‘Slow energy’ recognizes growing awareness of energy-use impact

What can energy consumers learn from the slow food movement?

Imagine a display screen on your fridge that tracks energy use in your home.

Or a shopping mall cell phone charging kiosk that allows you to choose among wind, solar or nuclear power sources, micropower or Big Hydro energy providers.

University of Waterloo researchers and their global colleagues are studying these options today, as they work toward helping consumers make energy choices that suit their personal objectives. It’s like a 21st century equivalent of the slow food movement, where consumers applied mindfulness to food sourcing and preparation.

Call it “slow energy.”

It’s not a totally parallel analogy, says Ian Rowlands, professor in the Faculty of Environment. Much of the slow food movement is about “the slow-simmering crock pot and everyone gathers around and has a meal. Can you get comfort from solar panels or insulation?”

Ian Rowlands

Ian Rowlands

But, says Rowlands, many of the fundamentals of slow food apply. Today’s energy users are “recognizing there’s a life cycle before and a life cycle after” energy use. There is a growing recognition of energy-use impacts: “It’s not just an environmental issue: it’s a social issue, it’s about job creation, it’s about affordability, it’s about good services.”

Rowlands said the ideas behind the multiple-choice kiosk cellphone charging station and the refrigerator energy display screen are the subject of “our own studies and our fellow researchers around the world, looking at how feedback devices can start to educate people.”

The “cool” factor of fridge display screens may help overcome the challenge of imagining energy as a product, says Stephanie Whitney, Energy Council of Canada Policy Research Fellow at the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy (WISE), and a doctoral student in the Faculty of Environment. The “farm to table” paradigm of slow food is now mainstream, “you can see the benefit. You can’t really do that with energy. It’s not as easy to make it glamourous.”

She suggested that corporate “champions” might be motivated to seek to implement slow energy behaviours in their buildings, to set an example for corporate rivals, and to enhance their brand recognition. At a consumer level, the motivation could be simply envy: your neighbour pulls in with a new lower-cost Tesla and “not only is it good for the environment, but it looks really cool and I want one.”

Stephanie Whitney

Stephanie Whitney

Jennifer Lynes, professor and director of the environment and business program at the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development, believes that getting back to basics is key: “We need to rethink our consumption paradigm.” 

Lynes says that campaigns aimed at saving the environment don’t match the aspirations of all segments of the population: some are motivated by financial gain, while others respond to social or environmental aspects. “It is important for us to understand these nuances and develop programs and strategies that take these into account.”  

Are we entering the age of “slow energy”?

Rowlands says, “We haven’t reached critical mass. We’re at early adopters, we’re at pilot projects . . .”

Whitney thinks that policy-makers have to lead, but believes there has to be simultaneous progress on policy, technology, infrastructure and affordability to push the needle.

Jennifer Murray

Jennifer Lynes

Lynes says that the acceptance of the notion of slow energy is up to us: “The less socially ‘acceptable’ it is to be an energy glutton, the more energy conservation will become the norm . . .  For slow energy, it is more about asking ourselves, ‘What do I really need?’”

 Feature image credit: MR1805/Thinkstock