Energy efficiency and Weight Watchers

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Elisa Wood By Elisa Wood
April 27, 2011

We’ve been hearing for years that the energy efficiency industry needs to find its equivalent to the cell phone. These days industry folks refer to it as the ‘killer app,” the revolutionary product or service that consumers can’t resist.

But lately, partly because I’m dieting, I’ve been thinking what energy efficiency really needs is something akin to a Weight Watchers dessert.

Let me explain myself.

Saving energy and saving calories share three precepts. They are most palatable to the consumer if they are devoid of self-sacrifice, appear invisible, and offer some element of delight. Weight Watchers has got these down cold. The energy efficiency industry is doing well with the first and second, but not the third.

No self-sacrifice

Weight Watchers is ingenious because it does not describe itself as a diet; it’s a lifestyle, a way of eating. It’s not about self-sacrifice. Sound familiar? The energy efficiency industry over the last decade shook off the ‘conservation’ moniker, much the way Weight Watcher abandoned the term ‘diet.’

The Alliance to Save Energy describes the difference between energy efficiency and conservation beautifully on its website:

But energy efficiency is a far cry from the energy conservation images and practices of old – of doing with less or doing without, of being uncomfortable or less comfortable. Not unlike the tremendous technological strides on the computer, electronics, and other fronts, energy efficiency takes advantage of advances in technology to provide significantly better, smarter services.


On Weight Watchers you still can eat the macaroni and cheese. But it’s made with low fat milk. The calorie savings become invisible to me. Likewise, consumers can be energy efficient and still use their air conditioners and televisions as much as before. Appliance standards are the low fat milk of the energy industry. If you wonder about the significance of these standards read the efficiency section of the US Energy Information Administration’s recently released Annual Energy Outlook 2011. The report forecasts a 17% drop in residential per capita energy use through 2035 and says appliance standards often are “the primary reason for efficiency gains.” The currently controversial lighting standards create the biggest energy savings (See EIA chart below.)

EIA graph

Credit: US Energy Information Administration


This one is easy for Weight Watchers. It offers wonderful little chocolate cakes that bring delight to the sweet tooth. But what is energy efficiency’s chocolate cake? Herein rests the problem for the industry.  The cell phone, the IPod, the home computer – these technologies were readily adapted because of the delight and convenience they add to our lives. As far as I can tell, neither the smart meter nor any of the other energy savings technologies being offered for the home offer any of this kind of allure. Some folks in the energy industry say they never will because information technology and energy technology part ways here. They may be right. But I remain hopeful. Those who had the first home computers (mine was a DEC Rainbow 100) may remember that they offered far more in the way of frustration than fun or inconvenience. These early computers left critics of the industry doubtful that widespread penetration of home computers would ever occur….and we all know how that all ended.

Elisa Wood is the co-author of the recent white paper, “Exporting US Energy Efficiency.”

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.


  1. Tony Woicekowski says:

    Interesting analysis. No tangible “delight”. The money saved through EE, even though it stays in your pocket, is largely invisible. After all, you still get a bill. It’s like at a supermarket, where they tell you how much you saved on the groceries you just forked over cash for. “Yeah, right.” you’re thinking. Juxtapose the “you just saved xx $$” to a hotel I favor, where I pay a premium room rate, but I feel pampered when I’m given a few bottles of chilled water in a basket when I check in. The “delight” factor. Great observation Elisa. Thanks.

  2. Elisa … just had to step into this discussion. (Maybe because I’m trying the Lifestyle Change too! – aka “diet”)

    In your blog you state: “Saving energy and saving calories share three precepts. They are most palatable to the consumer if they are devoid of self-sacrifice, appear invisible, and offer some element of delight. Weight Watchers has got these down cold. The energy efficiency industry is doing well with the first and second, but not the third.”

    I agree with you on the first two aspects – but take issue with your concern regarding the third … Energy Efficiency is being delivered without self-sacrifice … and are invisible … because of the new Building Codes and Standards that are being developed … AND the element of delight will appear on your Utility bill each month – in lower or maybe the same, costs. (while consumers may continue to be disgruntled by the costs in any case – think of what they would have experience without higher EE codes and Standards.)

    As for energy efficiency vs. energy conservation … Energy Efficiency now let’s me spend my evenings in a well lit room 100% of the time, while with energy conservation I would have had to turn off the lights 75% of the time – and sat in the dark.

    Ken Elsey

  3. Britteny Evans says:

    I absolutely enjoyed reading this. I also can relate, recently going on my own lifestyle change, though I would consider mine to be on the conservation side (avoiding certain foods) rather than the efficient side (eating the same thing, only lower calorie/fat ingredients).
    I would wonder if perhaps the delight factor may come in the form of a Utility rebate for purchasing that high efficient equipment. I view it as a carrot in a way, a boon to influence a decision if someone is choosing between the low efficient version of an appliance and the higher efficient version. Sure it’s more expensive, but you’ll get $x dollars in the form of a check and/or credit and it will cost you less to operate for the rest of it’s lifespan. Marketing this view could be influential to market transformation. The trouble comes when the standard is the high efficient model, and everyone has the same cake.

  4. Nathan Grant says:

    Great article and what a funny way of putting it. I keep hearing about how EE is the “nerd” of energy and now it has no delight. While I agree that our industry has some challenges, I think the new technologies and the new methods of delivering these technologies will change the way people look at EE. For example, new technologies give such amazing ROI’s that they pay for themselves quickly and new financing structures allow the clients to upgrade at no upfront cost. We have a client that will remain unnamed that has many retail locations that are getting new HVAC systems that WORK as opposed to the old ones that didn’t, new lighting to show off their products better and create a better environment for their products and this is all being done at no up front cost. I think that is pretty amazing and the delight is the end result of a beautiful upgrade to the environment and a lower energy bill at no upfront cost as the energy savings pays for the project.

  5. The concepts of renewable energy and energy efficiency go hand in hand. These two concepts are considered to be the “twin pillars” of the policies regarding sustainable energy. To make the most of the sustainable energy policy there needs to be simultaneous application of strategies regarding renewable energy and efficient use of energy.