Sometimes a picture is worth 200 Twitter follows. That’s what Ceres‘s online communications director, Brian Sant, learned when he ran a campaign to stop natural gas flares in North Dakota. Oil companies use these flares to burn away unwanted natural gas they do not plan to save or sell.

North Dakota’s natural gas flares are visible from the night sky and rival major cities in their brightness. Sant circulated the following photo of the night landscape of North America via social media and email. The response was electric. Writers picked up the story.

North Dakota gas flares light the night sky
A photo from Ceres’s campaign to stop natural gas flares in North Dakota.

Sant showed the results of this campaign at New England Women in Energy and the Environment‘s March 14 panel discussion, Social Media Success in the Energy and Environmental Sectors. He also described how he uses podcasts, videos and infographics to make data attractive for social media distribution.

Sarah Finnie Robinson, founding partner at Practically Green, talked about her exploration of the nuances of behavior change. Working with an enthusiastic group of interns and staff, she develops social software that companies and individuals can use to alter their environmental behavior.

Practically Green is building on the current wave of interest in gamification – making activities more like computer games – and integrating that approach with social media. The resulting product makes conserving water and other resources less like doing a chore and more like using Facebook.

“You’re not alone,” one of Robinson’s slides said. Robinson wants her software to engage people in communication, not just give them tasks to do in isolation. Based on the rapid expansion of demand for her product, this approach is certainly working.

Cindy Jolicoeur, vice president of Marketing Drive, used a different tactic in her work with the Mass Save energy efficiency program. She leveraged consumer interest in sharing information about deals and taking advantage of discounts to build the fan base for the Mass Save Facebook page from around 2,000 to over 15,000. These likes came as a result of targeted promotions and advertising across multiple media. Consumers developed a relationship with Mass Save and used the page to ask questions about energy efficiency.

“People want to connect with people,” said Cindy Hoots, corporate social responsibility account director at Cone Communications. She encouraged the audience to be informal on social media. Being able to respond on the fly is crucial, she said. She recommended keeping an unofficial FAQ on hand to use in response to stakeholder comments.

“Not all these stakeholders are friendly,” Hoots said. “Some can be a thorn in your side. Others may have an activist bent.”

Building relationships with stakeholders is a complex process, Hoots said. First, one needs to identify who they are. Second, one needs to understand their values and priorities. Third, one needs to learn how to reach them. And that’s just the first phase of action. One also needs to prioritize influencers, reach out to them, and offer them resources they want.

Hoots recommended two online tools for identifying influencers: Traackr and SocMetrics. These sites can give one basic information about the behavior of influencers and help one develop a plan for building relationships.

There are many ways communicators can engage stakeholders and build support for sustainable actions. This discussion demonstrated how Twitter, Hootsuite, Facebook, and other social media tools can support energy and environmental organizations in reaching their goals successfully. Sometimes, all it takes is a surprising picture.

This roundup of posts from this blog shows my quirky, dry and occasionally grim sense of humor.

My sense of humor is one of the reasons I began this blog. I believe there should be a place in the world for science jokes. And since I rarely make science jokes at work – I stick to business during working hours – I make them on weekends.

Humor can be professionally risky. But most of the feedback I have received on these posts has been positive.

Here are my favorite posts from the humor section of this blog:

A zombie peeks out from behind a long newsletter. (Actually, this graphic is from the CDC zombie apocalypse blog post.)

How to Bring Your Newsletter Back from the Dead – This Halloween post is based on my experiences reading and reviving newsletters.

The Powerpuff Approach to Energy Efficiency – This post is about an energy education program featuring heroes who look like a multicultural, coed version of the Powerpuff Girls. These heroes fight to save power, of course.

Zilowatt’s energy efficiency superheroes (Source: Zilowatt website)

What Science Communication and Cooking Have in Common – Telling science stories can be like writing down recipes. Read this post to see why.

Why a Zombie Apocalypse Story Helped the CDC – Does it surprise you that people would rather learn how to prepare for a zombie apocalypse than get ready for a hurricane?

How to Add Zest to Your Website – You, too, can spice up your website and add a slice of lemon.

The Real Science News Cycle – In this post, I reinterpret a cartoon from Ph.D. Comics.

