Topic Resources

Tools Used
Initiated By
  • State of California
  • McGuire and Company
  • The four investor owned utilities in California - Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE), Southern California Gas Company (SCG), and San Diego Gas & Electric Company (SDG&E)
  • Grocers, Sears, other businesses
  • Helped convince Californians to reduce peak energy use sufficiently to avoid power outages


Flex Your Power, which was a central part of California's response to the energy crisis of 2001/02, was the largest electricity conservation campaign ever conducted in any state in the USA. It helped convince Californians to reduce peak energy use sufficiently to avoid power outages. The campaign became an ongoing program and in 2007 incorporated messaging focused on global warming.


Note: To minimize site maintenance costs, all case studies on this site are written in the past tense, even if they are ongoing as is the case with this particular program. This case study is based on a Tools of Change webinar presented by Walter McGuire in March 2006.

Electricity demand had been increasing in California. Peak energy demand was a particular problem. A building boom had taken place in areas that are very hot during the summer, and air-conditioning was putting a tremendous load on the system. In addition, droughts had reduced the volume of water available for hydroelectric power and had caused farmers to consume more energy pumping water for irrigation.

In the twelve years preceding the summer of 2001, no new major power plants had been built, and the surrounding areas from which California had been importing power had been growing so fast that they had little excess capacity.

When the State of California got into its energy crisis at the end of 2000 and going into the summer of 2001, we were asked to design an energy conservation campaign. The state was projected to be going into 34 days of rolling blackouts in that summer with a four-month economic cost of $16 billion. Emergency measures were put through the legislature to foster energy efficiency.

At the beginning of the crisis, many people were searching for a magic bullet. For example, some economists said, "Let's just raise the rates, and that'll get people to conserve in a hurry." But we had found no evidence of that being able to reduce electricity use by the 14% we needed, particularly in a matter of months. Politically, a large rate increase was a non-starter for businesses and lower income residents.

Setting Objectives


  • To cut energy use by 14 percent or 5,000 megawatts in five months.
  • To shave peak energy use through conservation and/or shift it to peak generally after 7:00 PM.
  • To prevent blackouts.
  • To make energy conservation, including energy efficiency, a way of life.

Getting Informed

A public survey had found that about 10 percent of the people understood the concept of peak energy, and less than that even thought it was important. That was good news; once they thought it was an important issue, understood that it was important to switch doing their laundry to after 7:00 PM, we could move a lot of power very, very quickly.

The bad news in that same poll was that virtually everybody thought they were conserving. They didn't know, beyond turning out the lights, what to do. Yet over 80 percent thought they already had enough information. It's very hard to lecture to people who think they already know.

Further, a great number of people just felt the situation was hopeless. We were going into blackouts, and individuals thought there was virtually nothing they could do. We had to overcome that sense of powerlessness, and you'll see it in our messaging. That's how the campaign got its name, "Flex Your Power." It was to try to get residents and business leaders to understand that it was really in their hands. Guilt and fear were not going to work. The message had to be upbeat.

Finally, the program was based on an understanding of the key energy users air conditioning and lighting, with appliances being number three. But it depended on the sector. In agriculture, for instance, it was water pumping.

Targeting the Audience

Very early on, we decided what became known as the CIGAR strategy. The "C" is commercial; "I" is industrial; "G" is governmental; "A" is agriculture; "R" is residential. We focused on the influencers, the key messengers in each of those sectors. There are many measures that people could take, but we basically selected about two or three within each sector and put all of our concentration on them.

Delivering the Program

2000 Crisis

We used a variety of tools, tailored to each of the target segments.

Prohibitions: The state prohibited the use of outdoor lighting.

Incentives and Disincentives: The state increased efficiency funding in 2001 by hundreds of millions of dollars in rebates. The California Public Utilities Commission also put in a tiered pricing structure which penalized the so-called energy hogs, so there was a disincentive to use a lot of electricity (Financial Incentives and Disincentives).

We promoted the incentives with our partners. To give just one example, Sears, had about 10,000 repair people who took repair calls when a Sears appliance had apparently broken down. They offered a 10 percent discount if people would buy Energy Star appliances instead and recycle their existing appliances. In three weeks, 1,300 were sold (Developing Partnerships).

CEO pledge: This was one of the most successful efforts. High level people within hundreds of businesses in the state and business organizations were asked to publicly sign a commitment to cut energy use by 20 percent by the summer going into 2001 and all committed to two actions: de-lamp every fourth light and get thermostats wherever possible turned up to 78 degrees Fahrenheit (Obtaining a Commitment; Norm Appeals).

