Energy efficiency takes a variety of shapes at public power utilities
Originally published August 4, 2017
The inspiration for this article came from Akeyla Clarke, pricing and rates manager for the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority. Earlier this year, in an inquiry posted to one of the American Public Power Association’s list servers, Clarke asked about energy efficiency programs run by public power utilities. She especially wanted to know how such programs were administered — that is, which department was responsible, and if the utilities had personnel devoted to these programs.
Answers came in via the list server from all over the country: East Coast, West Coast and in between. We followed up with a few of the public power utilities that replied to Clarke’s inquiry, and asked for details about their energy efficiency programs. Here is a sampling of what we found.
Norwich offers double incentive
Norwich Public Utilities in Norwich, Connecticut, has a dedicated team that offers efficiency programs for both residential and commercial and industrial customers.
The utility’s Cool Choice Program, which offers a rebate of $300 per ton for an eligible central air system or heat pump, “has been a popular program,” said Fawn Walker, who manages the utility’s efficiency and key accounts programs. “We use that a lot,” she said in a June 23 interview with the American Public Power Association.
Right now, the program is especially popular because the utility is offering a double incentive — $600 per ton — until October, Walker said. Rebates are available to residential, commercial and industrial electric customers of Norwich Public Utilities.
The New England utility has been offering rebates since 2006 and the rebate program has been popular, Walker said. “Our customers love it that we hand deliver our rebate checks to them,” she said.
“Every summer, we make a big push for these kinds of things,” she added.
NPU has contracted with Lantern Energy to conduct free residential home energy walk-throughs that include an overall health and safety check of the customer’s house, including a blower door test to find and correct air leakage, the installation of four courtesy LED lights, and the installation of water- and energy-saving devices such as low-flow showerheads, faucet aerators and pipe insulation.
During the visit, the energy efficiency team also offers tips on other ways to save energy and informs customers about rebate offers for improvements such as replacing inefficient home appliances and installing additional attic insulation.
Using the rebate programs, customers can get $60 off the price of an Energy Star-qualified window air conditioning unit and up to $500 off the price of an eligible Energy Star high efficiency electric water heater.
Recent efficiency work in Norwich included upgrades by the local hospital: installing variable speed drives and converting one of the operating rooms to new dimmable lighting that uses LEDs (light-emitting diodes).
“The lights are amazing,” Walker said.
LEDs “are in all kinds of applications now,” she noted, and have become very popular with NPU’s customers because their prices have come down substantially in recent years. Today’s LEDs are also more attractive because they now come in a variety of colors, she noted.
No-interest loans offered
For its commercial and industrial customers, Norwich offers a no-interest loan for energy-efficiency improvements, and “that’s been really helpful,” Walker said.
Customers apply for a loan through local banks. For those who qualify, Norwich Public Utilities pays the bank the interest on the loan, so that the loan can be interest-free to the customer. Eligible efficiency projects can be financed for up to seven years.
The Connecticut Green Bank also provides low-interest loans for efficiency measures, Walker said. “Our banks work with us” on those loans, she said.
Programs for commercial and industrial customers include incentives and/or rebates for lighting retrofits, refrigeration and process equipment, HVAC upgrades, air conditioning, and variable frequency drives.
For business customers, “We don’t believe in a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach,” the utility notes on its website. “Instead, each program is customized for the size and nature of the business, starting with a free energy analysis of your facility.”
“We’re happy to look at anything,” Walker said. For example, a customer had a plastic molding machine and wanted to upgrade to a more efficient machine. NPU “figured out a rebate” that could help make this happen, she said, and the result was energy savings for both the utility and the customer — and a happy customer.
Cloud-based system has dramatic effect at LES
Marc Shkolnick, manager of energy services for the Lincoln Electric System in Nebraska, said LES has switched to a cloud-based system for all of its energy-efficiency programs that has “dramatically reduced staff data entry time and paper work.” The new system also has made it easier for the utility to analyze data and trends.
Through its Sustainable Energy Program, the Nebraska utility offers a portfolio of energy efficiency incentives for a variety of residential, commercial and industrial measures, including home and facility sealing and insulation, air conditioning and heat pumps, commercial lighting and various industrial measures such as variable frequency drives and pumps, compressed air systems, and building automation systems.
LES started its energy efficiency program in 2009 and was using SharePoint at first; then switched to a cloud-based system in 2015, Shkolnick said in a June 26 interview. He said the cloud-based system has accomplished the three goals that LES had in mind when switching systems: providing an exemplary experience for customers; creating a better experience for HVAC and other contractors installing energy-efficiency upgrades; and improving the administration of these programs.
The new system, now in its third year, is much less cumbersome and time-consuming, he said. It also gives LES “robust reporting capabilities,” he explained. “We can do analytics in various areas to see trends.”
There is a survey for participants to fill out at the end of each project, and “that’s really important,” he added. “It closes the loop.”
In 2008, when LES was planning to launch its efficiency program, Shkolnick looked at what other utilities were doing, and recalls being “surprised that most utilities were using spreadsheets.”
“When people are used to going to Amazon.com” to buy things, “there’s an expectation that you should be as easy to do business with as Amazon,” he said. “Customers aren’t necessarily giving utilities any slack.”
Customers’ expectations have gone to a different level these days, and “we just need to be as responsive as we possibly can,” he said. Public power utilities are accustomed to providing highly reliable service, “and we need to provide a similar level of customer service,” said the LES official.
In Jacksonville, efficiency program has evolved
JEA, the public power utility in Jacksonville, Florida, started its energy efficiency program about 10 years ago and has expanded the program since then, said Payson Tilden, the utility’s Customer Solutions program manager, in a June 22 interview.
