A new rooftop photovoltaic solar array is being installed every minute in the United States, with 4 million expected to be generating power by 2020. Knowledgeable building code professionals are needed to make sure these systems are installed correctly and safely. To help ensure quality inspections, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council has launched a new online interactive video solar training series for local code officials.
Taking the approach of the popular DIY series, This Old House, developers have created videos that are as entertaining as they are informative. Online viewers join IREC Training Specialist Joe Sarubbi to follow seasoned building and electrical inspectors through the finer points of five different solar inspections. Each video highlights a different type of system and technology, including:
DC-DC converter systems
Tesla Powerwall energy storage systems
Ground mounted AC-coupled systems with energy storage
Commercial carport systems
Presented in an engaging, easy-to-watch video format, the training can be completed in just a handful of lunch-hour sessions and is aimed at new and experienced residential inspectors, as well as residential PV installers.
The videos incorporate the 2017 National Electrical Code and the most current international building, residential and fire codes. “The new PV Inspector Online Training course for code officials brings together a remarkable group of experienced PV system inspectors from across the country to present a wide variety of PV system types and technologies,” said Rebekah Hren, a member of the NEC’s Code Making Panel 4.
Check out this short video for a look at how the solar training for code officials looks and feels. The training is available onlinefree of charge for a limited time.
Sometimes, you just don’t know what people want until you ask them, as the municipal utilities board of directors in Fremont, Nebraska, learned when they set out to diversify their municipal power portfolio.
City Administrator Brian Newton recalled that one of his first projects after joining the city staff three years ago was to work with the board of directors on a strategic plan for their power supply. At the time, the city of around 27,000 was powered mainly by coal and natural gas. “The board decided it would be a good idea to investigate adding other resources,” said Newton.
Consulting experts, customers
His initial reaction was that the customers would not be interested in solar energy. After all, Fremont residents enjoy a low residential rate of just 8 cents per kWh, and no one had installed a privately owned solar system.
That was a smart move, because SEPA research has shown that a successful community solar project starts with knowing your audience. The survey SEPA conducted was an eye-opener for Newton. “More than 70 percent said they were interested in solar power, and some said they’d pay $10 more per month for it, which I doubted,” he said.
Just to make sure the survey results were on track, Newton held numerous public meetings to explain community solar to customers and get feedback from them. More than 500 people signed up to receive information about solar energy and many were adamant about joining the community affair. They not only wanted the solar power to be sold in Fremont, they also wanted it built by local developers, financed by local money and under community control.
Designed to sell
To make participation easy, Fremont put together a unique package of options. Customers can choose between purchasing panels, buying one or more solar energy shares and subscribing to a combination of panels and shares.
Solar subscriptions can cover up to 80 percent of residential customers’ annual kilowatt-hour consumption and 50 percent for commercial customers. One panel generates an average of 43 kWh monthly, while one solar energy share represents 150 kWh monthly. Customers who purchase panels are able to take advantage of the Federal Solar Investment Tax Credit, making participation even more attractive.
If the utility board of directors had any remaining doubts about customers’ interest in solar, those were laid to rest when the 1.5-megawatt solar farm sold out in seven weeks. Fremont promoted the project with customer meetings, emails and bill stuffers, the usual avenues for getting the word out. Newton noted that the 1.2-MW second phase of the solar farm is selling out by word of mouth alone.
Newton may have been surprised by customers’ eagerness to invest in renewables, but he told SEPA the rural community’s latent environmentalism shouldn’t be surprising. The community has always been firmly rooted to the land because agriculture is central to the local economy, he said. “Damaging the land or air isn’t an abstract idea. Fremonters can see the impact of environmental degradation on their livelihoods.”
Or, as one resident observed, Fremont’s support for solar power is not a surprise, as much as it is the natural progression of a long history of civic involvement in environmental stewardship.
Window replacement strictly for energy savings carries a big price tag that can be well out of range for many homeowners. Fortunately, there are several lower-cost options for reducing energy loss through windows that utility program managers might consider adding to their incentive offerings.
