Over the past several weeks, Daniel Gross has been leading "The Efficient Life," a crowdsourcing project to generate creative ideas about personal energy efficiency. Slate readers have submitted so many great ideas—500 of them so far—and comments that it emboldened us to try to do the same kind of crowdsourcing live, and with alcohol. So on Wednesday, March 10, more than 200 Slate readers, environmental and energy experts, and others gathered at the House of Sweden in Washington, D.C., for brainstorming and cocktails. The event began with a discussion among Slate and Newsweek columnist Daniel Gross, Department of Energy efficiency guru David Katz, Con Ed efficiency manager Mark Thomson, Natural Resources Defense Council building efficiency expert Lane Burt, and co-founder and senior editor of Grist.org Lisa Hymas. After that, we broke into small groups to try to generate ideas.
The groups made dozens of suggestions ranging from technological (wire your house so all appliances turn off when you lock the front door), to psychological (put smiley or frowny faces on utility bills, depending on how high the energy usage), to humorous (have a "Kill a Watt" competition among neighbors). Here are some of the leading ideas, grouped by theme.
Make It About Money
Appealing to people's wallets is a good bet in a crummy economy. Our participants suggested tax incentives, rewards for lowering energy use, and marketing campaigns to promote the cost-effectiveness of energy efficiency. One person pointed out that a geothermal heating unit, despite costing $30,000, gets you a tax write-off and enough savings over eight years to pay for itself. Programmable thermostats cost less than $100 and immediately lower monthly utility bills. The consensus was that the government should supply these devices for free, or at least offer a tax incentive for buying them.
Make It Easy
Don't make people work so hard. Our participants would like to see a concise, centralized list of baby steps to saving energy, preferably as Google's first search result for "energy efficiency." Remove the burden from consumers and homeowners by creating tougher national standards for manufacturers and contractors. If all appliances are required to be energy efficient, you wouldn't have to fret about which TV to buy. Similarly, a universal environmental labeling system, such as Wal-Mart's, would simplify shopping for green-minded customers.
Make It Competitive
Get neighborhoods, apartment buildings, and individuals to compete to see who can use the least energy. This could be sponsored by local governments or organizations like Earth Aid, which tracks individual energy usage among groups and rewards the most efficient with coupons and prizes. People with exceptionally low energy use could get signs for their front yard celebrating their efficiency.
Make People Feel Guilty, Preferably Through Their Children
Kids can pressure their parents into being more green. Making energy consumption more public could also shame people into consuming less. A Facebook widget that tracked energy use could be effective: No one wants to be the guy with the highest electricity usage in his network.
Make It Trendy
Tap into pop culture through celebrity endorsements or the popularity of home TV shows. Two suggestions: Green Cribs and Extreme Makeover: Green Home Edition.
Make It Novel
Some of the suggestions were just strange enough to spark imaginations, if not become widely popular. A few favorites: painting all roofs white to reflect heat in the summer, creating lights that dim automatically when natural light is available, and wiring gym equipment to generate electricity rather than burn it.
Make the Government Lead by Example
Federal and state governments are huge consumers of energy but lack the discipline to cut their use. Governments should encourage many more employees to telecommute than they currently do. A government energy auditor could shame government into better behavior by publicizing egregious examples of energy waste, just as the GAO has improved the federal government by exposing outrageous spending and bureaucratic misbehavior.
To listen to the entire event, click on the player below: