An award-winning efficiency video portrays Rae Pearson Benn as an office worker who stacks her desk with personal appliances. Credit: City of Virginia Beach

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Memo to those who still think all messaging about energy conservation is dour, pedantic and issued by an office scold: Acquaint yourself with Virginia’s Lori Herrick Borden to cleanse away that cliché.

The Virginia Beach energy management administrator is the mastermind behind a trio of clever, humor-laden — and now, award-winning — public service announcements designed to spur her fellow workers in the state’s largest city to watch their watt consumption. All three videos feature city employees and their relatives having a hoot acting out spoofy lessons on the hazards of overloading outlets, coveting a space heater and other plug-ins, and driving alone instead of teleconferencing or carpooling.

That collaborative effort earned Virginia Beach the top leadership award in the government category from the nonprofit Virginia Energy Efficiency Council. Herrick Borden accepted the award during a ceremony Tuesday at Dorey Park near Richmond.

“I admit it can be hard to talk about energy in an entertaining way,” she said in an interview about what sparked the videos in summer 2019. “It’s kind of drab.”

Those blahs weren’t her only challenge.

Back then, her community was still grappling with the aftermath of a horrific episode. A disgruntled male city employee had fatally shot 12 people and wounded four others at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center on May 31, 2019. Responding police officers shot and killed the employee.

“After that, it felt trite to talk about energy, and that’s my job,” Herrick Borden said about the grief gripping her colleagues. “I just lost my motivation. I couldn’t be the heavy, badgering somebody for leaving a light on or using a space heater.”

Several months later, she felt rejuvenated enough to engage in conversations about her nascent video proposals with specialists on the city’s media and communications team. 

She had a hunch that energy jokes could play a small role in healing the city after a tragedy.

“I was looking for something funny and light to share citywide,” she said. “I figured, well, I’d just go to my partners and see if they were interested in creating something from scratch.”

‘Laughter is what resonates’

Evidently, Herrick Borden had contacted the right bunch. The team burst into action, transforming her themes into scripts within days. 

They knew they had hit the jackpot when an October 2019 showing of the initial video,“Plug Load,” at an upper management meeting cracked up attendees.

“I was so grateful COVID wasn’t here yet because I could see their faces,” she said. “It was great. They were rolling.”   

One of the reasons “Plug Load” shines is due to the “stage” presence of Rae Pearson Benn, starring as a kilowatt-sucking office energy hog oblivious to the needs of others as she outfits her individual quarters with a personal refrigerator, coffee maker, microwave, blender, pancake griddle and yes, even a hotdog grill. As her electric bill rises, other resources across the city disappear.

“We decided laughter is what resonates,” said Pearson Benn, the city’s media and communications coordinator, who also wrote the script for and produced that particular piece. “We want people to click on it not just once, but to keep coming back to it and show it to their friends.

“If they’re laughing, they’re listening. Next thing you know they have buy-in and don’t even know it,” she said about as simple a move as unplugging a dormant phone charger. “We’ve helped change their behavior through information and laughter.”

In the spirit of conservation, the team opted to keep the budget low on all three videos by casting internally and carting in props from home. For instance, Pearson Benn noted that her daughter, Rayven Benn, is the girl jumping off the playground swing, and that the crew dined on the pancakes and hotdogs her character served up in “Plug Load.”

“What’s wonderful about our production team is that I can think of something ridiculous and they can make it happen,” she said about the exaggerated behavior of her main character. “You can laugh at her and also see yourself in her, even though you don’t want to admit it.

“Lori taught us energy lessons while we produced these, so we were educating ourselves while we were trying to educate the public.”

Energy use down 6%

Pearson Benn — twice nominated for Emmys for more serious fare about domestic violence and elder abuse — said her team wasn’t “award-hunting” with the energy conservation pieces.

“We just wanted it to matter,” she said. “We love that somebody recognized our work.”

Herrick Borden’s office functions out of the city’s Department of Public Works. During her 11-year tenure in the position, she has certified hundreds of energy champions and recognized city employees for outstanding energy accomplishments at an annual awards ceremony in October.

On one energy front, last year the city adopted a five-year goal of reducing energy use by 2% per square foot annually on municipal buildings larger than 5,000 square feet. It’s marking 2018 as its baseline. As well, the goal is to maintain a level use of electricity, natural gas and propane, even while adding new facilities.

Thus far, the city has reduced energy use by almost 10% per square foot on large buildings, and gross consumption of energy has dropped by 6%.

For perspective, Virginia Beach spent more than $15 million powering and lighting its buildings, streetlights and all the rest of its municipal infrastructure during the year that ended in June.

Herrick Borden is hopeful that all of those figures will continue on a downward trend as the videos spread beyond the city’s YouTube channel to the general public.

Ironically, the third video, which encourages carpooling and teleconferencing, was completed in March 2020, right before the country entered a lengthy pandemic lockdown.

“It’s my favorite,” she said, adding that more are likely in the hopper. “I can’t wait to release it.”

In the meantime, Chelsea Harnish, executive director of the Virginia Energy Efficiency Council, was elated that her organization was able to hand out its awards at an in-person ceremony after more than 20 months of separation via virtual conferences and gatherings.

This is the sixth year the council has handed out such honors to first- and second-place winners in government, academic and commercial categories.

“We’re always looking for unique and creative projects,” she said. “It’s hard to make energy efficiency fun, lighthearted and humorous, but Virginia Beach hit the mark and did a great job.”

Harnish concluded that a dose of energy conservation humor is proper medicine for these arduous times.

“I think many of us,” she said, “are ready to laugh.”

Elizabeth McGowan

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press.