Reflecting on film
Window films help block against solar heat gain and protect against glare and ultraviolet exposure. According to the International Window Film Association, professionally installed window film can block 30-60 percent of all energy being lost through window glass throughout the heating and cooling seasons. IWFA also claims that window film in commercial buildings can deliver seven times the energy saving benefits per dollar spent compared with installing replacement windows.
DOE’s Energy Saver blog explains that reflective films work best in climates with long cooling seasons, because they also block the sun’s heat in the winter. Other factors that impact the effectiveness of window films include:
Size of window glazing area
Whether the window has interior insulation
Incentives for professional installation of window films could be a winner for utilities serving low-income areas in warmer climates. Homeowners and businesses in such regions might welcome an affordable alternative to window replacement. Check with your state energy office to see if it offers any tax incentives you can piggy-back on your program.
Drawing on curtains, shades
Carefully chosen window attachments can also save homeowners energy for less than the cost of window replacements. The Attachments Energy Rating Council is a good place to begin exploring options. The two-year-old organization is working with DOE to provide credible and accurate information about the energy performance of residential and commercial window attachment products.
For an overview of AERC’s work, download “Window Attachments: A Call to Action,” the Council’s updated brief. AERC is holding its annual meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, May 22 to 24.
Efficient Window Coverings, a guide supported by DOE and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is another valuable resource for evaluating different window products for energy efficiency. Website visitors will find a calculator to help them choose the best covering for their circumstances and a comparison chart to see how coverings stack up against each other. These functions can help utilities identify a range of options to appeal to different customer segments.
LED, or light-emitting diode, bulbs have become a major market player in recent years and can be expected to grow when new lighting efficiency standards come into effect in 2020. Utilities might be tempted to think that there is little of this “low-hanging fruit” left for residential efficiency programs to pluck. Before utility program planners sunset this portfolio mainstay, however, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy suggests you take a closer look at the particulars of your program.
Well-designed lighting programs will likely continue to garner savings for utilities through 2019, but the outlook gets more complicated on January 1, 2020. For one thing, regional differences play a role in how lighting programs perform after the standards are raised. LED adoption varies from state to state and even within states. In most of WAPA’s territory, LEDs are between 20 and 30 percent of the light bulbs purchased. That leaves plenty of room for an effective program to grow the market.
Sales data indicates that lighting programs and retail support are strong drivers of LED adoption. Also, preliminary evidence from New York and Massachusetts indicate that LED adoption drops when programs end. So utilities would be premature to start scaling back their lighting programs—certainly where LED sales are low, and even in states like California where LEDs represent 40 percent of light bulb sales.
ACEEE identifies several program options that could continue the progress in lighting efficiency, even after the standards go into effect.
Underserved markets: Lighting programs can find additional savings by targeting rural, elderly and low-income market segments that have been slower to adopt LEDs.
Specialty lamps: LED versions of popular specialty lamp styles are now available, including decorative, candelabra, globe and reflector lamps. Yet these styles sell significantly fewer units than general-purpose LED lamps, suggesting that consumers need more education about the products.
High quality lamps: Programs should continue to promote high-performing ENERGY STAR-branded products, rather than “value” LED lamps that do not meet ENERGY STAR standards.
Controls: Dimming and occupancy controls offer significant additional savings opportunities. Lighting programs can help connect consumers to quality control solutions that are easy to install and operate.
While residential lighting efficiency programs still have plenty of savings left to tap, the technology’s increasing efficiency will eventually end their usefulness. It is not too soon for utilities to start considering the next opportunities for helping customers control and reduce their energy use.
Source: American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, 4/9/18
In a state that many consider to be synonymous with energy innovation, the City of Colton Electric Utility must balance two competing challenges that will sound all too familiar to rural power providers across the nation. On one hand, San Bernardino County, California’s oldest electric utility has a fierce summer peak; on the other, a significant population of low-income customers struggles with each month’s electric bill. In true public power spirit, Colton Electric’s “Spring into Summer” campaign seeks to manage its peak by putting the needs of its ratepayers first.
