A community approach to energy efficiency

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-115946054311785.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of Muscatine Power and Water Website’, ‘Electric lights along the Mississippi River, Muscatine, Iowa’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-115946060310388.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of Muscatine Power and Water Website’, ‘Electrathon cars built by high school students.’);

When John Root accepted the position of running the energy rebate program for the Muscatine, Iowa, municipal Power and Water Company, he faced the challenge of gaining community acceptance of the need for energy efficiency.

His strategy was to create a partnership among the utility, city, and county and local institutions. He appealed to them to cut overhead by implementing energy efficiency strategies and technologies in their operations. A common response was one of disbelief as conservation was falsely seen as virtuous but not profitable.

Even with high energy prices, he finds people’s mental barriers stop them from taking money-saving actions. Some include faulty information, such as the belief that lowering the temperature at which a furnace cuts in when no one is home causes more energy use later when raising the setting to a comfortable level. Others include reluctance to spend extra money today to implement efficiency measures, although savings will return the investment within two or three years and continue to provide profit for years to come. In such cases, people tend to grasp existing myths to justify not taking action. A plea of not having enough money helps avoid thinking about changing behavior and spending priorities to make the investment in efficiency.

Other barriers include a lack of current knowledge about available energy-efficient choices and the unwillingness or uncertainty of how to obtain information. When facing a new energy-efficient technology, people may be suspicious that it may not work as well as claimed. A fear of making the wrong choice can immobilize people, who then continue with existing products or patterns.

To overcome these barriers, Root offers energy audits to businesses and home owners with suggested actions and estimates of the time it will take to recapture investments.

Replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs is one of the best investments home owners can make. Many small businesses benefit from upgrading their lighting systems as well. Root believes that energy savings should be an integral part of every community’s economic development plan as it lowers the cost of doing business and keeps more dollars local.

In 2005, customers in the city of 25,000 reduced their electrical consumption by more than 10 million kilowatts and saved nearly $1.5 million with efficiency upgrades, which will pay for themselves in four years. The energy savings are equivalent to installing 33 750 kW wind generators and 1,035 5 kW solar electric arrays. The investment in efficiency was the most effective way to save money and cut pollution.

In addition to offering a technical advisory service to customers of the Municipal Utility, Root created an efficiency and renewable energy program for the Muscatine Schools. He began with an energy efficiency and renewable energy poster contest for fourth and fifth graders to raise community awareness. He followed that with a take-home energy audit for students, which required parental assistance. This helped alert the adults to energy savings opportunities within their homes.

Later, seventh and eighth graders were encouraged to join the Solar Sprint contest. They purchased and assembled model solar cars with batteries and entered them in competitions to determine which vehicles performed best. Of course, parents and grandparents became interested in the activities.

As interest grew, a high school program know as the electrathron was added. In this program, students build and race electric cars 12 feet long and 4 feet wide that carry 64 pounds of batteries. Students raise up to $4,000 to secure materials needed to build each car, which is a team activity.

Another high school program is a student-organized community energy fair. Each year, the senior who submits the best 1,000-word paper about energy efficiency and renewable energy is awarded a $500 college scholarship.

While each community is unique, there are many elements in Energize Muscatine that could be replicated in other communities. Considering the long-term nature of our energy and climate change challenges, it is something every community should be working on now.

i>This column is based on a presentation by John Root, Aug. 13, 2006, at the Ogle County Fairgrounds and on information from the Muscatine Power and Water Web site.

From the Sept. 27-Oct. 3, 2006, issue

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