Don’t forget that the sun will turn into a black hole, sucking the Earth and the Moon into an invisible abyss, unless you follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

Midwest Energy News recently mentioned a quirky art project sponsored by Commonwealth Edison, an Illinois electric utility. To promote its refrigerator recycling program, the utility paid artists to take its message to the streets by recycling refrigerators.

The reworked refrigerators were on display in Chicago on Michigan Avenue during the summer of 2012. The photos below are from a Fast Company slide show.

Dream Engine Refrigerator Sculpture
Dream Engine refrigerator sculpture (Source: Fast Company)
Fridge Pic refrigerator sculpture
Fridge Pic refrigerator sculpture (Source: Fast Company)



Camperator refrigerator sculpture
Camperator refrigerator sculpture (Source: Fast Company)

To see photos of the other redesigned refrigerators, check out this article from Commonwealth Edison.

If you saw a fridge like this sitting in the middle of the street, would it make you think about recycling your own refrigerator? Would you have to read the plaque to realize what it was?

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How does seeing this infographic make you feel? When you see how much coal you’re using, does it motivate you to green your home? Or does it leave you saying, “So what?”

The infographic, originally published in an article by EnergySavvy, puts energy use in context. But it could be improved. The EnergySavvy article explains the infographic using the following paragraph:

Reducing the original coal pile to 2,000 pounds prevents nearly 6,300 pounds of carbon dioxide, 36 pounds of sulfur dioxide and 16 pounds of nitrogen oxide from being emitted into the atmosphere annually (Environmental Protection Agency). It could also save the home around $300 on their electricity bills each year.

The problem with these numbers is that they do not translate directly to impacts people can understand. If I tell the average person that his new air conditioner will prevent a certain number of pounds of sulfur dioxide from being emitted into the atmosphere, what will he be able to do with that information? Not very much.

What is missing from this infographic is context that readers can use to relate these numbers and impacts to their everyday lives. What does that 36 pounds of sulfur dioxide do to the environment? Adding an illustration to show the scale of each environmental impact would make this infographic much stronger.

Without context, numbers mean much less than they would otherwise.

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The Boston Foundation launched a new resource for community organizations and media on November 27 – the Boston Indicators Project website. The site now contains data visualization tools, thanks to a collaboration with the Institute for Visualization and Perception Research at UMass Lowell.

“Data and reports alone do not produce change,” said Charlotte Kahn, Senior Director of the Boston Indicators Project. To create change, data must lead to action. And community organizations can use data to illuminate the challenges they face.

One way the Boston Indicators Project website helps nonprofits build momentum for social action is by giving communicators the visual tools to tell strong stories to reporters.

“Data is the new sexy,” said John Davidow, Executive Editor at WBUR. Davidow participated in a panel of journalists who described the ways they wanted to use community data to tell stories about poverty, unemployment and crime.

If data-based stories look sexy to journalists, nonprofits in the Boston area can easily leverage this website to earn media attention for their work – much of which happens under the radar of the press.

The website covers 10 sectors: Civic Vitality, Cultural Life & the Arts, Economy, Education, Environment & Energy, Health, Housing, Public Safety, Technology and Transportation. Nonprofits working in any of these areas can download data from the site and use them for media outreach.

For example, the map of pollution hazards below might be useful to advocacy organizations. The color red indicates the highest concentration of sites while white shows the lowest concentration.

Environmental justice map
A map of environmental hazards in the Boston area. (Data source: Metropolitan Area Planning Commission)

There are many ways to present the data you want – once you have found them. Rahul Bhargava, a research specialist from the MIT Center for Civic Media, spoke about visualization techniques during one of the PechaKucha talks at the launch. He described using evocative images, annotated graphs, physical models, and community-created art. He also mentioned software such as Wordle, Taxego, Prezi and Omnigraphsketcher.

Communication with media can and should go beyond press releases. Community-created art projects and physical models of data may attract reporters’ attention and build support for nonprofits’ work. Even a flash mob could illuminate statistics from the Boston Indicators Project.

The UMass Lowell team which developed the visualizations for the Boston Indicators Project is also collaborating with organizations in other cities. For more information about mapping projects outside Boston, visit

Note: Although you can download all of the data sets from the Boston Indicators Project website into Excel currently, not all of the visualization pages are working yet.