The campaign, which runs from March 20 to June 20, encourages customers to upgrade certain items in their homes to energy-efficient products prior to the start of summer. The utility notifies customers about the program on their utility bills, Facebook, Instagram and the electric website. Flyers are also placed in city hall, the electric office and community centers.
Customers can take advantage of increased rebates for box fans, ceiling fans, swamp coolers, room air-conditioning units and air-conditioning system tune-ups, as well as whole-house systems. “We want to give all of our customers a chance to save,” explained Environmental Conservation Supervisor, Jessica Sutorus.
Utility programs for saving energy often focus on big measures like entire home cooling system replacement because those retrofits provide the best results, for both the customer and the power provider. However, low-income customers can rarely afford major home improvements, even though they need the savings as much as, or more than customers in other demographics.
Different demographic, different goals Even so, the “Spring into Summer” promotion is as much about customer outreach as it is about energy efficiency. “You have different expectations than when you are marketing to more affluent customers,” Sutorus acknowledged.
In that respect, “Spring into Summer” has been successful, increasing participation in the cooling rebate program by 40 customers annually, a 43 percent increase in participation. “Obviously those aren’t huge numbers, but we have only 16,000 residential customers and most of the participants are investing in the smaller-ticket items,” said Sutorus.
So while the savings to the customers may be meaningful, the program has not made much of a dent in Colton Electric’s summer load. Many Colton families pass their homes from generation to generation and don’t have the resources to make the kind of deep retrofits that are useful for load shaping. A lot of those houses are several decades old and still have the original windows, Sutorus noted. “Our residential programs are about serving the community,” she explained. “We have other plans to meet state goals for energy savings.”
Part of bigger picture Colton has recently begun to install smart thermostats throughout city facilities, and to replace old air-conditioning systems with Ice Bear high-efficiency cooling equipment. The measures are part of the Climate Action Plan the city adopted in 2015 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
This is where California’s progressive approach to climate change is helpful to the small “Inland Empire” city. The state’s Title 24 Building Standards Code requires developers to build housing that is highly efficient and solar- and electric vehicle-ready. This is good news for a city that is finally beginning to feel the effects of the economic recovery. “We are expecting new residential development, but industry is our fastest growing load,” Sutorus observed.
Colton Electric offers a menu of commercial customer rebates, including automated online energy monitoring analysis, lighting rebates and time-of-use rates. Support for commercial customers can help grow local industry and bring more jobs to the area. More jobs mean a stronger economy, and that, too, will be good for ratepayers.
The small towns of Nebraska boast a surprising number of large commercial and industrial customers, drawn in no small part by some of the lowest electricity rates in the country. Ensuring the economic vitality of these businesses—and their communities—is a duty that NMPP Energy and its member organizations take very seriously. “If the businesses are healthy, then the utilities are healthy and we all win,” said Bob Meade, former member services representative for Nebraska Municipal Power Pool and Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska.
Meade, who retired in March, has a long history of working with municipal utilities in Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming to help large C&I customers keep their operating costs down. Low rates notwithstanding, Meade’s first contact with a business usually comes when one complains to the local municipal utility about high bills. “Either that, or they have an infrastructure request,” he said. “They want to upgrade their heating and cooling systems or outdated lighting.”
Meade frequently used the opportunity to do an energy audit on the facility. Businesses need the audit to apply for the Rural Energy for America Program from the Department of Agriculture to fund energy efficiency upgrades.
REAP grants provide up to 25 percent of total eligible project costs for improvements such as HVAC, lighting, refrigeration units and insulation. “Those are the most popular improvements for grocery and convenience stores in particular,” observed Meade. “Those upgrades can reduce a store’s energy charges by as much as 60 or 70 percent. The savings pay for the improvements, and in six or seven years the business sees that money go back into the bottom line.”
