Customer engagement comes first, energy savings follow

Artwork by City of Colton Electric Utility

In a state that many consider to be synonymous with energy innovation, the City of Colton Electric Utility You are leaving WAPA.gov. 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.

Artwork by City of Colton Electric Utility

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. You are leaving WAPA.gov. 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.

Great River Energy helps to launch community storage initiative

While the introduction of the Tesla Power Wall was creating a stir in the electricity industry, Great River Energy You are leaving WAPA.gov. and several partners were quietly working to show utilities that they already have storage capacity that most haven’t begun to tap.

Artwork courtesy of Peak Load Management Association
Artwork courtesy of Peak Load Management Association

The Minnesota generation and transmission cooperative had teamed up with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association You are leaving WAPA.gov. (NRECA), Peak Load Management Association You are leaving WAPA.gov. (PLMA) and the Natural Resource Defense Council You are leaving WAPA.gov. (NRDC) to reveal the “hidden battery in the basement.”

“That is what the electric water heater is,” declared Great River Member Services Director Gary Connett.

‘Battery’ almost banned
With three decades of experience in load shaping with electric water heaters and more than 100,000 units currently under the utility’s control, Connett knows whereof he speaks. That extensive history with demand response is what led Great River to initiate the study on the storage potential of the common household appliance.

When the Department of Energy was revamping its efficiency standards, Congress was set to ban electric resistance water heaters with a storage capacity of more than 55 gallons. Great River worked tirelessly to overturn the ban, and the Energy Efficiency Improvement Act of 2015 You are leaving WAPA.gov. ultimately included an exception for large water heaters.

“But that experience made us realize that we had work to do to make utilities understand how important this appliance is to their load management strategies,” recalled Connett. “It is even more so, now that we are being asked to integrate more variable resources into the power mix.”

Showing how it’s done
The long fight to save large water heaters also attracted the attention of the NRDC, an unlikely ally, Connett acknowledges. However, the utility and the environmentalists found common ground in the innovative use of water heaters to “store” renewable energy. The NRDC joined Great River, NRECA and PLMA to commission a study by the Brattle Group You are leaving WAPA.gov. economic consultants.

The six-month study evaluated several strategies familiar to Great River, using two types of water heaters—electric resistance and heat pump units—both of which the utility has on control programs. The electric thermal storage strategy involves heating water at night when electricity is cheaper. “And becoming greener over time,” added Connett. “As Minnesota moves closer to its 2025 goal of 25 percent renewables the percentage of green energy in the night time hours only increases.”

Peak shaving is another strategy, which curtails load during times of high demand on a limited number of days per year, usually in four- to eight-hour cycles. Great River has about 45,000 water heaters on its peak shaving program and 66,000 on the thermal storage program. “That’s 20 percent of all the water heaters on our system. How many utilities can say that?” Connett asked.

The study also looked at fast response, a way to provide balancing services in the form of quick load increases and decreases. “This strategy will be tremendously useful as utilities bring more variable generation onto their systems,” said Connett.

Proven right
The Hidden Battery: Opportunities in Electric Water Heating, You are leaving WAPA.gov. (pdf) the report resulting from the study, reinforced what Great River had already learned from years of water heater control. Depending on market conditions, the Brattle research shows that storage-enabled water heating could save the consumer as much as $200 annually. Based on that figure, payback for the appliance, associated control equipment and installation is five years.

The environmental benefits are significant too, as policy—and consumers—increasingly focus on clean energy and energy efficiency. Controlling water heaters not only saves homeowners money, but it reduces carbon dioxide emissions with the right power mix. As Connett noted, being able to shift electricity use to lower-cost generation in off-peak hours can increase the use of renewable resources like wind.

These findings were not so much a revelation as confirmation for Connett. “That validation was pretty exciting,” he admitted. “And now that storage is becoming more important to integrate variable generation, we will continue to move forward with our proven programs.”

Initiative to spread word
Shortly after the release of the report this January, the partnership behind it launched the National Community Storage Initiative to focus attention on opportunities to develop national, regional and local markets for electric storage technologies. American Public Power Association You are leaving WAPA.gov. and Edison Electric Institute You are leaving WAPA.gov. have added their endorsement to the initiative, too.

Similar to community solar projects, such programs would aggregate controlled residential appliances to build local energy-storage capability. In addition to giving utilities better control of their loads, these fleets could also potentially provide ancillary services. Connett noted that the new generation of “grid interactive water heaters” can be controlled over very short time intervals with nearly instantaneous response. “The market is driving manufacturers to develop smarter water heaters,” he said. “Utilities want more dynamic control, and manufactures are enabling that with Wi-Fi and global technology.”

Water heaters are not the only existing appliances that offer energy storage potential. Great River Energy also controls about 167,000 air conditioners and has 15,000 ceramic-block, electric thermal storage heaters on its system that could contribute storage capacity. “But the beauty of the water heater is that it is a year-round load,” Connett observed.

More smart appliances are in the pipeline, such as electric vehicles and the Power Wall. “There are plenty of opportunities coming up, but we don’t need to wait for new technology,” Connett said. “The water heater is here now, and this type of program is made for co-ops—it is collaborative, economical and innovative. It helps everyone on the system.”

Find out how your utility can get involved in the National Community Storage Initiative. And don’t forget to share your program with Energy Services Bulletin.