased. And today EVs suffer from range limitations, the hassle of hours of charging versus a five-minute fill-up, as well as limited infrastructure (public charging stations). Not to mention having to put a charging station in your own home. These factors don’t make EVs compelling to many, despite the fact that they are far more energy-efficient than gas-powered vehicles and cheaper to maintain.
The same can be said of energy-efficiency technologies in the home. We have to make them simple and easy for people to use, which is why devices like the Nest Learning Thermostat that uses an occupancy sensor to learn your behavior so you never have to program the thermostat, are the wave of the future. Give people something they can set and forget (or don’t even have to set) and you’re making a more compelling sale. In other words, automate as much as possible.
2. Build on an Ethos
Koerth-Baker cites societal change as a big factor in making big changes like energy efficiency and recycling happen:
In other cases, the path to success is more complicated and depends upon societal change. The technology to recycle glass bottles, metal and paper existed in 1960, when Americans recycled 6.4 percent of their trash. In 2010, we recycled 34 percent of our trash. That change wasn’t caused by improvements in technology. Instead it was about public perception of a problem and access to the solution. We created an ethos of recycling, beginning with anti-littering campaigns in the 1960s and ’70s, and later, curbside recycling programs gave people a way to easily express that ethos.
Must we start an ethos first? Many people want to be more energy-efficient, if not for the environment then to save money or reach energy independence or other factors. I believe an ethos is already there. People for the most part want energy efficiency. They just don’t want to be inconvenienced by it. That is why it must be made easy and comforting. As the Times article states:
You can change the technology. You can change the infrastructure and culture. And sometimes, you have to change both, easing people into accepting a new tool by making it look and feel like the old one you want to replace.
Hence the gas-hybrid and electric Chevy Volt and other plug-in hybrids with backup gas engines that will follow. Also hence the at-once retro and mod Nest thermostat, which looks like a simple round thermostat dial of yore but which is packed with the artificial intelligence needed to make saving energy easy today. And a big plus is that it doesn’t look like an intimidating computer hanging off the wall.
3. Make it Cost-Competitive
One obvious point in why gas vehicles beat electrics 100 years ago is that they were made cheaper. GE also provided cheaper electric refrigerators. The cheaper technology often wins out, not the better one. This is still a big stumbling block for getting energy efficiency into homes. In businesses, you can often show a compelling ROI, such as with LED lights. That’s a lot tougher to come by in home installations. But if you can make it easier for people to adopt the technologies that appeal to their ethos, you can overcome ROI.
This is the same reason I believe we see solar electric panels appearing on more and more homes. Leasing programs make it easy for people to afford them. There’s no money down, and no savings accounts wiped out for something that’s in tune with your ethos but may not give you a return for 20 years.
We need to find more ways like these to make efficiency easy, cost-competitive and part of our ethos.
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