If every business did them, those two measures alone would have accounted for 5,000 megawatts. In other words, business leaders realized that it was in their power to prevent the summer crisis.

School challenge: A homework kit was sent home with all fourth, fifth and sixth graders in the state. They did a little energy audit and calculated their familys wasted energy. Their parents had to sign it, so it was really a way to reach the parents (School Programs that Involve the Family).

Water use: We supported farmers in reducing irrigation. For example, we worked with our university co-ops and got people to irrigate using surface water during peak periods and to pump the remaining 50% of the water during off-peak periods. We also engaged nearly 300 water and wastewater agencies to save energy.

Investments: The state's larger pension funds increased investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Public education was primarily through the Flex Your Power campaign. We phased our messaging. Phase 1 started in December of 2000 and ran up to about May of 2001. Phase 1 of our advertising, was basically to let people know a few things they could do. The tag line was, "It's not even hard." We wanted to let them know that we were not asking for a great sacrifice.

Phase 2 started as we entered the summer and the tag line was, "Together we can do this." The whole thrust was to build momentum. Every week there was a press release or event. Our earned media during that period told people that by working together, we were suceeding, that we were drawing down energy, and that we were not having rolling blackouts (Feedback; Mass Media).

The third phase of our campaign was trying to lock in conservation as a way of life (Building Motivation Over Time).

We spent lots of effort educating and training our selected advertising agency on energy conservation and efficiency, the market research findings, and program goals. We then allowed the agency to develop the creative, but used our many years of social marketing experience to edit and review it.

In addition, almost all of the grocers in the state handed out flyers in August. We reached out through both the Grocers' Association and the major chains, including Safeways and Food 4 Less. We got them to commit that they would do bag-stuffers. We printed about 13 million reminder flyers that they stuffed in every shopper's bag over a ten-day period going into the Labor Day weekend. We were told that virtually every family in the state visited a supermarket at least once in the ten-day period (Developing Partnerships; Prompts).

Most of the outreach that we did was with partners. As another example, commercial buildings throughout the state could order tip cards. We would print and send them if they wanted to hand them out to all of their employees or all their customers. We worked with the Sacramento Water District to put messages in their bills.

We also launched a Flex Your Power awards program. Leadership and awards are a critical piece of the overall strategy. You lose momentum if you don't have that (Feedback; Norm Appeals).

Ongoing Program

For the longer term, the state did not see increased fossil fuel generation as the best answer. For some years, California has set aside a small percent of every electricity and gas bill for energy efficiency. In California, that was about a half a billion a year.

In addition, the California Public Utilities Commission approved $2.1 billion of additional funding for three years (2006 through 2008) for the investor owned utilities to expand energy efficiency programs.

California also put in place the Energy Action Plan, which was designed by both the CPUC and the Energy Commission but supported by governors of both parties. It required the utilities, as a rebuttable presumption, to spend their money on energy efficiency first, then demand response, then renewable and then clean fossils. So there was a loading order, starting with the most environmental efforts.

Other areas of the country and the world, New Zealand, for instance - have gone in and out of several energy crises. And they usually have an energy conservation campaign. Each time, when the crisis is over, they dropped the campaign. And each time, it was much harder to start it when the next crisis came along. In fact, they were faced with the reaction, "Why in the hell haven't you fixed this problem?" But if you keep it going and you do the right tone and messaging, it has a very favorable rating. We had virtually no opposition to an ongoing campaign within the public; basically no burnout.

The funding enabled us to lock in statewide marketing and outreach. We had a permanent, voluntary peak demand program that we called the Flex Your Power Now campaign. Here's how it worked.

The California ISO (CalISO) is a not-for-profit, public-benefit corporation charged with managing the flow of electricity along California's open-market wholesale power grid. When the ISO said we were approaching 7 percent of our reserve requirements, they called a Flex Alert. We then switched our television, radio and online advertising to tell people how to reduce electricity, and then asked them to do so (Prompts; Mass Media).

The air campaign involved both paid advertising and earned media, using TV, radio, and newspaper. The broadcast and print campaigns had complementary roles with the broadcast campaigns, primarily raising awareness and interest, and the print advertising providing details on rebates and savings from the purchase of a specific product promoted.

The paid advertising:

  • Served as an umbrella for the outreach & utility program promotion;
  • Built brand (emotional connection);
  • Established credibility (partnerships);
  • Relied on simple messages, humor, daily life vignettes and taglines;
  • Integrated TV, radio, outdoor, online and print; and
  • Provided excellent reach and frequency.

The earned media:

  • Announced programs/initiatives;
  • Showed momentum and successes; and
  • Corrected misperceptions/educated.

