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July 13, 2017

In an earlier post I talked about the myth surrounding what we commonly call "public-private partnerships".  In this post, however, I describe a true public-private partnership, one that is creative, collaborative and impactful: The Energy Star program.


The idea was conceived in the early 1990s by John S. Hoffman, an official at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  The program has been so successful – nationally and internationally - and has become such an integral part of our lives, that it is difficult to imagine just how innovative it was at the time it was conceived.


The story goes like this.  One day in the late 1980s, as Hoffman was walking around the EPA offices, he was disturbed to see that employees regularly left their computers on when they left their desks for lunch. As an EPA official, he had a very good idea how much energy was being wasted.  He came up with the notion of computer equipment “sleep mode” and approached the computer industry to explore the feasibility of such a feature.  As we now know, Hoffman’s collaborative effort was successful.


The invention of sleep mode, however, is merely the prologue to the more important Energy Star story.  Hoffman offered to place a gold star on every computer model that contained certain energy efficiency features – sleep mode included. Hoffman’s theory was that if consumers were informed, they would choose the computer that used the least amount of electricity – all other things being equal.  The idea is no more complicated than a teacher or parent gold star reward system.


The EPA, at that time under George H.W. Bush’s administration, supported the idea and funded a massive public marketing campaign to inform the public of the program.  The program was so successful that it was then expanded to appliances and later adopted internationally.  Since then it has been expanded even further.  According to the New York Independent System Operator which runs New York State's electric grid, appliance efficiency was one of the biggest factors in flattening the residential electricity demand curve.



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