The Georgetown University Energy Prize is making WAPA feel like parents of talented children who are playing the same sport but are all on different teams. We know there can be only one winner but we are rooting for all of them and, of course, we are as proud as we can be of their accomplishments.
Among the 50 communities competing are WAPA municipal customers Fort Collins and Aspen, Colorado, and Palo Alto, California. The three cities are now in the semifinalist stage of the multi-year competition to reduce their electric and gas consumption in a sustainable and replicable way.
To enter the contest, each community submitted a long-term energy-saving plan with commitments to policies and projects by residential associations, governments, institutions or businesses in the community. In the fourth stage, beginning January 2017, finalists will be selected for their energy-saving performance over the previous two years. The criteria also include innovation, potential for replication, likely future performance and program accessibility for all residents. The judging panel will choose the winner from this group to receive a $5-million prize to use to further their community energy plans.
Motivations beyond money
WAPA customers competing for the prize have a track record of designing successful energy-saving programs and engaging customers. It makes sense that they would put that experience to work to earn a $5-million prize to further their efforts, but there are other reasons for competing, too.
It is all about the data for the city of Aspen, acknowledged Utilities Efficiency Specialist Ryland French during his presentation at the Rocky Mountain Utility Efficiency Exchange. “The information we collect will be normalized based on weather, population and other factors,” he explained. “It will give us an aggregate look at community energy use that we didn’t have before.”
Fort Collins Utilities has been pursuing aggressive energy efficiency and greenhouse gas mitigation goals for several years now, and the ramped-up time scale of the competition provided an excuse to pilot new innovative programs. “We are coming at it from a research perspective,” said Project Manager Katy Bigner. “It gives us another way to drive greater community involvement in achieving our Climate Action Plan.”
Get community involved
Since both cities already had active programs for reducing energy use, it made marketing sense to rebrand the competition with a local name. “We wanted to leverage community pride,” said French. “Highlighting the competition with other cities helped to create enthusiasm.”
To its established foundation of energy coaching, home audits and rebates, Aspen added outreach tailored to specific community segments. Program promotion material for home audits pictured city residents who had actually received the assessments, allowing customers to see that their neighbors were participating. A school district-wide retrofit project of lighting and controls became a teaching tool and turned students into advocates for energy conservation.
Working with the Poudre School District has been central to Fort Collins’s strategy, as well. “We’ve focused on small education programs, because when you get kids excited about something, they run home and tell their parents,” said Bigner.
The city also enlisted a sorority from Colorado State University for a “Porchlight Campaign.” Sorority sisters walked through neighborhoods making note of homes that had incandescent bulbs in their porch fixtures. The students would talk to the homeowners and offer to replace the conventional lights with compact fluorescent lamps.
More than one way to tell story
Outreach is a challenge for all utilities, whether competing for a multi-million dollar prize or just trying to get customers to sign up for a new demand response program. Aspen and Fort Collins pursued some proven strategies, like engaging students, but used the competition to experiment with different approaches too.
For Aspen, success came from taking a simple message and spreading it through as many avenues as possible, appealing to many different motivations. When a promotion offering residents a free Nest thermostat was “leaked,” only two people called. However, when the offer was officially announced in the city’s email newsletter, 30 homeowners called before 9 a.m. to get their Nest.
The free home energy assessment program was another offer that didn’t take off until the second announcement. “The first time we promoted it was before the Aspen Energy Challenge branding,” French recalled. “We put the offer in community partner e-newsletters and from mid-March to May 2015, only 50 people signed up for audits.”
By August 2016, when the city offered the second round of free home energy audits, the Aspen Energy Challenge was well established. The offer appeared in the competition’s dedicated newsletter, as well as, newspaper and radio ads, on the Energy Challenge website, posters, social media, local television, events and more. “We talked generally not just about saving energy and money, but also about being green, joining the community, competing for the Prize, comfort, health and safety and tech trends,” said French.
Customers claimed all 25 free audits in only seven days, so Aspen continued to promote audits at the regular incentive level of $100 after the rebate. “We had enough traction in the community that there were 24 more sign-ups over the last three weeks of August,” he said. “They were attracted by the free offer, but continued to participate after the free audits ran out.”
