Agenda now online for 7th Rocky Mountain Utility Efficiency Exchange

October 9-11, 2013
Aspen Meadows, Aspen, Colorado

Mark Gabriel, top, and Jeff Ackerman will share their views on the utility industry at the 7th annual Rocky Mountain Utility Efficiency Exchange.

Mark Gabriel, top, and Jeff Ackerman will share their views on the utility industry at the 7th annual Rocky Mountain Utility Efficiency Exchange.

Western Area Power Administration Administrator Mark Gabriel and Colorado Energy Office Director Jeff Ackermann will keynote the 7th Annual Rocky Mountain Utility Efficiency Exchange Redirecting to a non-government site. More than 80 presenters are expected to join them for this year’s event. The general, breakout and poster sessions will explore case study best practices and lessons learned from those who develop, implement and evaluate utility customer programs dealing with energy and water efficiency, renewable energy, demand response and key account customer management.

The Rocky Mountain Exchange is a networking and professional development forum for about 100 utility and government organization professionals as well as trade allies who provide products and services to support utility customer programs. The conference provides general and breakout sessions as well as networking opportunities.

Volunteers from regional utilities and sponsor organizations comprise the Agenda Advisory Committee, which sets the agenda format and reviews more than 50 responses to a call for presenters.

Western customers are strong supporters of this event. City of Aspen Utilities Redirecting to a non-government site and Holy Cross Energy Redirecting to a non-government site  are the event co-hosts and platinum-level sponsors. Green-level sponsors providing additional support include Platte River Power Authority Redirecting to a non-government site with Fort Collins Utilities Redirecting to a non-government site, Longmont Power & Communications Redirecting to a non-government site and Loveland Water and Power Redirecting to a non-government site; as well as Building Performance Institute; Colorado Energy Office; Nexant and Xcel Energy. Sponsorships are still available, and Early-bird registration rates apply through Sept. 9.

FortZED: Net Zero Energy in Action

A lot of nothing is going on in a Fort Collins, Colo., community these days. That is, nothing in the sense of the net energy the community uses.

The project is called FortZED (Zero Energy District) a community-driven initiative introduced in 2007 and designed to create one of the world’s largest net-zero energy districts in an existing community. The net-zero energy concept means generating or purchasing as much renewable energy as is used on an annual basis.

The FortZED district encompasses approximately four square miles that include downtown Fort Collins and nearby Colorado State University. It includes almost 6,000 residential and commercial customers (representing about 10 to 15 percent of Fort Collins Utilities’ Redirecting to a non-government site distribution system), eight distribution feeders, approximately 80 MW demand and more than 200,000 MWh/year usage. In a study with the Department of Energy, the utility was able to demonstrate peak reduction of over 20 percent on a circuit in the FortZED area during the demonstration period. Read moreRedirecting to a non-government site Source: Public Power Daily, 11/12/12

Finding, cultivating qualified retrofit contractors getting easier

Editor’s note: This is the second story in a series on overcoming barriers to customers implementing energy-efficiency improvements.

The key to successful energy-efficiency upgrades—and, therefore, to happy customers—is proper equipment selection, installation and user orientation, if needed. All of which require a qualified contractor who is committed to saving customers energy. While finding enough such vendors to support an energy-efficiency program continues to be a challenge, utilities now have more resources to help them cultivate trade allies.

As with project financing [link to story re-posted on Breaking News], the strategy a utility uses to develop a contractor pool depends on specific factors—the size and population of the service territory, local regulations, the measures a utility chooses to promote. No one size fits all (yes, that phrase again), but the number of utility program models is growing, along with educational programs to train the next generation of contractors.

Utility examples

Many utility programs require customers to hire contractors from a list of preferred vendors, though the qualifications for being included on the list vary greatly. Contractors doing work for Midwest Energy’s How$mart program must simply sign an agreement to install the utility-prescribed measures according to local building code. Fort Collins Utilities’ Home Efficiency Program requires contractors to attend orientation and specialized training, maintain Better Business Bureau accreditation and meet certain insurance requirements. Utilities generally contract with a third-party business or nonprofit organization to provide training.

