Where Were You 30 Years Ago?
January 07, 2014
A version of this article appears in the January/February 2014 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
I am writing this from Phnom Penh, where I am planning a regional meeting called Energy Wise: Opportunities for Energy Efficiency Services in Cambodia and Indochina. The meeting will bring together CEOs and business leaders in the tourism, property development, and manufacturing sectors to highlight the benefits of outsourcing energy efficiency to energy service companies (ESCOs). It is part of a regional initiative funded by the Asian Development Bank to stimulate investment into energy-saving opportunities in Asia’s fast-growing business sector.
What does this have to do with Home Energy? Well . . . my current international work, with the energy consultancy Nexant, traces back to an invitation I received in 1983 to join a crew of three (a physics student, an artist, and myself—a generalist and toxicologist at the California Department of Health) to start up an exciting new magazine called Energy Auditor & Retrofitter. I soon learned that there was an army of several thousand energy auditors across the United States showing homeowners how to reduce their energy bills. And that those energy auditors were starved for practical information on the performance of, and savings achieved by, common energy conservation technologies. We quickly developed an interesting portfolio of articles on everything from heat pump water heaters to demand water heaters to blower doors. I was like a pig in mud—able to escape from my day job doing risk assessments on hazardous chemicals and explore my goal of being a science writer—explaining complex concepts to the layperson.
We started from scratch, developing advertising, circulation, and editorial policies and practices based on imitation and instinct. In a couple of years, we had developed a small but loyal following within the home renovation and utility community, and had a circulation of 6,000 nationwide. And I finally convinced my boss that we should have a more user-friendly name. In 1986, we were rechristened Home Energy. What made the magazine work—and I think this is even more true today—was its laser-like focus on what works. How does building science and research translate into savings in actual houses? How do businesses make money off energy conservation? How do utilities (and energy service companies) design and deliver programs that yield benefits for the customer, and for the ratepayers?
Which brings us forward 30 years to today. I co-lead the clean-energy consulting business in Asia for Nexant, a global firm with 750 people worldwide and with 24 offices in the United States that delivers demand-side management (DSM) programs for electric and gas utilities. The current assignment I am working on in Cambodia is déjà vu all over again—I am leading an initiative to explain the benefits of ESCOs to corporate leaders in Southeast Asia. We are doing this through a series of executive breakfasts across the region, in which we describe ESCO business models, present case studies, and answer questions. And one of the most effective tools we have is well-researched, well-documented case studies—studies that were originally published in Home Energy; studies that show investment, payment, internal rate of return, guaranteed savings, and actual savings for energy conservation projects. Over the past three months, I assigned our research team to collect detailed information on case studies from projects delivered by ESCOs across the Southeast Asia region. It was surprisingly difficult to get beyond the ESCO’s marketing materials and present a consistent set of facts and data that would allow comparison across the range of energy conservation projects—but then again, that is the value of rigorous fact-checking and analysis.
In the end, when you want to change minds and influence behavior, there is no substitute for a clearly written, complete, and accurate description of the technology, implementation, investment, and savings needed to do so. Home Energy has proved to be a very valuable training ground—for myself, and for countless others.
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