We leveraged media and outreach efforts to encourage private sector investment in the promotion of energy efficiency. For example, we continued our partnerships for promoting tip cards.

The campaign also provided sales brochures, point-of-purchase (POP) displays in multiple languages, and sales training (including materials) to appliance and lighting retailers in exchange for their commitment to stock and promote ENERGY STAR products and lighting. Local newspaper advertising included the names of participating retailers. Similar efforts were run with builders of ENERGY STAR new homes (Developing Partnerships).

We had a network of hundreds of partner organizations as part of our Flex Alert network. We sent out about a million emails to businesses, business organizations, even homeowners when the ISO called an Alert. Caltrans switched out all or most of their highway signs calling a Flex Alert when one was called.

We also did online advertising, including keyword searches. We had a multi-sector website and an electronic newsletter to promote energy efficiency, programs and ENERGY STAR products and new homes.

The utilities had agreements with commercial customers to provide them with incentives if they would voluntarily reduce demand on high demand days. In addition, we put out best practice guides. One example was an 89 page best practice guide for commercial buildings.

In July 2006, California faced record peak demand as the temperature climbed above 100 degrees F. for more than 10 days in a row in the inland regions and records were broken along the coast. The mercury climbed to 110 degrees F. for three days in a row throughout much of interior part of the state. The all time record peak demand on Monday, July 24, 2006 was 50,270 megawatts - an abnormally high demand at levels not expected until five years in the future. The Flex Your Power program was called upon to avoid power outages and voluntary energy conservation was credited with reducing demand by 1,500 MW.

Linking to Global Warming

After the crisis, energy efficiency returned to being a very low-profile topic, which gave us a challenge to design messaging so that it popped out at people. In 2007 we started to link to global warming, which we found in some test polling really increased the urgency that people felt about saving energy - electricity primarily, but natural gas as well (Building Motivation Over Time).

According to our surveys in late 2006, almost 70 percent of the people understood global warming. Sixty-three percent said they believed in it; only 7 percent said they didn't. A very high percentage thought it was a very or somewhat serious issue. Once we connected saving energy to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it suddenly elevated our messaging back up to the very or somewhat serious category, which is the urgency or saliency we felt we needed.

The good news was that about two thirds believed that they could do something to prevent global warming that they had to take individual action. Over 50 percent thought that the link between energy consumption and global warming was very strong or somewhat strong.

Most people - 80 percent - thought that global warming was due to the automobile, whereas only 65 percent connected it to their electricity and natural gas use. That was still a good number, but even to get the number up to 80 percent we had lots of room to educate and motivate.

We tested different messages. Once again, neither fear nor blame motivated people. The best response was with messages like we need to deal with it before it becomes a crisis and we don't want to leave these problems to our children. Financial savings were also very motivating. It was more important to some than others, but at some level it was important to everybody. The weakest messages had to do with remote effects like how the ice caps were melting, and ones related to fear and guilt, which just disempowered people (Vivid, Personalized Communication).

The term global warming had more resonance with people than climate change. With climate change, people generally thought you could adjust; you could either take your coat off or put it on. It also seemed more local and less serious than global warming.

We did an informal survey of how the news media used these terms. They generally talked about global warming when the were talking about what was happening out there, and about climate change when they were referring to commissions and governmental entities that were dealing with climate change.

We changed our tag lines from "Save energy, money and the environment," to "Save energy, money and prevent global warming."

Financing the Program

During 2001 and 2002, Flex Your Power advertising and outreach was funded at almost $50 million per year. The Flex Your Power mass media advertising effort used the majority of this.

The Flex Your Power mass media campaign cost $11.4 million in 2003.

As discussed above, the ongoing funding came from the Public Goods Charge (the small percentage of every electricity and gas bill).

Measuring Achievements

A subcontractor was employed for tracking studies, and another one for evaluation. A third party computerized program was used to calculate reach and frequency statistics. The evaluation had three components: consumer focus groups, advertising reach and frequency verification, and quantitative savings. Additionally, the creativity of the prospective ads was tested both through focus groups and quantitative surveys. The consumer focus groups used a "hybrid" research method that included qualitative and quantitative components. There were eight focus groups that had in-depth discussion of each communication piece and a numerical scoring (from one to five) for twelve criteria.

No formal impact evaluation was conducted, although energy use was monitored directly by the utilities and the ISO. Because direct energy savings are difficult and costly to measure, we measured the impact of our marketing campaign on Willingness and Propensity to take action.