Where there is a large and diverse labor pool, utilities may allow customers to hire their own contractors to install prescribed measures, but follow up with an inspection by a certified provider. That’s how Platte River Power Authority on Colorado’s Front Range operates its Building Tune-up program for commercial buildings. An approved retrocommissioning service provider identifies ways to improve a building’s efficiency and oversees the projects implemented by contractors the customer chooses.

Platte River takes this approach because retrocommissioning is a specific skill, but post-installation inspections also provide quality assurance—an important step in successful energy-efficiency projects. A knowledgeable utility employee or another third-party energy services professional may perform the inspection. 

Growing the skills

Even in a metropolitan area, however, energy services experts and contractors experienced in energy-efficiency measures don’t grow on trees. That is slowly changing, thanks to programs emerging around the country to train and certify contractors in energy-efficient building practices.

Volunteers participating in the Community Energy Exchange mentoring event at Easter Seals Rocky Mountain Village in Empire, Colo., prepare to do a blower door test on a camp cabin. The event taught basic energy auditing and weatherization skills while improving the efficiency and safety of camp buildings. (Photo by Community Energy Exchange)

Nonprofit organizations like Affordable Comfort Inc. (ACI) and Electric & Gas Industries Association (EGIA) offer a full menu of webinars and workshops highlighting best practices in the home performance industry. They work with the Building Performance Institute (BPI), the nation’s standards setting and credentialing organization for energy efficiency retrofit work, to raise the bar in home performance contracting.
 
Regional, state and local groups often team up with these national organizations to put on training and networking events in their own territories. Partnering offers local businesses, utilities and educators a way to increase their reach and resources while addressing the issues specific to their own situation.

Community colleges, with their focus on job readiness, are finding a niche with “green building” programs. Given California’s leadership in energy efficiency, it is not surprising that Los Angeles Community College boasts a cutting-edge sustainable building program. Red Rocks Community College in Lakewood, Colo., is building a green collar workforce with degree and certificate programs across a range of sustainability disciplines. Even in Utah, where energy prices are relatively low, Salt Lake City Community College’s Green Academy offers a lengthy list of certificates in renewable energy and energy-efficiency technologies.

On the private side, Everblue Training Institute, a nationwide continuing education institute, partners with BPI, Energy Star, the U.S. Green Building Council and several universities to advance green building skills. Colorado-based Lightly Treading targets both consumers and contractors, offering energy services to the former and training and exam proctoring for BPI certification  to the latter. This two-pronged approach is one way to make sure that you have qualified contractors to meet your customers’ needs.

Local nonprofit organizations are another avenue for developing the building performance workforce. Sustainable Ideas has partnered with many of the industry associations, schools and businesses noted above to design mentoring and training programs, and do some good in the community in the process. Through its Community Energy Exchange, auditors and contractors have sharpened their skills on projects that improve safety and energy efficiency in low-income housing and nonprofit facilities.

But first, demand

Of course, contractors won’t sign up for training unless they see a consumer demand for energy efficiency. That requires nothing short of market transformation, a seemingly glacial process. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act moved the ball forward by funding state and local programs that raised consumer awareness about energy-efficiency measures, and created a demand for contractors to install them.

Energy Upgrade California is one of those stimulus-funded programs. Local governments, municipalities and utilities created an umbrella initiative to help homeowners make energy-saving improvements, and to give local contractors the opportunity to learn new skills. All contractors participating in Energy Upgrade must complete mandatory orientation session workshops and hold a Whole-House Home Energy Rating System Certification. Over the year that the program has been in operation, 507 contractors have fulfilled the requirements to become Energy Upgrade vendors.