The JEA program includes a lighting discount program, rebates for residential and commercial customers who buy energy-efficient products, and custom projects tailored to the needs of larger customers. The utility has an online portal called My JEA Utility Tracker that customers can use to keep track of their energy usage.
By conducting a self-assessment using the tracker, customers can identify ways they could save energy. They might find they can earn a rebate from JEA by investing in insulation, for example, or by getting a more energy-efficient air conditioning system.
Tilden said the utility used to offer rebates for energy-efficient appliances such as dishwashers, clothes driers, overhead fans and air conditioning units, but dropped those a few years ago, because by then the Energy Star program had caught on, and most products on the market were qualified under that program.
“We felt we had a pretty good transformation of the market” by around 2014-2015, Tilden said.
For years, JEA has encouraged its customers to use efficient lightbulbs.
Between 2008 and 2015, “we had more than 5 million CFLs sold in our territory,” Tilden said. “Then we switched to LEDs.”
JEA has done custom projects for some of its larger customers, she noted. For example, a local beer company, Anheuser-Busch, was building a new facility, “so we worked with them” on some efficiency projects.
JEA’s efficiency programs are funded by a conservation fee that is paid by all of the utility’s customers, Tilden noted.
Going door to door to visit low-income customers
JEA went to the U.S. Census Bureau to identify low-income households — those at 150 percent of the federal poverty level — and started sending a two-person crew to visit those households, Tilden said.
The teams from JEA bring energy-saving devices such as aerator faucets and LED bulbs, as well as more than a dozen other electricity- and water-conserving products.
On these visits, the utility crews install the energy-saving devices, sit down at the kitchen table to help customers understand their bills, and offer energy-saving tips and other practical recommendations such as advice on how often to change air conditioner filters (they bring along an extra filter to leave with the customer, too).
Helping customers save in Lansing, Michigan
In Lansing, Michigan, the Board of Water & Light offers a program called Hometown Energy Savers® to help customers save energy. The BWL provides a variety of services and incentives to help residential and business electric customers lower their energy usage and save money.
Residential customers can use the Home Energy calculator to track their energy usage and find ways to save. They can visit the Kid's Korner for fun activities that teach kids what energy is about.
The BWL offers rebates, including $25 for a working dehumidifier or room air conditioning unit, and $50 for a refrigerator or freezer, said Sue Warren, the utility’s manager of energy and eco-strategies, in a June 23 interview.
“This time of year, we really promote the air conditioning tune-ups,” she said.
The utility works with local contractors, and will pay for part of the cost of such a tune-up. Most air conditioning tune-ups cost about $100, and BWL will give customers a rebate of $50 that covers half the cost, Warren said.
BWL offers an energy assessment for businesses that is free of charge. Utility employees walk through the business and point out the top three things they would do to save energy there.
The utility also offers energy assessments to homeowners and points them toward incentives such as rebates, Warren said. When the home is a low-income one, BWL installs extra LED lights, as well as faucet aerators and efficient showerheads.
Warren noted that the price of LED lights has dropped and the quality has improved.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in LEDs,” she said.
BWL is a partner with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program and promotes all Energy Star-rated products, she noted.
Illinois public power agency provides funding for efficiency projects
The Illinois Municipal Electric Agency, headquartered in Springfield, Ill., is a joint action agency that has 32 member public power utilities in the state, and a 33rd member that is a rural electric cooperative, said Rodd Whelpley, IMEA’s program and communications administrator, in a June 23 interview.
In Illinois, public power utilities and co-ops are not required to have energy efficiency programs, although investor-owned utilities are required to have such programs, Whelpley said.
IMEA’s board of directors decided to develop and run an energy efficiency program that would provide help to its 33 members, he explained — and to provide $1 million in funding each year. Of that, $50,000 was earmarked for efficient lightbulbs, and more than $900,000 was provided for incentives to commercial and industrial customers.
In one of the projects from IMEA's 2016-17 grant cycle, the Nichols Library in Naperville received a grant of $12,347.04 for a lighting project. Photo by Donna DeFalco
The city of Naperville, Illinois, the largest of IMEA’s member public power communities, will receive roughly $337,000 this year.
“We opened our program on May 1 this year,” he said. In the first month, “we had 35 pre-applications. Sixteen of them were in Naperville.”
The utility in Naperville recently put together a customer service team to help with the IMEA efficiency funding, he said, and the team “has done a great job of getting the word out.”
The IMEA program “is getting more popular,” he said. “More and more are applying.”
“That’s what we want,” Whelpley said. “That’s exactly what we’re here for.”
At IMEA, “We weren’t required to save any kilowatt-hours,” he added. “We just wanted to provide a service.”
The public power agency sees its efficiency funding “as an investment in economic development,” he said. “Every kilowatt-hour we save is a kilowatt-hour that we don’t have to buy or make.”
Naperville customers get grants via IMEA efficiency program
In Naperville, 37 non-residential electricity customers were awarded a total of $332,107 in grants through the IMEA’s Electric Efficiency Program in 2016-2017.
The work made possible by the grants resulted in energy savings of 3.4 million kWh, said Donna DeFalco, customer connections specialist for the City of Naperville, in a June 23 interview.
In one of the projects from the 2016-17 grant cycle, the Nichols Library in Naperville received a grant of $12,347.04 for a lighting project, DeFalco said.
The library replaced 106 old “T-8” fluorescent lights with 144 new LED lights, plus 18 interior canopy lights, for a total of 162 new lights, she said. Exit signs were replaced with LED fixtures, and occupancy sensors were added.
In all, 6,192 watts controlled, for an estimated 101,173 kWh in energy savings, she said.
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