Saving energy is cool. That's the message SmartPower is spreading online to 80 million echo-boomers, the generation born between 1982 and 1995.
“They are the generation that best appreciates the need for mitigation of climate change,” says Jonathan Edwards, vice president of SmartPower, a non-profit that has developed creative Web marketing campaigns aimed at changing the energy habits of those who call Baby Boomers Mom and Dad.
SmartPower's goal is to encourage echo-boomers to make small changes in their lives that will lead to large energy savings and a cleaner planet. “Doing little things first can lead to big changes down the road,” Jonathan says.
The Washington, D.C.-based organization's research shows that once young people start unplugging unused electronic devices, they are likely to take more action to reduce their energy use.
"We found that unplugging is the gateway drug to larger energy efficient behaviors,” Jonathan says. "They saw the ease of unplugging and that led them to ask themselves internally 'what else can I do in my lifestyle that’s going to save money and have an environmental benefit?'"
Changing behaviors was the focus of SmartPower's America's Greenest Campus contest last year. Colleges and universities faced off against each other to determine which school could reduce its carbon footprint the most, earning eco-bragging rights and thousands of dollars in prize money. The competition was funded by private foundations and the U.S. Department of Energy.
Russell Simmons, rap mogul and co-founder of Def Jam Recordings, appeared in a YouTube video to promote the contest. "Hip-hop makes the planet cool, now hip-hop has to save it," he says in the video.
Another promotional video by Obama Girl boosted the contest's cool factor. "My love is sustainable, not just biodegradable," she sings.
Jonathan says the aim of the videos was "to make the point that energy reduction is something anybody can do."
To accomplish this, SmartPower partnered with Efficiency 2.0 — a private software company that has developed the next generation of online energy management tools, combining energy end-use algorithms with a robust social media platform — essentially creating the weight-watchers.com for personal energy reduction.
The AGC Web site served as an online community where users could explore how to reduce their power use, share tips and log the amount of energy they saved. "They want to make a difference so they need to be given the tools to make a difference," Jonathan says.
Social media such as Facebook helped the contest go viral and served as a way to talk about energy efficiency. "You can do things that make people start to chat about it. Traditionally, it was something you did in your personal silo," Jonathan says. "Through friending and online chat it becomes more of a viral conversation. The viral world hasn’t replaced the traditional world, it just made a partner."
SmartPower's AGC campaign proved to be a hit. More than 20,000 people and 460 colleges and universities took part in the competition, which resulted in the reduction of 18.6 million pounds of carbon and $4.5 million in energy savings.
The University of Maryland registered 2,257 participants and Rio Salado College in Tempe, Ariz., reduced the most carbon per person (4.4 percent). Both colleges claimed the title of America's Greenest Campus, earning $5,000 each.
As students become more interested in energy conservation, university and college officials may look at new methods to reduce their school's carbon footprint. “All of a sudden, you have the buzz around campus that’s created by student activism, then college administrators start to take notice,” Jonathan says.
The YouTube Energy Smart Ad Challenge was another way SmartPower helped spread the word of energy efficiency to echo-boomers. The non-profit asked filmmakers to produce a 30-second advertisement targeted at changing the energy habits of America's youth. The winner, a team from Yale University, received $10,000 for a video called "Generation."
The winning video was "aimed at giving viewers a sense of responsibility. And urgency," says director Xander Dominitz.
The idea for the ad materialized when Xander asked himself a question: "What if that burning light, that extra appliance, had immediate consequences?" He says he pictured a room filling with carbon exhaust. "What if every flicked switch triggered an expulsion? What if there were children in the room? What if the guys operating the generators were dressed like people from the utility company?" Xander says he played off the generator theme. "'What's one more generator?' became 'What's one more generation?'"
Xander praises all the entries in the SmartPower contest, "I was thrilled that ours won, but it could have just as easily been another." He says the spots "show how easy it is to save energy and money."
"Together, the ads offer a bright, humorous look at energy-saving tips, combined with a stern warning about the future if we don't take heed. It's a powerful combination," he says.
Jonathan was impressed with the quality of the ads, most of which were created by college students: "These guys have beaten Madison Avenue firms … that shows you the creativity of the viral community and this age group."
Xander says his experience with SmartPower's ad challenge made him energy conscious: "I've become very aware of the number of lights left on in my house at night. I unplug my computers when I leave for extended periods of time. I even wore extra blankets during the winter instead of turning up the heat. And as for SmartPower's advice about saving money? It's true."
Because of the success of the energy efficiency campaigns, SmartPower will launch more contests this fall. "AGC is coming back as the school year approaches,” Jonathan says, adding SmartPower will "unveil more types of rewards."
Jonathan says the green habits of echo-boomers can influence their parents: "50-year-olds are looking to the youth to make things cool. We don’t want to keep having the same conversation generation after generation."
He is optimistic echo-boomers will change their energy habits, which will ultimately help the planet: “They understand there is a cost savings and the gravy is that there is an environmental benefit.”