The Home Energy Makeover Contest is a good tool for raising both consumer and contractor awareness by showing how energy retrofits create a positive cash flow. Winning homes are selected for their potential to show how efficiency upgrades can reduce energy consumption. Delta-Montrose Electric Association in Colorado pioneered the promotion, and BPI now sponsors contests with utilities around the country. The contests have helped to increase awareness of home performance assessment and retrofit services, which in turn contributes to more people earning BPI certification—currently at about 22,000 individuals.

Before the contest takes place, BPI recommends that sponsors conduct contractor outreach and training. Contractor networking events like the Rocky Mountain Contractor Exchange might be held as a precursor to a makeover contest, or presented as an annual regional event to build interest and momentum.

No standard certification

The last piece of the puzzle is developing nationally recognized professional certifications, so customers can make informed decisions when hiring contractors—a challenge that won’t disappear any time soon.

More than 100 organizations nationwide are working with the home performance industry to establish guidelines for quality work, effective training and professional certifications. Unfortunately, like building codes, every jurisdiction has its own unique needs and its own ideas about what is important. Expect this challenge to be with the industry for some time to come.

That being said, utilities that have, or want to launch, a retrofit program should get to know what kind of skills exist in the local contractor pool and start building a network. The resources in this story only scratch the surface so there is no need to wait to reap the benefits energy-efficiency upgrades offer customers, power providers, the economy and the environment. 

Comparing neighbors’ electricity use drives savings, awareness

Using energy consumption reports and friendly neighborhood competition to motivate customers to save energy was the topic of another Public Power Magazine story in October.

Last year, City Water Light and Power (CWLP) in Springfield, Ill., conducted a pilot program in which 400 randomly-selected households received messages comparing their average energy use to that of their neighbors. Another group of 400 households received messages comparing their average energy use to that of residents citywide. The performance reports also included a summary of total household electric costs and energy use during previous months as compared to others nearby, along with energy conservation tips.

The amount of energy the experimental groups consumed compared to a control group was not significantly different, the utility found after seven months. However, study participants believed the energy performance reports pushed them to conserve.

CWLP’s study is similar the Behavior and Energy Savings program Fort Collins Utilities launched in 2010. That pilot proved successful enough that it is expanding to Loveland, Colo., and other cities in the region.

Read more about using social marketing to reduce consumers’ energy use.

Existing home efficiency –covering all the bases

John Phelan, PE, Energy Services Manager, Fort Collins Utilities

The city of Fort Collins municipal utility has a home audit rebate program designed for maximum customer contact.

Residents are eligible for a comprehensive menu of rebates for air sealing, insulation, HVAC systems and more. A standard audit, available for $60, is followed by a report that recommends measures. The recommendations are targeted to the contractors as well as the homeowner.

The retrofits are performed by a list of approved contractors. To get on that list, contractors must sign a legal contract with the city agreeing to meet standards based on best practices and attend specialty trainings. The utility trains the contractors, provides a metric list and holds quarterly meetings contractors must attend.

Contractors must bid and complete the job according to the city’s in order to receive the rebates. The intent is to level the bidding field. Everyone is bidding on doing the job a specific way.

Both the city and the contractor can request a third-party evaluation.  The best practices list provides legal cover for the city having a preferred contractor list.

The program has a stringent quality assurance component. The city does improvement verification on 100 percent of the jobs. Performance testing was done on 100 percent of the first 10 jobs. Fort Collins is making sure that the program really works. We have the building science—use it!

Along the way, the utility had to figure out such things as legal contacts, replication tools and more. This is not a Home Performance program. The auditors work directly for Fort Collins. The training and quality assurance are also under the city, but the contractors work for the customers.

To date, Fort Collins has done 348 audits, and has processed 45 rebate applications. Most are for multiple measures. Insulation has been a popular measure, even though people start out saying they want windows.

The contractor list has 30 participating contractors. The utility has conducted trainings for insulation, HVAC and window installation.