Energy efficiency messaging

Energy efficiency messaging reset in Ontario

Strategic defence of CDM should emphasize paybacks and play nice
Tuesday, July 24, 2018
By Barbara Carss

Energy efficiency advocates are working to enlist broader support and leverage existing influential backers at a time when government commitment is becoming more uneven across North American jurisdictions. Efficiency Canada — formerly the Canadian Energy Efficiency Alliance — launched its new brand this spring with a heavy emphasis on the economic development opportunities arising from energy retrofits and the pursuit of Canada’s greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets.

Notably, economic modelling Efficiency Canada co-sponsored projects that energy efficiency measures identified in the national framework for addressing climate change could equate to a $356 billion boost to Canada’s GDP between 2017 and 2030. That’s pegged at $7 of GDP for every $1 invested in energy efficiency.

However, the largest provincial player in that pursuit has since reversed course, terminating its cap-and-trade system and, with it, the funding mechanism for various incentives to promote energy efficiency in commercial and residential buildings offered through the now-cancelled Green Ontario Fund. Efficiency Canada’s mission statement looks particularly ambitious in light of recent developments.

“Our goal is to make energy efficiency — through an economic lens — top of mind for policy makers,” affirms the not-for-profit association’s website. “To do that, we aim to make the complex, simple; the story, compelling; the stakeholders, heroes; the mundane, exciting.”

Adjusting to a new tone

Last week’s joint statement from the Premiers of Ontario and Saskatchewan takes a different stance.

“Carbon taxes make life unaffordable for families and put thousands of jobs at risk. This type of taxation does nothing for the environment and hits people in the wallet in order to fund big government initiatives,” Doug Ford and Scott Moe assert. “A climate change strategy is critical, but a carbon tax would increase the price of virtually every product and service people need on a daily basis.”

Disentangling energy efficiency from GHG reduction and renewable energy — at least on the messaging level — may now be strategic for its preservation. Thus far, the new Ontario government has made no announcement related to its campaign pledge to transfer the funding mechanism for conservation and demand management (CDM) programs from hydro rates to the general tax base, but energy managers and prospective beneficiaries of CDM incentives are wary.

The government has moved quickly on other components of its promised scheme to cut electricity costs for ratepayers by 12 per cent. Within days of the throne speech reaffirmation to Ontarians to “lower your hydro bills”, the executive structure of Hydro One, which oversees the transmission of electricity, had been overhauled, and 758 renewable energy contracts — of which 748 were small scale generation, no greater than 500 kilowatts, under the feed-in tariff (FIT) program — were cancelled.

“For 15 years, Ontario families and businesses have been forced to pay inflated hydro prices so the government could spend on unnecessary and expensive energy schemes,” Ontario Energy Minister Greg Rickford said, July 13, as he scrapped the contracts for the projects. “Those days are over.”

Focusing on negawatts and red tape reduction

Efficiency Canada’s goal to position energy efficiency as the “First Fuel” that governments, consumers, utilities and regulators recognize lines up with the concept of negawatts — placing energy-use reduction on par with generating new supply. Yet, there is a significant distinction in the dramatically lower cost to save versus generate. Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) calculates that $1 invested in curbing consumption staves off $2 of required investment in new supply.

“It’s the easiest and most cost-effective alternative to new generation. Period,” Robert Edwards, the IESO’s private sector business manager, reiterated earlier this year at a seminar sponsored by the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) of Greater Toronto.

“Conservation incentives are not a subsidy. They are an investment,” stresses Scott Rouse, managing partner of the consulting firm, Energy@Work.

He also voices concern that moving CDM programs to the general tax base would upend the years of work and relationship building that have gone into the existing model of programs deployed through Ontario’s local distribution companies. Nor would such a transition seem to align with the new government’s agenda to eliminate red tape.

“Are we going to have a new group of bureaucrats thrown in to try to figure out how to deliver incentives?” Rouse asks. “We already have to deal with a lot of people who don’t really understand incentives. Are we going to now layer more people on top of that? I would hope not.”

Taking the edge off fighting words

Efficiency Canada’s peer in the United States, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), is examining how to build consensus in what many see as an increasingly polarized society. An upcoming conference will include a seminar focusing on how terminology can unite or divide people with varying outlooks, and support or undermine their receptiveness. It draws from a 2017 survey and analysis from the Shelton Group, a marketing and communications firm specializing in energy and the environment.

Survey participants were selected to proportionately represent the U.S. population for geography, age, gender, education and race, with results calculated to have a 2.2 per cent plus/minus margin of error. Findings show that the words “science”, “conservation” and “sustainability” generally resonate positively, with “conservation” and “sustainability” garnering an outright negative reaction from just 5 per cent of respondents.

“Environmental stewardship”, “regulation” and “carbon footprint” were greeted much less enthusiastically. In particular, “carbon footprint” was the one tested term that elicited more outright negative response (33 per cent) than positive endorsement (28 per cent). Positive response was just 38 per cent for “regulation” and at 48 per cent for “environmental stewardship”.

“To reach the broadest possible audience, we need to speak using terms we know they understand and that reflect their shared values and beliefs,” Suzanne Shelton, survey devisor and interpreter, said in an interview posted on the ACEEE’s website. “We need to be careful not to use words they don’t understand or are overly subject to interpretation, and above all, avoid terms that may polarize them and create a longer, harder walk between their beliefs and positive actions.”

From that perspective, sustainability advocates on this side of the border speculate energy efficiency messaging might have some inherent advantages. It can be explicitly linked to terms like “payback” and “return on investment”.

“It’s the big projects that save energy, but have a long payback, or the ones that have an upfront cost and are carbon-reducing in a way that people don’t tangibly experience — like carbon offsets, for example — that can be more challenging to implement than the classic ‘low-hanging fruit’ with a two-year ROI,” reflects Neil Pegram, director of the Americas with GRESB, the sustainability benchmark guiding institutional investors in commercial real estate. “Any time you are trying to change systems, there is a story you are trying to tell, and there is language associated with it that can divide or can open doors.”

He suggests terms like “building performance”, “resilience”, “innovation”, “efficiency” and “flexibility” can engage listeners, as does appealing to their desire to be “leaders not laggards” or their pride of place. “Focusing on leadership and not wasting Canadian resources is a good way of encouraging people,” he adds.

“It’s perhaps not too surprising that words can make or break the decision-making process,” observes Andrew Pride, a consultant on energy management and strategic conservation planning, including facilitating inter-agency and inter-provincial efforts. “In terms of common interests, some good words relating to energy efficiency are: “productivity”, “job creation”, “saving money”, “comfort” and “convenience”.

Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management.

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