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claimtoken-50a01a203f085What makes energy journalism worth reading? Critical thinking, synthesis of information and perspectives, and coverage of the real-world impacts of programs can differentiate quality energy writing from other energy news.

I curate and write energy news for the Clean Energy Finance Center. So I’ve sorted through thousands of RSS posts and many Google alerts, looking for content that contains quality analysis and newsworthy ideas.

After reading these articles, I began asking questions about how energy journalism can be improved. A recent article from Grist explores this question from an industry-wide perspective. In this post, I’m offering a counterpoint to the Grist article by taking a “nuts and bolts” approach and brainstorming about how writers can improve their work.

A blog post from SmartPlanet has critiqued the absence of critical thinking and data analysis in some energy journalism. In January, I wrote a follow-up post with suggestions about how writers can ask questions about their data and get better results.

Thinking about the sources and reliability of data is just the beginning of retooling energy journalism, though. To make energy writing jump off the screen and catch readers’ attention, writers should try synthesizing information in original ways and reaching outside the field for ideas from other sources.

The Energy Efficiency Markets Blog* stands out as a very strong example of information synthesis. The authors of this blog draw ideas from multiple sources rather than writing single-sourced articles. They also develop interesting and original angles for stories.

Synthesizing ideas from multiple sources is one way to add depth to news stories and to combine ideas from interviewees who may disagree with one another. This can make energy journalism both more useful and more engaging than it would be otherwise.

Drawing on ideas from multiple stakeholders can also introduce practical perspectives. Practical perspectives can strengthen news articles, connect ideas to everyday life, and add human interest. I would encourage energy writers to reach beyond their usual lists of sources. For example, an article on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act might benefit from quotes from workforce development professionals, people whose homes have been weatherized, and green jobs training program graduates.

Weatherization photo
Including quotes and photos of weatherization can be one way to tell the story of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. (Source: Photobucket)
Energy efficiency and renewable energy decisions are not just theoretical mathematical exercises. Including the everyday stories of people who participate in these programs and/or benefit from them can add human interest to these stories and help a broader audience relate to them.

If you take the idea of synthesis to its logical conclusion, you’ll arrive at interdisciplinarity. One reason I combine communications ideas with writing about technical subjects is that I’m convinced these two fields can benefit from collaboration. Communicators can benefit from learning more about math and science, including how to cover it accurately. Engineering and science professionals can also benefit from learning communications skills.

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, in their book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, have recommended training science graduates in media skills and paying them to do outreach.

Some energy organizations encourage researchers to write articles already. Many of the best articles I see on energy efficiency and renewable energy are produced by researchers, not media professionals. If research organizations start investing more in outreach than they do today – a step which I believe is necessary in the face of climate change and widespread science illiteracy – some of these researchers may end up as communicators.

Some of the skills that improve research – synthesis, critical thinking and awareness of practical outcomes – are the same skills which can strengthen energy journalism. So I’d encourage energy writers to think like researchers. I’d also encourage energy researchers to learn media skills and write news articles.

* Disclaimer: I collaborate with one of the authors of the Energy Efficiency Markets Blog.

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The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), where I worked for two years, is delving into questions which are relevant to Southern states and  working-class communities. I support this approach because it’s essential for environmental nonprofits to take on questions that reach beyond the East and West Coasts and outside the Beltway.

The first report showing that ACEEE was pursuing this course of action was the May 2012 publication Opportunity Knocks: Examining Low-Ranking States in Energy Efficiency. These states are mainly located in the Southeast and the northern Great Plains, where lack of awareness of the benefits of energy efficiency often combines with skepticism and an aversion to top-down mandates.

The theme of avoiding government mandates has emerged in ACEEE’s behavioral research. An article from Real Energy Writers reports that ACEEE Behavior and Human Dimensions Program director Susan Mazur-Stommen has been touring the South. She’s been interviewing people about what energy efficiency means in their lives. Her discoveries so far are intriguing. Many of her interviewees are aware of energy efficiency, but are pursuing it independently and not through structured programs.