Bigger they are, more they save Large—as in multi-national—companies have even more to gain from efficiency upgrades. Becton Dickinson Inc., in Meade’s hometown of Holdrege, Nebraska, manufactures medical supplies such as insulin syringes to send all over the world. “Because they use robotics, the voltage and current levels have to be almost perfect,” said Meade. “Otherwise, they lose product.”
All products must be sterilized in an underground chamber, too, so a reliable, stable power supply is critical to operations. These circumstances make Becton Dickinson a good candidate for battery storage. NPPD is working with the company to evaluate the benefits and savings of installing a storage system.
Another, better known, large C&I customer is Frito-Lay in the town of Cozad. The snack food maker has a significant presence throughout the state due to excellent rail service and, of course, proximity to crops used as ingredients.
Meade recalled performing a detailed infrared inspection of an electrical room at the plant a few years ago, using one of WAPA’s IR cameras. “We identified more than 85 potential outages that could have caused downtime,” he noted. “That proactive inspection saved them a huge amount of lost work and product. It also convinced them to get their own camera and perform regular inspections.”
Saving electricity saves jobs Sometimes, good C&I customer service can help to retain jobs when a business changes hands. When Bass Pro Shop took over Cabela’s sporting goods stores in Nebraska, the city of Sidney expected to lose hundreds of jobs. However, Bass Pro Shop learned that Cabela’s had a much more sophisticated data collection program, so the company decided to relocate its data operations to the Cabela’s campus.
That plan hit a snag when Bass Pro Shop found low voltage in the selected building, and an engineering report failed to determine the cause. At the request of the Sidney public services director, Meade installed a power analyzer—again from WAPA—on the city’s transformer. The data the analyzer collects will help to correct the problem, and Bass Pro Shop may be able to offset some of Cabela’s layoffs with jobs in the data center.
Tools to build cooperation Diagnostic tools, borrowed from WAPA, were critical in helping NMPP utilities to resolve electricity issues for both Frito-Lays and Bass Pro Shop. “IR cameras and power analyzers are great for dealing with key accounts,” Meade pointed out. “You are able to walk in and do something proactive for your customers instead of waiting to react to their problems.”
What is even better, he added, is when a member utility or customer decides to buy the tool themselves. Prices for diagnostic technologies keep coming down, and once a customer sees how much they can save doing preventative maintenance, the case is made.
But first, you have to show them, said Meade. “We have a slogan at NMPP Energy, ‘Working together works,’ and it’s true,” he declared. “It works when we get our member utilities to work with their customers and it works when NMPP works with WAPA.”
Richard Eymann is stepping into Bob Meade’s shoes at the end of March to continue NMPP Energy’s tradition of outstanding member services. With 40 years of electrical and maintenance experience, Eymann will be providing the same high level of support and training NMPP Energy communities have come to expect. Members can contact Eymann at 402-474-4759.
Platte River Power Authority recently got the results of a study it commissioned on the relative costs of transitioning to net-zero carbon generation by 2030. The study found that the northern Colorado generation and transmission utility can deliver a net-zero carbon generation portfolio for a cost premium of only 8 percent over the lifetime of the planning horizon (2018–2050).
A story in RMI Outlet, the Rocky Mountain Institute blog, noted that researchers used relatively conservative assumptions for solar and wind costs, and did not consider demand-side efforts in their calculations. This is significant not only because the estimated difference in cost is so small, but also because it indicates the actual cost premium may be even lower than 8 percent.
History of commitment PRPA and its municipal utility owners—Estes Park, Fort Collins, Longmont and Loveland—have a long-standing commitment to clean energy and efficiency. The G&T contracts for approximately 198 megawatts of carbon-free resources from wind, hydropower and solar assets. In fall 2016, PRPA diversified its power production portfolio further by adding 30 MW of solar power at Rawhide Flats Solar.
Calculating total cost Technology company Siemens performed the study that is unique in showing a low cost for net-zero generation that incorporates transmission costs and balancing charges as well as fuel costs. RMI calls it proof that a net-zero path can achieve cost parity against coal even in coal country and that renewables can compete anywhere.