Fort Collins decided to come up with a marketing campaign that differed from the one it had used prior to the competition. “We are not only testing out innovative programs, we are looking at different ways to market them, too,” Bigner said.
A sociologist the utility consulted had done research that indicated people find open-ended calls to action confusing. “When you say, ‘turn down your thermostat,’ people don’t really know how much they need to make a difference,” she pointed out. “The marketing campaign is focused on taking specific steps to cut down on energy use, and then moving to the next level.”
The contest website provides visitors with an interactive chart that categorizes actions as easy, medium or advanced, and includes steps for renters and home owners, different home systems and appliances. For example, easy steps for lighting include turning lights off when not in use and replacing conventional incandescent bulbs with one of the newer, high-efficiency options. Advanced measures include buying large appliances, installing solar thermal or photovoltaic systems and investing in building shell upgrades. The chart indicates measures for which rebates are available.
Creating competition between businesses has paid off for the utility. Although the contest does not count energy savings by business customers, businesses can compete with each other to see how much energy their employees can save at home. Lose a Watt created the Workwise Challenge to get local businesses within the city limits involved. Employees install a Home Conservation Kit the program supplies, and then tell their stories on the website. Participating businesses earn recognition and employees have the chance to win prizes. The strategy has resulted in an 86,000 kilowatt-hours in savings.
Some things work
As the end of Stage 3 of the competition draws near (Dec. 31), contestants have had time to evaluate some of their strategies and draw a few conclusions.
Working with school districts was a success for both utilities, showing once again that it is never too soon to reach out to tomorrow’s consumers.
Affordable housing energy upgrades proved especially successful in Aspen, a resort community with a large demographic of seasonal workers. “We were able to do 400 units in only a couple of months. The key was focusing on the process and working with the city council and county commission,” French recalled.
The utility matched the upgrades with outreach to tenants and landlords. “Seasonal tenants can’t be expected to know what 0 through 5 on a radiator dial means in terms of actual temperature, or what to do if the solar thermal system on a unit isn’t working,” French said. “To maintain the gains from the upgrades, we had to educate the people who lived in the buildings and managed them.”
In addition to the success of the business competition, streamlining its energy-efficiency upgrade program for homeowners has been a success for Fort Collins. “We walk the customer through the whole process from audit to completion,” said Bigner.
Others, not so much
Having a chance to pilot new ideas and find out more about what makes consumers tick has been a frequently cited motive for participating in the Georgetown University Energy Prize. The participating utilities already have lessons under their belts, some a surprise and others not.
Aspen is a city of large vacation homes and those homeowners are an especially tough audience for a message of energy efficiency. “We have tried promoting the competition through the food and wine festival, peer pressure, talking about savings and reaching out to property managers. No luck,” French admitted.
He added that Park City, Utah, another competitor with a similar demographic profile, was having the same problem.
Given the number of young consumers in the college town, Fort Collins thought the Joule-Bug gaming application might be a good way to engage customers in saving energy. “It turned out to be good for only about a year,” Bigner noted. “It required too much effort to sustain over the two years of competition.”
Enlisting energy leaders to promote the competition through social networking was another strategy that ultimately offered to little savings for the effort it required, she said.
Crowdfunding to help a low-income customer make home efficiency improvements was another idea that didn’t pan out. “We raised only $200 to help a single-mother schoolteacher. But I think that approach might still be successful for a nonprofit or faith- based organization, for example,” Bigner observed.
After the finish line
Whoever wins the Georgetown University Energy Prize, the participants can look forward to gaining solid data about their customers’ energy use, along with a clearer idea of what drives customer engagement.
After being judged for their performance in Stage 3, the selected finalists will submit a report on how their programs supported the community’s plan and how they can be applied to longer-term strategies. “We expect to be able to learn plenty from the other participants,” said Bigner.
While a $5-million prize would be great—especially if a WAPA customer wins it—the lessons that come from the competition may well be the greatest prize, and consumers and utilities alike will be winners.