Fighting the Walmart Mentality of Energy Use
Xcel Energy is selling less of what it makes the most: electricity, according to a recent Star Tribune article. And according to typical business models this should have Xcel Energy executives frantically trying to get consumers to buy more juice. But thanks to state mandates here in Minnesota that “decouple” electricity sales from company profits (reducing a utilities' disincentive to promote energy efficiency), and incentives that encourage utilities to invest in conservation and energy efficiency efforts, all’s well at Xcel.
Still, even though we have rebate programs, LED lighting, more efficient home appliances, conservation marketing campaigns and all the rest, conservation and energy efficiency efforts can sometimes be an uphill battle with some folks. The reason is likely a psychological one.
As an individual consumer, if our utility bill is too high we may react in one of two ways. We can say, “wow I use a lot of electricity!” and make efforts to reduce our usage. Or we might react with “wtf, why do they charge me so much for all this electricity I use!” and harp on utilities for charging too much for electricity.
A recent blog by David Roberts at grist.org points to a quote from New Mexico conservative activist Marita Noon that ties the latter reaction perfectly to struggles in reducing energy use. While discussing President Obama's energy policy Noon says, “The American way, what made CostCo and Walmart a success, is to use more and pay less. That’s the American way.”
As a society, our attitude towards purchasing other goods and services is that we should get more for less. Why wouldn’t this apply to electricity? Seemingly abundant fossil fuels have allowed us to consume as much energy as we want at relatively cheap prices, albeit at staggering environmental, health, and national transportation and defense costs.
To some people, conservation and energy efficiency (combined with clean energy) says the reverse: use less and, because there are higher costs for energy efficient upgrades and electricity from renewable energy sources, pay more. On the surface this is more or less true, but it ignores the fact that energy efficiency can offset and even surpass the upfront costs for upgrades and higher electricity prices. It also captures the externality costs mentioned above.
Fortunately, Minnesota made strong efforts to restructure utilities’ profit models so that the providers of electricity are encouraging us to use less. But if the mentality of “use more, pay less” continues to pervade our culture, we will continue carelessly burning dirty and unhealthy fossil fuels for our energy needs.