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,” Mazur-Stommen said in her interview with journalist Elisa Wood. Mazur-Stommen said that messaging about energy efficiency in the South needs to be customized for regional viewpoints.

Economic opportunity may be a valuable angle. In August, ACEEE published a fact sheet on Energy Efficiency and Economic Opportunity which addresses the importance of designing energy efficiency programs so that they build stable employment in local communities. As the fact sheet says:

At every step of the economic value chain produced by efficiency investments… there are opportunities to target the economic and social benefits to those households, businesses, geographies, or sectors for whom they will make the biggest difference. The results of these choices can include lower costs for low- and moderate-income families and small businesses; opportunities for disadvantaged, local workers to get jobs with good wages; and new and retained economic activity in disinvested communities.

This is a crucial statement. Given the large number of American communities suffering after the recession, it’s absolutely essential for environmental nonprofits to discuss socioeconomic issues.

Working-class communities sometimes include manufactured homes. Mobilizing Energy Efficiency in the Manufactured Housing Sector, a report which ACEEE published in July, broke new ground by charting the potential energy savings in manufactured homes. 

Manufactured houses waste energy as if their owners had money to spare – which they often do not. Builders of manufactured homes focus on cost and have relatively easygoing code requirements. As a result, these homes have high energy bills.

The report says making manufactured housing more energy-efficient could save 40 percent of the total electricity consumption and 33 percent of the total natural gas consumption of these homes between 2011 and 2030.

Since it’s Earth Day, that gives me an opportunity to talk about eco-friendly electronics.

Environmentally speaking, bloggers and other electronics enthusiasts aren’t innocent. We use and discard electronics while consuming energy from coal-fired power plants. Our computers and cell phones also contribute to air and water pollution during their mining, manufacturing and disposal.

For a simple overview of how this cycle happens, check out The Story of Electronics:

As the video explains, companies design our electronics for a relatively short life cycle – less than two years. After that, recycling companies dispose of the electronics unsafely overseas. The workers who produce the electronics suffer from miscarriages and cancer.

What’s a responsible electronics enthusiast to do? The good news is that you have many opportunities to break the cycle.

Buy Refurbished or Eco-Friendly Electronics

Eco-friendly cell phones are starting to show up on the market. This is important because some of the materials inside cell phones come from nations that have few protections for mine workers. CNet has reviewed some of the eco-friendly phones.

The Green Electronics Council has created a certification called EPEAT for eco-friendly computers. EPEAT-certified computers are manufactured with more recycled components and fewer toxic chemicals than other computers, leading to less hazardous waste.

Repair Your Electronics

Although it may be convenient to buy a shiny new computer when your old one has lost its charm, resist the urge to shop. Fix your computer instead.

You may not be able to impress your friends with new gadgets if you fix your electronics instead of throwing them away, but you’ll be preventing pollution-related health problems in China, India and/or Africa. So you can give yourself a gold star for that. Maybe someday your friends will consider your computer hip and vintage, like an old record player.

Plug into Renewable Energy

If your utility company offers a renewable energy option, buy into it. The cost difference is often minimal. If you want to impress your roommates or family, buy your own solar panel. Energy experts say solar panels are in style.

Save Power

Turn off electronics and power strips when you aren’t using them. Turn down the brightness on your cell phone and computer screens. Uninstall apps which keep your phone using extra energy. Adjust your power-saving control panel settings. Beware of entertaining screen savers – the odds are that they aren’t helping you save energy.

Donate Unwanted Electronics

If your old computers and cell phones are gathering dust, donate them instead of recycling them. You should clean your hard drive before donating your computer.

Domestic violence shelters reuse cell phones after removing identifying information. When people in these shelters have cell phones, they can call for help in emergencies. National Coalition Against Domestic Violence accepts phone donations.

Nonprofits often accept donated computers. Check out their wish lists during the holiday season. World Computer Exchange will send your computer to a community organization in a developing nation.

What choices have you made to reduce the environmental impact of using electronics?

Energy journalism can be challenging for reporters. An article on spells out the reasons energy journalism is often low-quality and offers some suggestions for improvement. Since I worked for an energy efficiency research organization for two years and wrote my graduate thesis on the media coverage of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil drilling controversy, I’m going to start where the author ended and provide suggestions for cleaning up energy-related stories.

