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David Cash

David Cash

Assistant Secretary for Policy, Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs

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“Kids!!!! You left the lights on in your rooms!!!!”

“OK…Who was the last one to use the computer and left it on all night?!”

These were common refrains as my wife and I chased the kids around, trying to get them to be energy conscious. No amount of reminding, stories of imminent climate doom, or complaining about wasting money had a lasting impact. Getting them to save energy took too much energy!

Taking off my father hat, and putting on my policy geek hat, I thought, “There’s got to be a better way…How can I better align incentives so my kids will want to save energy?”

Here’s the plan we – Sophie (13), Eliza (10), and I – came up with. (Extra benefit: I did all of the steps below with the kids to cover a bunch of math processes and analysis.)

We went online at my electric utility’s website, and downloaded our electricity use for each month in the last 4 years (relatively easy to do.) We set up a spreadsheet in Excel and found the average monthly usage. For example, the four-year average for April was about 750 kilowatt-hours (kWh). Then, as each month’s electric bill came in, we would sit down, plug in the number and see how it compared with the four-year average. For example, in April 2009, we used 690 kWh. At first, every month we got savings, I paid the kids the value of the savings. (I’d rather pay them than our electric company!) For example, in April 2009, we used 60 kWh less than our four-year average. We paid about $0.20 per kWh on our bill, so 60 x $0.20 = $12.00. $12 represented our savings, so that’s what I gave the kids to split. For kids, this is real money and they were psyched!

The kids were definitely more aware of leaving lights on, closing the fridge, etc. But over the next couple of months I saw their interest wax and wane. I knew a policy modification was in order. I sat down with them and explained that just a policy of incentives wasn’t enough – I was going to add disincentives! From then on, if we used more electricity than the four-year average, they would owe me the difference! The next month, they got hit with bills from me, and their interest in energy savings went to a whole new level!

Soon, they were asking really good questions about our energy use. “Why, after we worked so hard, did we use more electricity this month?” (Answer we came up with – Grandparents visited for almost a week and they needed a space heater in their room.) And then they started nagging us! “Mom, you left the light on in the bathroom!” “Dad, can’t we figure out a way to turn the TV and DVD player totally off when we’re not using it?” (Answer – get a power strip with a switch)

By the end of the year, our total electricity savings were about 10% and each kid had pocketed about $80. This was a win-win-win-win-win – lower energy bills, engaged kids, math and problem solving, fewer emissions, and fun!

Sometimes, I discovered, my father hat and my policy geek hat are the same!

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As Deputy Director of DOER's Green Communities Division, Lisa helps lead a team devoted to working with Massachusetts cities and towns to realize environmental and cost benefits of municipal energy efficiency and renewable energy. Prior to joining DOER, Lisa worked in the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs from 2007 to 2012, first as Press Secretary and then as Assistant Secretary for Communications and Public Affairs. Her previous communications and public relations experience includes both government and the private sector, where, as principal of upWrite Communications, she served clients such as The Trustees of Reservations, The Nature Conservancy, and Partners Health Care/North Shore Medical Center. She began her career as a journalist, covering Beacon Hill for the State House News Service, and later wrote for a variety of other publications including The Boston Globe, Teacher Magazine, Animals Magazine, and The Gulf of Maine Times. The author of two books, Lisa serves on the board of the Saugus River Watershed Council and resides with her family in Melrose.

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