Energy efficiency is about using less energy to get the same job done. Public power utilities take pride in offering their communities affordable electricity. The commonality between the two means it’s no surprise that efficiency is a central aim for many public power utilities’ endeavors.
To explore how central efficiency is for public power, we spoke with a few of the utilities that received the American Public Power Association’s Smart Energy Provider designation in 2019, the first year it was awarded, about what energy efficiency means to them. Utilities with this designation show a dedication to best practices and programs in energy efficiency, among other areas.
What does efficiency mean in a utility?
The Energy Information Administration describes energy efficiency as using technology that requires less energy to perform the same function, and energy conservation as any behavior that results in the use of less energy. Utilities’ definitions of efficiency incorporate both of these concepts.
“If we can help customers use energy more efficiently, especially on the business side, it makes them more profitable, and therefore they are more likely to remain in business in our service territory,” stated Mary Medeiros McEnroe, public benefits program manager at Silicon Valley Power in California. “Helping our customers be energy efficient benefits both them and the utility. They are more likely to thrive and, in difficult times like this, survive.”
Medeiros McEnroe serves as a member of the Smart Energy Provider program review panel, which consists of a diverse set of public power representatives with substantial industry expertise who determine which applicants show commitment to and proficiency in energy efficiency, distributed generation, renewable energy, and environmental initiatives.
“Efficiency is using something wisely; regardless if it is energy, time, or materials required to do business,” said Melanie Krause, utility manager at Menasha Utilities in Wisconsin. “It is using a resource with no or minimal waste.”
“We strive to run the utility efficiently in our day-to-day business, and it is one of our key strategic initiatives,” said Krause. “We understand people and businesses need power to live and prosper, so we want everyone to use it as wisely as possible. For our customer base, our focus is helping them use the power they purchase from us as wisely as possible.”
“We define efficiency as a way to provide our service and achieve our operations in a sustainable manner,” said Connor Reardon, energy efficiency engineer at Littleton Electric Light and Water Departments in Massachusetts. “Beyond just energy, we aim to operate efficiently and to be a leader in environmental stewardship for the communities that we serve.”
Programs that save
Public power utilities don’t just talk the talk about efficiency — they focus on how to maximize it.
The Department of Energy characterizes energy efficiency as “one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to combat climate change, clean the air we breathe, improve the competitiveness of our businesses, and reduce energy costs for consumers.”
Menasha Utilities participates in Wisconsin’s Focus on Energy program to offer financial and technical assistance to all its customer classes. The program is funded through customers of participating utilities. A statute enacted near the turn of the 21st century requires investor-owned utilities in the state to participate to the program, although all 81 public power utilities in Wisconsin, and most of the cooperative utilities in the state, have also opted into the program.. Since 2011, Focus on Energy has delivered more than $1 billion in net economic benefits to Wisconsin.
Besides the state programs, MU has residential rebates for Energy Star appliances and central air conditioner tune-ups and offers incentives for customers to plant shade trees. For its business customers, the utility offers additional incentives as well as a “Shared Savings” program to help cover the upfront cost of an efficiency project and pay it back over time.
“We consider energy efficiency to be our lowest-cost resource,” said Krause. “By utilizing efficiency first, we don’t have to generate that energy, which saves on our costs to either buy power in the market or build generation plants. Using energy efficiency helps the individual who does a project, but also all customers in the long run.”
In 2019, the City of Westerville, Ohio, renewed its strategic priority on sustainability, which charges the Westerville Electric Division with expanding residential energy efficiency programs and rebates, according to Chris Monacelli, electric utility manager for the City of Westerville.
Monacelli said that having efficiency defined as a central part of the city’s priority “means that Westerville’s 15,000-plus households and more than 2,000 businesses have access to programs that facilitate and support energy reduction and conservation.” The utility offers a variety of rebates for energy efficiency practices, efficient appliances, HVAC systems, solar panels, and more.
On the commercial customer side, Westerville’s BusinessWISE program has led to big savings for customers and the utility. The energy efficiency and conservation incentive program has awarded 99 projects, which has collectively helped the utility to save more than 14.4 million kilowatt-hours per year in energy and achieve more than 2,000 kilowatts per month in demand reduction.
Silicon Valley Power offers a large variety of programs that support energy efficiency, including rebate programs, free energy audits, and energy efficiency grant programs.
In Massachusetts, Littleton’s Green Rewards Program includes all of the utility’s energy efficiency opportunities for customers. Customers can take advantage of heating and cooling rebates, appliance rebates, free home energy assessments, a free shade tree program, and discounts on LEDs. The program also includes incentives for distributed energy resources, including a solar rebate program, a renewable energy credit, off-peak charging for electric vehicles, and rebates on charging equipment.
“Offering energy efficiency solutions helps our customers save money and adapt to new technologies like electric vehicles and heat pumps,” said Reardon. “All of our rebates, discounted LEDs sold, and direct install measures from home energy assessments are tracked and calculated to a kilowatt-hour savings based on the Massachusetts Technical Resource Manual.”
Reardon noted that Littleton is in the process of replacing its meters with advanced metering infrastructure, which he expects will enable the utility to more precisely quantify savings from these programs.
Utility programs like these make a big difference. In a 2017 report, The Light Bulb Revolution, the Department of Energy noted that the share of LEDs in the U.S. market went from less than 2% of sales in 2012 to between 20% and 30% of sales in 2016 and 2017. During the same timeframe, sales of incandescent bulbs dropped from more than two-thirds of the market share to about 10%. The report cited a wide range of LED sales share from state to state, with “notably higher percentages where utility programs have been promoting LED bulbs.”
Data from the EIA shows that per-household residential electricity demand has declined since 2010, with more efficient lighting and other efficiency improvements driving this change.
Another significant leap is how efficiency and energy consumption are increasingly considered as part of the investment decision for new technology. For example, organizations are beginning to quantify “emissions efficiency” — essentially, the degree to which energy-consuming activities create emissions — as another means to measure the potential benefits of technologies. The idea not only expands upon what efficiency entails, it also offers another measure for beneficial electrification.