By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 13, 2007
For years, John Morrill peddled the virtues of compact fluorescent lamps at the Arlington County Fair and other local venues, touting their cost-saving benefits and environmentally friendly nature. And for years, people would nod politely before scurrying away.
These days, Morrill, Arlington County's energy manager, is getting a different reaction: Now people are approaching him.
"They'll say, 'Oh, I saw that on Oprah,' " he said.
Government bureaucrats such as Morrill who have spent their careers trying to sell the public on energy conservation are enjoying their rock-star moment. Thanks in part to "An Inconvenient Truth," the documentary about former vice president Al Gore's lectures on global warming, the issue has a higher profile.
"I've been working on this issue since 1983, and this is the most gratifying time of my career," Morrill said. "It's just -- I'm actually having a lot of fun. And hopefully, all of us working on this issue are making a difference."
For years, Morrill said, he and his colleagues had an image problem. Their ideas were good; they knew they could save people money and help the environment. But the bottom line: "It's difficult to make energy efficiency sexy."
Until now. In the D.C. region, county governments are practically stumbling over themselves to come up with Earth-friendly plans. Montgomery, Fairfax, Arlington and Howard counties are among those that have recently launched eco-friendly initiatives.
"The Al Gore movie has been a fundamental catalyst," Morrill said. "Even if people didn't see the movie themselves, they read or heard about it through the media."
Gore's movie "really turned the tide," said Marion Clark, planning coordinator for the Montgomery County Planning Department. Clark, who manages the county's green-homes program, said homeowners associations, churches and schools are increasingly requesting speakers from her office.
Montgomery's " 'going green' program started in 2000-2001, but it's just within the past two years that people have really started to respond," she said.
Joshua Feldmark didn't even know his office phone number when he arrived in February for his first day as executive director of Howard County's Commission on the Environment and Sustainability. It didn't matter -- he already had more than a dozen messages.
"It was clear from the minute I walked into my office that people were excited about the environment," he said.
In Fairfax, environmental coordinator Kambiz Agazi said that because of popular demand, he has incorporated information about global warming into his presentations on the environment.
"It has changed," he said. "When I first started in county government nine years ago, there was almost no talk about greenhouse gas emissions."
Morrill, a self-proclaimed "energy geek," has more than a dozen compact fluorescent lamps in his home. Energy conservation is his thing -- just get him talking about his high-efficiency German boiler, and you can hear the excitement in his voice.
One recent evening, more than 60 people gathered at the Arlington Central Library for an information session on "Greening Your Condo," in which Morrill made his pitch. To underscore his point, he brought along his four-bulb light display ("It's as American as energy efficiency" reads a slogan on the display), which compares compact fluorescent lamps to incandescent bulbs.
"This is the easiest, most visible thing you can do to reduce carbon emissions," he told the crowd. Flipping on the bulbs, he said, "We can quibble over which one is brighter, but to me, they're comparable."
After the presentation, Morrill and other members of Arlington's "green team" answered questions and passed out free compact fluorescent lamps. Many people left the event smiling.
Still, energy conservation experts know the public can be fickle. Sure, their phones are ringing off the hook -- but that might not be the case in six months. The real work, they say, is just beginning.
"County government's job is to not let this die," said Feldmark, of Howard. "It's to keep the wave building, to make sure this fad turns into a trend."