People don't care about energy efficiency.

The award-winning industrial design firm IDEO is perhaps best known for coming up with innovative products such as the Palm V, the Steelcase Leap Chair, and the first no-squeeze stand-up toothpaste tube. But at the behest of the DoE, it recently turned its attention to public attitudes about energy efficiency. After dozens of interviews and a lot of time spent watching people as they shopped and went about their lives, IDEO had some bad news for the DoE: despite the high energy costs of 2008, pronouncements from authority figures, and an endless stream of pamphlets stuck in monthly utility bills, energy efficiency just isn't a priority for the vast majority of consumers.

“People broadly knew about energy efficiency and that they should be conserving. But there are so many issues competing for attention these days that energy efficiency just doesn't rise to the top,” explains IDEO associate partner Annetta Papadopoulos. “Energy conservation was just another item on the ‘I-ought-to-be-doing’ list,” she says.

IDEO also found a tendency to view energy efficiency as good for power providers rather than consumers. And Papadopoulos says IDEO's research disproved long-held assumptions about the role of finances in decisions about energy efficiency measures. “Only one person we spoke to mentioned return-on-investment, and that person was an accountant. It was widely thought that energy-efficiency spending is a rational dollars-and-cents judgment. Money may enter into the decision for significant ventures like replacing windows, but it just isn't the main consideration,” she explains.

Therein lies an important insight. There has been a sense that, “If you build-in more efficiency, consumers will come,” says Papadopoulos.

Engineers tend to get too wrapped up in pushing new technologies that will make an impact on the world. But they'll go farther, Papadopoulos points out, if they find ways to bring technology and the human side together. She says the way to do that is to understand the latent desires people hold dear, and merge energy efficiency opportunities with moments that matter, as when, for example, moving into a new house. “These are times when people are more likely to reconsider their habits. We talked to an Alaskan woman who never realized how drafty her home was until she had her first child. It was only when she began to consider the sleeping environment she wanted for her newborn that she was prompted to put film on her windows,” explains Papadopoulos.

Because people find energy efficiency to be an abstract concept, IDEO concluded the best way of promoting it among consumers was to simply combine it with issues they already care about. “People are concerned about predictable matters like the aesthetics of their homes and comfort. Companies will do better if they weave energy efficiency into the satisfaction people get out of making their home comfortable and stylish,” says Papadopoulos.

Another dangerous assumption is that consumers who want to become energy efficient will know how to do it. “We got the sense that people felt a lack of control. You could almost hear them saying, ‘I know I should save energy but when I look around my house, I have no idea how much energy I am using or where I can get the biggest bang for the buck in being more efficient,’ ” says Papadopoulos.

Reading between the lines of IDEO's findings, it's clear that consumer apathy about energy efficiency can be a lemonade-from-lemons opportunity. As with many innovations that look obvious in hindsight, the companies that figure out compelling ideas in this market will come out the big winners.

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