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Green with Envy

Efficiency products will proliferate, for better or worse.

Fortnightly Magazine - April 2009

it’s vastly greener than a new Prius. Not only does his 1994 Civic go farther on a gallon of gasoline (47 mpg city/56 hwy), in effect he’s recycling a discarded vehicle whose manufacturing emissions already have been amortized over its 15-year life span. Plus, in principle he could spend thousands of dollars planting trees or buying carbon offsets, and still be money ahead over the Prius. Yet in the old ’94 Civic, he’s perceived as cheap, poor or both. It’s the cubic zirconium of green cars.

In the meme pool, perception is everything. By definition, a meme is a cultural idea that spreads through imitation. The green meme flourishes whenever someone buys a cool, new Prius, but it dies when someone climbs into the empirically greener alternative, the used Civic. That’s because nobody wants to imitate the dude in the rusty Civic, but lots of people wish to own a Prius.

Meme Marketing

Few green products have achieved anything like the market penetration of the Prius. A rare exception is the compact fluorescent light bulb. CFLs have proliferated because the funky, futuristic spiral of a CFL has become ensconced in American culture as a cool product, and regular incandescent bulbs now look old-fashioned by comparison. As a result, Americans bought nearly 300 million CFLs in 2007, and sales continue surging.

Apart from CFLs and Priuses, commercializing the green meme has proved to be frustratingly difficult, because most green products don’t look cool; in fact they don’t look like anything at all. From weather stripping to programmable thermostats, once a green product is installed, it’s quickly forgotten. Likewise, customers who sign up for special utility programs involving conservation or renewable energy have nothing to show for it, except ink on a bill or pixels on a display. For such products, the green behavior is effectively invisible, and therefore it’s effectively impossible for others to imitate it.

The green meme will generate the most sales for tangible and visible products, but only to the degree consumers perceive those products as effective, valuable and cool. This suggests the next products to achieve commercial success via the green meme might be rooftop PV modules (see “ Net-Zero Neighborhoods ”) and electric vehicles. These unmistakably cool products are ideally positioned to ride the green wave. At this stage they might be impractical or expensive, but early adopters already are buying them, and their neighbors are watching with a growing sense of envy.

The real trick for the utility industry will be figuring out how to capitalize on the green meme with products that are inherently less tangible and visible—such as energy-management systems and retail choices that support renewable power development and reduce the user’s carbon footprint.

One approach might be to cultivate the green meme with overt symbols representing the green product. For example, a utility might package a networked home energy-management system with a minimalist installation of solar modules or even a cool-looking backyard wind generator. Such generators might not deliver much empirical value, but they’ll generate envy and imitation among the neighbors. They’ll make the