Why isn’t the American Deep South green? Or is it?

Everyone is seeking the elusive killer app that will revolutionize energy. Most expect it to be a high tech gadget, or new form of generation or a way to finally store mass quantities of electricity. But the answer might be inside our heads.

Everyone is seeking the elusive killer app that will revolutionize energy. Most expect it to be a high tech gadget, or new form of generation or a way to finally store mass quantities of electricity.

Not anthropologist Susan Mazur-Stommen. She’s looking in a completely different place: inside our heads, or more specifically inside the heads of those who live in the Deep South.

Mazur-Stommen, who is the director of behavior and human dimensions for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, is trying to understand how consumers think about energy.  Her work has the opposite goal of most consumer research. Rather than finding ways to get us to buy more, she’s looking for ways to get us to buy less, or in short, be more energy efficient.

That’s what brought her last week to the Great American Trucking Show in Dallas, Texas, where she interviewed truckers, as part of a larger research project on everyday use of energy among households, businesses and farms in the Deep South.

It was the last stop in an unusual summer journey to talk to people in small town businesses, upwardly mobile relovilles, farming communities, and poor neighborhoods. Her research took her to Alpharetta, Georgia; Oneonta, Alabama; Corinth, Mississippi; and New Orleans, Louisiana.

What she found was not necessarily what you’d expect.

The South is known for its resistance to green energy, sometimes because of the nature of its local resources, other times because of the nature of its culture.

When American Electric Power a few years ago drew a schema for transmission to carry wind power nationwide, it conspicuously lopped off the southeastern states.  Southern states received low rankings for energy efficiency in ACEEE’s annual scorecard released in 2011; Alabama, South Carolina and Mississippi were in the bottom ten.

Indeed, while in Mississippi, Mazur-Stommen asked a small town business woman what she thought about energy efficiency. Her answer: “Efficiency? We don’t even have curb-side recycling!”

But that doesn’t mean the South isn’t green.

People are pursuing green in the South, but they are doing it in their own way. That is one of the messages.  They don’t trust the government. They don’t trust their utility. They worry about scams,” she said.

What she found was a non-monolithic pursuit of energy efficiency that differed from place to place, one based sometimes on pragmatism and other times on altruism, but apparently not on a desire to keep up with the Jones, as is sometimes the case in California or the Northeast. No ‘cloud of smug’ –South Park’s satire of Prius drivers – hovers over the South.

One aging trucker told Mazur-Stommen that he always keeps his rig tuned and serviced for maximum efficiency, but was quick to add, “I don’t hug trees.” She found air conditioning thermostats set high in upscale homes in Georgia. Egg farmers use LED lights especially designed for laying chickens because of their sensitivity to light; it was a practical not political act. In New Orleans, a grassroots network is bringing an energy consciousness to rebuilding the hurricane-battered city.

“It’s complicated. People want cleaner fuel for health issues,” she said. “One woman said, ‘I don’t want my husband to smell like diesel all the time.’”

Energy was on people’s minds, said Mazur-Stommen. But they were overwhelmed by the ailing economy. Family-run farms and owner/operator truckers described the burden of government regulation that applied to them, but was more appropriate for larger operations.

“They are feeling like they are being targeted by regulation, and the regulation is inappropriate for their situation and is sometimes aimed at driving them out of business,” she said. “I can’t necessarily say they are wrong.”

Those she interviewed often expressed a strong kinship to faith-based institutions. She believes such institutions could prove to be better purveyors of energy efficiency in the South than government agencies and utilities – objects of distrust.

The bottom line is that the messaging needs to be different in the South when it comes to energy efficiency than in many other parts of the country, she said. “You have to get into the complexities rather than just assuming that people are anti-environmental.  It is branding. ‘I don’t want to be a tree hugger but I want to do the right thing.’ There is a certain side of environmentalism that people don’t want to get into, but they want to burn cleaner fuels.”

Watch for Mazur-Stommen’s full report on the Deep South, which will be released through ACEEE in late 2012.

(Author’s note: This blog is dedicated to Lisa Perea Hane, a very dear friend who passed away this week. Lisa was a native of South Carolina, who embodied southern graciousness and wit, and never abandoned her lilting “Y’all” despite many years away from home.) 

Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer whose free newsletter on energy efficiency is available at RealEnergyWriters.com

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Elisa Wood

I am a long-time energy writer whose work appears regularly in many of the industry’s top magazines and newsletters. A correspondent for McGraw-Hill/Platts Energy for two decades, I also write for AOL Energy, Bloomsbury, PennWell and Renewable Energy World magazine. I'm the author of PennWell’s US Guide to Renewable Energy and the US Guide to Combined Heat & Power and Business Insights, The Future of Home Automation.
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