Behavior-based energy-efficiency programs are, if not the final frontier, a country that utilities have only begun to explore, and Beltrami Electric Cooperative in Bemidji, Minn., is an early pioneer.
The 20,000-meter public power provider is located in the north-central section of a state that has a history of policies promoting energy efficiency. In 2007, the Minnesota legislature updated its requirement by passing the Next Generation Energy Act, mandating electric and natural gas utilities to reduce energy sales by 1.5 percent of average sales. “Changing the focus from spending a certain amount on energy efficiency to saving energy made conservation the program driver,” said Beltrami Energy Services Manager Sam Mason.
To explore programs that could help the utility meet its goal, Beltrami Electric formed a working group with eight other member co-ops of wholesaler Minnkota Power Cooperative. Commercial and residential incentives for energy efficiency upgrades were already available through Minnkota, so the co-ops were interested in new approaches to reducing consumption. “Upgrading equipment and appliances is great, but that has high up-front costs, and people generally do it only when they have to replace something anyway,” explained Mason. “We were looking for steps customers could take every day to reduce energy use, a program that was cost-effective for us and for our customers.”
Behavioral energy-efficiency programs check many of those boxes, but the co-ops faced two challenges: finding the right program and getting the state to accept deemed savings. Deemed savings estimates energy and demand savings by multiplying the number of installed measures by an estimated (or deemed) savings per measure based on historical evaluations. This approach is often used with programs targeting simpler efficiency measures, such as reminding users to turn off equipment not in use.
In the pioneering spirit, Beltrami Electric undertook a pilot project using MyMeter, an interactive demand-side management tool that gives customers access to their billing and energy information online. This feature appealed to Mason, who noted, “We looked at programs that use mail to communicate with customers, but MyMeter connects them with what is happening in their home right now. That gives them the power to make changes when it can make a difference on their bill.”
Another advantage of MyMeter is that customers don’t have to invest in costly new equipment. “All they have to do is spend a little time and attention,” Mason pointed out. And they do, he added. “I know some customers who check their accounts every day.”
Beltrami Electric promoted MyMeter through its newsletter and newspaper ads. In the first year of the pilot, customer sign-ups exceeded 11 percent. Currently, participation is at about 16 percent, but Mason observed that it grows every time the region experiences extreme weather as it did in January.
Talking it out
As with any new program, customer service representatives had to go through training so they could teach new participants throughout the process, and to get the most out of the system’s capabilities. MyMeter enables the customer and representative to log into an account at the same time, so they can discuss energy use issues looking at the same real-time data. The representative can ask what appliances are on, or if the customer has company—anything that might affect their energy use. “These are details the customer may not remember 30 to 60 days from now, when that big bill comes,” Mason said. “Dialogue is a critical part of customer education.”
Any call can turn into a learning experience for both consumer and utility. Customers may not know that their bills are usually driven up by big systems—space conditioning, water heating, large appliances, lighting—noted Mason. A mother may call on a snowy day, for example, thinking that the video games the kids are playing are causing her electricity use to spike. After a few questions, the representative discovers that the home has a heated water tank for livestock. “But whatever the problem turns out to be, our representatives can use that information on the next call,” Mason said.
Co-op customers are using the information MyMeter provides, too. The overall energy savings among MyMeter participants versus non-participants averaged 3 percent, or 550 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per household. Households in the top quartile of energy consumption achieved 8-plus percent reductions. Beltrami Electric accounted for the impact of its other efficiency programs to avoid double counting, and conservatively claims total savings of 2.6 percent, or a full percentage point higher than the state requirement.
A case study by MyMeter calculated the first-year savings cost effectiveness at $.023 per kWh saved. That figure was further adjusted to $.07 per kWh under Minnesota’s Average Savings Method that discounts for uncertainty in the persistence of behavioral program savings.
MyMeter’s work with Beltrami Electric on the pilot project led the company to make more refinements in the evaluation component of the tool, which have now been integrated into the platform. The Minnesota Division of Energy Resources (DER) accepted the project’s findings and now count savings claimed from behavioral programs toward utilities’ mandated goals.
The other co-ops in the Minnkota working group have since implemented MyMeter. As for Mason, he is sold on behavior-based energy-efficiency programs, and on MyMeter specifically. “Now we have a tool that really helps customers understand their energy use and take control of it,” he said. “I’ve been talking about conservation for years, and if I’ve learned one thing, it is that you have to engage the customer. Otherwise, the program will not succeed.”