An important strategy was to tell people what impact they had. When you say there's going to be a possibility of blackouts, then you don't have it, you don't want people to think it's all a bunch of baloney. We reminded them that it was because of their actions that they avoided the blackouts. For example, our earned media during 2001 told people that we were taking action, we were drawing down energy, and we were not having rolling blackouts.



  • Due to joint Flex Your Power and manufacturer or retailer promotions, there was a 400% increase in the sale of compact fluorescent lights and an increase in the sale of Energy Star appliances:
    • 110% for clothes washers,
    • 50% for refrigerators, and
    • 100% for dishwashers.
  • However, changes in conservation and load shifting behavior rather than purchasing behavior leading to efficiency improvements accounted for most of the 2001 reduction.
  • An important contributor to lower consumption was consumer willingness to turn off air conditioners.
  • Peak shifting (e.g. clothes washing, dish washing, cooking, cleaning) was noticeable.
  • About 33 percent of all the residents and 27 percent of all commercial customers were able to save at least 20 percent on their energy bills.
  • Peak energy use was cut by 14.1 percent during June, 2001. That was 5,570 megawatts.
  • Blackouts were avoided.

Three months into the initial 2001 FYP campaign, the number of consumers that thought conservation could solve the energy crisis had risen from 53% to 62% and there was a positive correlation between conservation behavior and campaign awareness.

Media tracking surveys found 35 percent of those aware of any conservation advertising could correctly provide unaided descriptions of the Flex Your Power images or messages. This rose to 53 percent by November 2001.

The CEC Summer 2001 Conservation Report provides combined estimates of demand responsive and rebate incentive programs of 3,743 megawatts and voluntary conservation savings of 2,616 megawatts. The Summary Study stated, although it was not possible to quantify Flex Your Power's individual contribution to this overall reduction in demand, we acknowledge the program's unquestioned role as a prime catalyst and contributor to the state's successful peak demand reduction in 2001.

The evaluation concluded that Flex Your Power was successful in meeting its objectives to convey energy efficiency messages and information to mass markets and motivate consumers to include energy efficiency considerations into their purchase decisions. Feedback also indicated that consumers felt it critical that current and future generations of consumers continue to be educated and reminded about these issues. The evaluation also showed that consumers were better able to focus on specific actions, had a need for specific information, and were able to name individual products rather than only recall a general message on efficiency.


Energy use increased in 2002, but remained lower than previous levels. In the following chart, the dotted line represents energy use in 2001 relative to 2000, and the solid line represents use in 2002 relative to 2000.

When asked why they had stopped conserving a year after the crisis, 46% said Just easy to slip back into old ways and 46% said No need after summer / crisis 2003

  • 6 newspaper ads in more than 40 general market papers and 105 in ethnic newspapers covering 16 ethnic communities and 14 languages
  • 3,500 cable channel advertisements in a partnership at no cost to the program;
  • Electronic newsletter (biweekly) to 4,300 people
  • 1,544 participating retailers
  • Broadcast advertising reaches of 95% of the primary targeted market for an average frequency of 29.4 across the three flights for appliances, ceiling fans, and lighting (with a reach of 90% and frequency of 10.3 in each). The reach of five or more impressions is 60% for each of three and 83% with at least one of these


CalISO reported a reduction of 1,500 megawatts thanks to voluntary conservation during the July alert period in 2006. The transmission system experienced not a single power outage or blackout during the extraordinary heat. In the diagram below, the blue line indicates forecast demand on one day, while the red line indicates actual demand. Note: Efficiency was shaved at peak (conservation) and shifted (delayed until after peak).


Walter McGuire
Flex Your Power
2183 Union Street
San Francisco, CA USA 94123
T: (415) 775-7571 F: (415) 775-4159


This case study was written in 2007 by Jay Kassirer, based on a Tools of Change webinar presented by Walter McGuire in March 2006.


Quantum Consulting Inc., 2004. National Energy Efficiency Best Practices StudyVolume O1 Crosscutting Advertising Best Practices Report

Bender, Sylvia, Mithra Moezzi, Marcia Hill Gossard, and Loren Lutzenhiser. 2004. Using Mass Media to Influence Energy Consumption Behavior: Californias 2001 Flex Your Power Campaign as a Case Study. In 2004 ACEEE Summer Study on Buildings. Washington, D.C.: American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

Flex Your Power. 2002. Flex Your Power Energy Conservation and Efficiency Campaign 2001-2002, Final Report. Prepared for the California Public Utilities Commission.

Pigram, John. 2004. Evaluation of the 2003 Flex Your Power Statewide Marketing and Outreach Program Report. Prepared for the California Public Utilities Commission.

Tools of Change webinar, March 2006.

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