Using Social Media to Promote Energy Efficiency and Sustainability Programs in the City of Berkeley

The following case study is part of a project by MPA students at the Presidio Graduate School on information management technology and policy. You can read the rest of the series here.

The City of Berkeley is widely known as a leader in environmentalism, social justice and progressive politics. In 2006, Berkeley passed Measure G, which sets a goal of 80% carbon emissions reduction by the 2050, followed by the adoption of a Climate Action Plan in 2008 that outlines strategies to meet the carbon emission reduction goals and promote a sustainable and thriving community. Since the adoption of Measure G and the Climate Action Plan, Berkeley has expanded the role and responsibilities of the Office of Energy and Sustainable Development to create and implement initiatives that help residents, businesses and municipalities to participate in energy saving programs and sustainable practices.

However, the promotion of these initiatives through citizen engagement and participation has not yet been maximized because much the information is only available to those who are seeking it. In order for the City of Berkeley to achieve the high standards that it has set, there must be more urgency and coordinated promotion and outreach to the community to reach maximum buy-in.

The Office of Energy and Sustainable Development utilizes the internet to promote their programs, tools and incentives, but in order to reach the masses, they must also initiate the use of social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, RRS feeds and Tumblr to reach the maximum desired effect of resident awareness and participation. Furthermore, these mediums can be used to engage with other entities such as non-profits and municipalities within the city and the surrounding region that are affiliated with the City to coordinate efforts and efficiently allocate resources.


The City of Berkeley has some of the most progressive and aggressive energy efficiency and sustainable development strategies in the country. These programs include professional guidance, resources and cash incentives for energy efficiency, solar and green building projects, for residents and businesses, just to name a few. To date, the City has facilitated funding for 22 building retrofits, 63 Building energy audits and has held workshops attended by 522 people since January 1, 2010 (Office of Energy and Sustainable Development 2011 Annual Report). However, unless a resident or business is actively pursuing these programs, there is not much effort on the City’s behalf to aggressively attract participation.

The budget for these programs and initiatives through 2012 is $1,013,500 (U.S. Department of Energy Block Grant) with much of the dependence for implementation and follow through comes from partnering organizations that depend on the City to inform and engage citizens in participation. This is a problem because without maximum participation, say 80-90% of residential homes, businesses and municipal projects, engaging in the programs and upgrading their energy efficiency and completing green and sustainable retrofits, the targets for emissions reductions will not be met. Additionally, another problem is existing capacity and the uncertainty of the scheduled expansion of the programs after 2012 given the economic problems the nation, state and city are facing.

According to Neal DeSnoo, manager of the Office of Energy and Sustainable Development, “the current programs are near capacity for participation in terms of staff availability and funds that can be awarded. However we are optimistic that we will be able to continue to expand staffing and program capacity each year” (N. DeSnoo, personal communication, March 28, 2011). Assuming that the program capacities are expanded each year and that financial incentives will be available, the city has to have a strategy for maximum awareness, interest and engagement from residents, businesses and municipalities. According to information provided by the Office of Energy and Sustainable Development, the budget for web-based advertising through the 2012 term has been exhausted, and these efforts have only focused attention towards web-based information through the Office of Energy and Sustainable Development’s website.

The resources through non-city affiliates such as PG&E, the Rising Sun Energy Center and the Ecology Center are likely to continue to receive funding through the U.S. Department of Energy and will likely continue to expand services and programming to Berkeley citizens, however without City based information and awareness efforts of their existence it is a possibility that many residents who would qualify for participation, will not have the knowledge of how to do so. Having resources and lacking participation due to the lack of awareness from the community is a real problem that the Office of Energy and Sustainable Development has to prepare for. The problem is determining the best way to target potential applicants and finding a fair and equitable way to make resources and funding available that maximizes the achievement of the programs while allowing broad sections of the community to participate.