WAPA celebrates PRPA and its members for their initiative and for showing that public power utilities can lead the way to a low-carbon future.
The report draws on data from more than 1,000 Americans to yield 534 respondents with household incomes below $50,000. Members of the Low Income Energy Issues Forum, a diverse working group seeking innovations to make utility service more affordable, collaborated on the survey.
Even as the economy continues to grow stronger, many Americans still struggle to pay their utility bills. The number of low-income respondents who reported trouble paying their utility bills in 2017 increased 7 percent over the previous year. Also, 20 percent of respondents had applied for energy assistance.
Contributing to the general anxiety of trying to provide for their families, low-income customers experience uncertainty about the utility bill itself, the complexity of applying for energy assistance and confusion about how to control costs. Utilities seeking to improve service to this demographic might offer a range of voluntary options that customers could choose according to their lifestyle.
Consumers who are intensely focused on their daily budgets need more convenient choices. Simplifying tariffs, facilitating energy assistance through social service agencies and offering individualized “energy counseling” are among the services that could provide greater control to customers with limited financial means.
The findings also indicated that the low-income segment is far more engaged with their energy consumption than utilities believed. A majority of survey respondents have taken action on their own to save money on electric or heating bills. Consumers are eager for more information to save even more.
Perhaps the challenge is not consumer engagement but the entire construct of utility programs and policies to assist these customers. For example, a key metric used by advocates is “energy burden,” referring to the percentage of a household’s income required to pay utility bills. Yet, when asked, low-income customers understood “burden” somewhat differently; they focus more on eliminating uncertainty and getting help when they need it (situational awareness). This is an important distinction.
The 2017 survey points to the long struggle to improve service to low-income customers, beginning with utility program developers being willing to listen more carefully to customers themselves. We must be prepared to let go of the assumptions that undergird programs and assistance measures intended to help these customers, and develop offerings that more closely match their needs.
You can download EcoPinion Consumer Survey Report No. 31 and other reports and articles from EcoPinion Publications. Registration and login is required. You can also sign up to receive email updates.
This is your opportunity to share your experiences collaborating with other utilities and other departments within your own utility to achieve greater impacts in residential, commercial and industrial end-use applications through a customer-oriented approach.
The event will explore case study best practices and lessons learned about customer-facing programs related to energy (gas and water) efficiency, strategy, issues and integration with renewable energy, demand response and more.
Special consideration will be given to presentations that highlight:
Consumer engagement and unifying messages
Gas, electric and/or water utility programs cooperating across departments or service territories to improve the customer experience
New energy-efficiency and demand management technology, storage and electric vehicles
Energy-efficiency and renewables programs collaborating with local and regional efforts on carbon action or greenhouse gas goals
Strategic on-site energy and distribution system management
The conference provides general and breakout session interaction as well as networking opportunities. Proposed presentation formats may include:
General or breakout sessions up to 20 minutes long with Q&A
Snapshot panel talks of up to five minutes
Poster discussions during the Wednesday evening reception
Friday morning workshops or round table discussions two to four hours in length
The Rocky Mountain Utility Exchange is an intimate forum for networking and professional development that takes place at Aspen Meadows Resort in Aspen, Colorado. Around 150 utility and government organization staff and trade allies attend, giving everyone the chance to learn about utility customer programs and services, and products to support them. This year’s event is scheduled for Sept. 19-21.
For professionals who have not previously attended the RMUE, a limited number of scholarships are available. See the FAQ sheet for details and to download an application.
Various renewable resources and natural gas-fueled generation from Lodi Energy Center in Lodi, California, have replaced the 51 megawatts (MW) of coal-powered electricity SVP sourced from San Juan Generating Station in New Mexico. The move reduces the carbon intensity of Santa Clara’s power supply by about 50 percent.
Thanks to customers The accomplishment began with both residential and business customers pushing the utility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. SVP serves many forward-thinking corporations along with a highly educated and unusually engaged group of residents. “We launched the Santa Clara Green Power Program to meet customers’ demands for 100-percent renewable power as the state established its renewable energy goals,” stated SVP Customer Services Manager Larry Owens.
