T. Boone Pickens, who made his “first billion” in oil, knows that the future lies now in alternative energy. And water. He’s buying up water rights in the West because, as temperatures rise, trans-evaporation rates will also rise. Even if we get wetter, we’ll have less water because of evaporation. Water is the new oil.

That’s what Nancy Jackson told the audience at a meeting of the Coalition for the Environment. Jackson, who hails from Kansas, came clear across our own state to explain the Biggest Losers (in energy usage) competition that the Land Institute in Salina sponsored for six communities last year. But before she explained the contest, she described what most people consider to be sexier than efficiency, and that’s wind power.

Wind is–pardon the pun–pretty cool. Even if you don’t give a rat’s patoot about climate change, wind power makes sense. It hedges against the instability of the oil market.  And even though, as the turbines are built, it’s more expensive to begin with, it eventually stabilizes and lowers rates, as well as providing substantial economic development.

If Kansas, for example, were to build enough turbines for 7,000 megawatts of power, that would provide twenty million dollars to the landowners, another twenty million to the counties that host those turbines, and close to 2,000 operations and maintenance jobs.

Despite the glamor of wind power, though, Jackson said, energy efficiency is where the game is. Seventy percent of the electricity we use is in buildings. “So if we can imagine a future of buildings that generate as much as or more than they use, then there’s a substantially decreased need for centralized power plants of any kind.” Of course, efficiency wouldn’t create that future; it would only help. I assume she meant that you’d need solar panels in most homes.

But consider that energy efficiency is THE cheapest way to get more power–like 3 cents per kilowatt hour–as opposed to the most expensive way to get more power: 9-12 cents per kilowatt hour if you build a nuclear plant. Jackson called energy efficiency a “smokin’ good deal.”

Energy efficiency is the big win. Having entirely new standards for the buildings that we build, for the retrofitting of the buildings that we already have, is the way we can get to the energy future we want.

The first step in that direction is to get public utility commissions to align a utility’s profits with how much energy it saves, not how much it sells. What we need in Missouri is for the PSC to tell AmerenUE and KCPL that the less energy they sell, the more the state will pay their shareholders. Saying that to utility companies would imply that our rates would have to go higher, but that wouldn’t mean our bills would go up, because, as ratepayers are enabled to use less energy even as rates go up, they would actually pay less on their yearly bill.

All this information sounds good, but how do you get the policy makers interested in it? That was the question for Jackson and her colleagues. They knew that when homeowners are asked if they would cut energy usage to save money, they say, “Sure.” And when asked if they’d cut usage to save the environment, they reply, “Yes, yes.” But they don’t do it. On the other hand, when homeowners are shown that their own energy usage is substantially higher than that of neighbors in similar homes, THEN they cut usage. It’s peer pressure. And the Land Institute decided to put that insight to use.

They offered valuable rewards, such as solar panels for one civic building, to the community that took part in the contest and won it. The six participating communities included both rural and suburban and varied in size. The variations were not a problem, since winning was based on the percentage by which a community reduced its energy use.

Jackson said the enthusiasm and creativity in those communities was inspiring. They … No wait. I’ll let her tell it:

And if you think Kat Logan Smith, the executive director at the Coalition, wouldn’t want to try a similar competition in Missouri, just see how she reacts if you tell her your community is interested.