Currently the Office of Energy and Sustainable Development relies on residents, businesses and municipalities to actively seek out the opportunities for energy efficiency and sustainable development programming and funding. There is a limited amount of staff time dedicated to personally engaging with residents, businesses and municipalities within the community through direct communication, promoting the programs available.

One alternative would be to do nothing new, or continue the current model which relies on pro-active citizens, business and municipalities to learn about the programs and incentives through self-prompted action to come forward and engage. Another alternative would be to selectively target entities that the Office of Energy and Sustainable Development has identified as top priorities given the potential beneficial impact that could be made if these entities take advantage of the programming and financial incentives.

A third option would be to utilize the capabilities of social media, in addition to the information accessible on the Internet, to spread information to residents, businesses and municipalities as well as partners who are promoting similar programs or off-shoots of the energy efficiency and sustainable development programs. A final option would be to combine a strategic promotion towards high yield entities as well as a broad based information and engagement effort through the use of social media.


The benefits, or pros, of doing nothing are:

1) that it is relatively safe in that the Department of Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Development will know that they are capable of providing the existing levels of service and in the case that anticipated funding is not delivered, there would not be an overwhelming demand that could not be met and

2) the Department could continue to evaluate strategy options as economic climates change. The risks, or cons, to this alternative is that if funding is available and the program is allowed to expand and more financial incentives are available, it would take time to create and implement promotion alternatives and the urgency to met energy efficiency and sustainable development goals in a timely manner would be jeopardized.

If the Department of Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Development selects the alternative to strategically target specific entities to participate in the programs, the benefit would be that they would have a certain level of control as to who they allocate resources to and thus, they could find entities that could achieve high levels of positive impact. The risk to this option is that targeted entities may receive an unfair advantage in receiving resource and funding allocations and it is possible that non-targeted entities within the community could allege discrimination.

However, this could potentially be avoided if the Department creates a criterion that specifies that they are looking to allocate resources to those entities that would make the highest level of positive impact and create a system that offers fair chance to all entities that they have identified as contenders. Another direction would be to focus on wide-spread and non-targeted information output and calls for engagement. The leading mode to do this would be through the use of social media. The benefit through utilizing social media would be that it would allow for unbiased output of information, while allowing the Department to create criteria to select participants.

The downside to this option would be that it may create too much demand too quickly and the Department may find itself spending exorbitant amounts of time and staff resources trying to determine who to select for participation. Additionally, it would take staff time and expertise to create social media platforms and distribute appropriate information. Furthermore, municipalities, such as the state of Michigan have seen other problems with the use of social media to promote government initiatives.

“Legal, financial, security, privacy and other complications prevent Michigan and state governments across the nation from taking advantage of the boom in social media as rapidly as many would like, and seven years after the launch of what’s become the world’s most popular social media site, more than half of Michigan’s departments don’t have a Facebook page to connect with citizens” (Egan, May 10, 2011). “The two of the main issues relating to the use of social media to promote their initiatives is the lack of funding and the legal issues of providing accurate information” (N. DeSnoo, personal communication, March 28, 2011). Yet, cities such as Austin, Texas have seen a boom in citizen engagement and awareness in sustainability related initiatives through the implementation social media outlets, nearly doubling citizen participation in the past two years based on information provided by Austin’s “Get Involved Web and Social Media Application Link” (Austin Public Information Office, February 24, 2011).


Berkeley has set extremely high goals to become an energy efficient and sustainable community; however, in order to become a beaming example leadership in energy efficiency and sustainable design, it must find ways to secure funding to expand its programming as well as ways to fairly inform the community of the programs and financial incentives. The best way to achieve the goals of the Department is to implement modern tools of social media outlets to spread information about its programs and financial incentives to participate while also creating criteria to actively engage with entities that would allow for maximum gains. Because funding and staff availability are limited, the alternative of personal engagement of staff members deployed into the community to share information seems to be a more costly that spreading information via the internet and social media. Therefore, a combination of targeted information and engagement, while also using social media outlets to inform the masses is the most strategic way to couple the positive benefits while reducing risk.

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