Santa Clara Green Power launched in 2004, two years after California adopted a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) and two years before the first expansion of the RPS. The city continued to monitor its emissions, evaluate resources and update its goals to stay ahead of state mandates, but mostly to meet and exceed customer expectations.
Keeping up with the expectations of business customers in the center of the technology industry has challenged SVP to keep reaching higher, too. SVP Public Benefits Manager Mary Medeiros McEnroe noted, “Many of our large key customers have corporate sustainability initiatives and have been the drivers behind some of our programs.”
Businesses subscribing to Santa Clara Green include Intel—a 62-wind turbine partner—Santa Clara University, the Great American Theme Park and the city itself. A number of large commercial customers have installed solar arrays on their facilities ranging from 750 kilowatts to 1 MW per site.
Speed bumps, fast lanes on road to success There are pros and cons to being a leader in clean power initiatives and SVP has seen both sides as it moved toward its goal.
It was clear to the utility partners that a cleaner power supply was the road to the future. Around 2009, as the state set higher renewable energy goals and added new regulations, other California municipal utilities followed M-S-R toward the coal off-ramp. In some ways, Owen observed, the group effort gave utilities more leverage to negotiate their exit from coal power providers. On the other hand, “The more participants, the more complexity,” he said. “And there was a lot more competition for renewable energy. Ultimately, though, the cooperation among utilities was impressive.”
SVP knew that leaving their coal provider and finding cleaner power sources to replace the 51 MW was going to be difficult. But it paid off in the end when San Juan Generating Station permanently closed down half of its units. “We expected that they would just find another buyer for that power, so SVP going coal-free turned out to have a much wider impact by actually decommissioning two of the four units,” said Owens. “That was a nice surprise.”
Future is affordable The greatest fear that grips utilities when they contemplate a future without coal—that it will force them to raise rates—has not materialized for SVP customers.
Utilities are always retiring and acquiring purchase power contracts over time, Owens pointed out, and that will affect pricing. Shifting to the Lodi Energy Center and ramping up green power caused some upward pressures on price for SVP. In the long term, however, “The forward price curves for natural gas and renewables look better than coal,” he stated.
Switching to those resources is also an investment in meeting federal mandates to reduce carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions, he added.
Given the many factors that shape energy costs, SVP still boasts some of the lowest electricity rates in California. The utility recently announced that there will be no rate increase for 2018, and rates are expected to remain flat for the next couple of years.
Efficiency still matters When rates inevitably change, SVP’s strong customer relationships and menu of long-established efficiency programs will help to ease acceptance.
SVP residential customers can get rebates for efficiency measures including attic insulation, ceiling fans, electric clothes dryers, electric heat pump water heaters and pool pumps. In addition to Santa Clara Green Power, the Neighborhood Solar Program allows customers to sponsor solar installations on public buildings. SVP also provides homeowners with energy audits and loans diagnostic tools to do-it-yourselfers.
While SVP counts some of the world’s most progressive companies among its large key customers, Medeiros McEnroe said that the small commercial customers are surprisingly engaged too. “Quite a few of our small businesses support Santa Clara Green Power, from dentists to auto shops, and many have installed solar arrays on their buildings,” she said. “Sustainability is a community value in Santa Clara.”
Keeping costs down is, nevertheless, still a top concern for small businesses, so SVP offers rebates for specific systems like lighting, as well as custom measures. The utility has also partnered with the Food Service Technology Center for a program to teach food service employees to manage energy and water costs.
SVP also provides energy benchmarking to help companies understand their energy and water use and set goals for improvement. “We have been able to help many customers through free snapshot audits and by educating them about the value of purchasing energy-efficient equipment,” Medeiros McEnroe said.
A utility customer program manager’s work is never done, and sustainability will always be a moving target. Achieving the coal-free goal is impressive but there are still peaks to manage and costs to control. WAPA has no doubt that with the support of its committed customers, SVP will meet each new challenge, exceed expectations and continue to impress.