Question Authorities

Uncritical acceptance of authorities’ statements can cause problems in energy journalism. Here are some litmus tests for reporters:

  1. Is the authority qualified to answer the question? If one is quoting politicians on the amount of oil present in a wildlife refuge, for example, errors are very likely. I’ve seen many examples of journalists missing opportunities to fact-check numbers from non-experts.
  2. Who is funding the research? If the funding is tied to a specific industry or organization, that funding agency may influence the results. The relationship will vary depending on the organization involved.
  3. Is the research public or proprietary? It’s hard to check numbers if their sources are confidential.
  4. Has a third party confirmed the numbers? Checking third-party statements can end speculation.

Don’t Trust Statistics

The SmartPlanet article advocates “reading the small print” and “doing the math.” While checking details is important, there are some baseline assumptions energy reporters should understand before digging into the numbers.

  1. Economic calculation methods, especially discounting, can be deceptive. Financially savvy experts can adjust discount rates easily to show environmentally friendly investments are impractical. Discount rates can make renewable energy or smart grid investment appear worthless because of the time it takes to recoup the money. Would the next generation agree? I doubt it. Discount rates are a way to account for short-term thinking; this doesn’t mean they are a gold standard which we should use to make all of our decisions.
  2. Many energy programs lack effective outreach and marketing. According to Dan Ariely’s comments at the Behavior, Energy and Climate Change conference in 2009, telling customers that they will save a tiny monthly amount on their electricity bills may be much less effective than telling them your company has already donated to charity in their name. The lack of social science in program outreach may mean that programs underestimate the savings they could achieve.
  3. There’s a large margin of error in estimates of fossil fuel resources. For example, some organizations will say peak oil has already passed us by. Other organizations allow much more time. Typically, in evaluating how much of a fossil fuel is present underground, companies and even government organizations will not have exact numbers for your story. If someone quotes a precise number, be skeptical.
  4. Statistics may not include the amount of time and money involved in transitioning to a new technology. If you hear a “before vs. after” comparison without an estimate of the transition cost, pay attention. Companies do evaluate these costs internally, but they rarely become sound bytes. For example, if a company is considering a new nuclear power plant, the cost of insuring the plant should be part of the decision.
  5. Experts may omit the social and environmental cost of an energy choice. Energy experts who focus on some questions – such as availability of oil or changes in electric rates – may never mention the local environmental impacts of oil production, the cost to society of air pollution and global warming, and other effects they did not quantify. The insurance industry is concerned about global warming for a reason; these “externalities” are real expenses.

Critical thinking matters in energy journalism. Many of these assumptions and credibility issues are subtle. One can’t expect reporters to view discount rates or oil reserve estimates cautiously. I hope this post will point other writers in the right direction.

P.S. All of the opinions here are my own and are based on my experience working with science news and energy data.

The phrase “smart grid” might intimidate some audiences. Do we want an intelligent power grid? For some people, the idea might be reminiscent of The Matrix or even 1984. Utility customers may say that futuristic plus costly does not equal appealing.

Defined simply, a smart grid is a modernized, efficient system of power equipment that is responsive to customer energy needs. It’s flexible and decentralized and supports local installations of renewable energy.

A smart grid could reduce power losses due to electrical resistance, but consumer resistance could still pose a problem. Fortunately, one of the main advantages of a smart grid is that it can support local self-sufficiency and sustainable energy choices. It also offers the opportunity to streamline our use of electric power. The cost isn’t trivial, but neither are the benefits. If you’re interested in charging an electric vehicle in your back yard, selling wind power back to your electric company, or saving energy to reduce global warming, the smart grid can be your ally.

Power outlet
The face of the smart grid doesn't have to be forbidding. Credit: somadjinn. Source: Stock.xchng.

It’s important to present smart grid programs as attractive to local stakeholders rather than giving the impression they are a top-down imposition. Smart metering programs have already suffered from a lack of customer-friendly communication. Because some customers believe smart meters benefit utilities more than consumers, programs have met with resistance.

Given the potential savings and autonomy that smart grid technology can provide, it would be disappointing if this technology was portrayed as a burden to utility customers rather than a new and versatile asset.