Friday, December 15, 2006

Michigan: An Evolving Approach to Industrial Energy Outreach

Michigan’s manufacturers, like those in the U.S. as a whole, are challenged by inflated energy bills. Energy waste is a contributing factor to high energy expenses, but many industrial decision-makers are unaware, unable, or unmotivated to do anything about it (see Energy Pathfinder’s post dated 2006Oct25). It’s hard to make good energy choices without the knowledge of available options. Boosting awareness of energy-efficient technologies, procedures, and behaviors remains an ongoing challenge. This is in many ways a marketing opportunity.

“Marketing,” however, is a concept with which many government entities are not comfortable. And to be fair, no one—business, government, or otherwise—seems to have mastered the marketing of “energy strategies.” Not that it constitutes “marketing,” per se, but the limited federal energy assistance that exists is mostly channeled through states. This allows each participating state to serendipitously customize its outreach strategy. We would expect that some states are better than others at boosting awareness of (i.e., “marketing”) energy cost control strategies. We will look at Michigan’s experience in a minute.

A number of well-intentioned industrial energy efficiency outreach strategies have been developed over the years, primarily by state energy offices, utilities, and power authorities. The individuals behind these programs have been primarily technical people who anticipate a technical audience. A couple leading outreach strategies include:
Best practice documentation. By using the Internet as a repository, some programs have posted tip sheets, case studies, and other do-it-yourself reference documents. “Build it and they will come” is the underlying promotional strategy.
Workshops. These classroom-style events, generally attended by mechanics and tradesmen, provide a day’s worth of instruction focused on technology and equipment. The typical workshop attendee is almost never a “decision-maker.” Without the power to set priorities, create budgets, or develop procedures, these individuals cannot muster the organizational change that is a prerequisite to effective energy cost control.

These strategies fall short for a reason: Even the most compelling technology does not implement itself. People implement. But people must first run the gauntlet of competing organizational priorities.

Michigan, which imports nearly all of its $30 billion annual energy tab from other states, decided to evolve this approach. To do so, the Michigan Energy Office competitively selected a private management consulting firm, Shepherd Advisors, to implement their U.S. DOE Special Energy Project. In short, the Michigan Dialogue to Reduce Energy Use (MiDRE) seeks to “grease the wheels” of outreach through enhanced communication. Being in place less than a year, this program has little track record to evaluate. But it is certainly one to watch. Some elements, such as workshops and newsletters, are standard fare. But by leveraging Internet resources for two-way communications, program manger Ramsey Zimmerman seeks to (1) discover energy assistance needs at the individual plant level, (2) direct participating companies to the appropriate resources, and (3) develop a peer-to-peer networking platform. One interesting feature is an Internet bulletin board that invites input from industry, solution providers, and other stakeholders.

MiDRE’s biggest challenge is to make the right industry contacts, then motivate them to participate. Contact with one individual, even if it is the “right” person, does not mean that a whole facility has been engaged. Then there is the matter of building trust. MiDRE is after all a public sector energy program, and industry often suspects that a regulatory agenda lurks behind any government initiative.

By using cutting-edge communications, the MiDRE concept is an evolutionary step beyond the traditional forms of industrial program assistance. The next step should be to facilitate communication within participating industrial facilities, so that management teams achieve the awareness needed to untangle the turf issues that so often stall energy cost-control efforts. Some of Energy Pathfinder's suggestions for future messages:
• Create some urgency by communicating the "Seven Deadly Sins" of energy cost control
• Give amnesty to individuals who may "take the fall" for yesterday's energy waste-- Remember that the real culprit is a lapse in organizational preparedness.



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