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 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 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.

Celebrate Earth Day with tips to reduce home energy use

Earth Day turns 45 tomorrow, a good time to reflect on what each of us can do to protect our health, economy and security. SmarterHouseYou are leaving a comprehensive, online guide to home energy savings from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient EconomyYou are leaving can empower consumers to reduce their carbon footprint, and support utility efforts to manage demand and meet environmental regulations.SmarterHouse

Here is a sampling of tips from SmarterHouse to help consumers save money and improve their comfort during the coming cooling season:

  • Upgrade your cooling system. If your central air conditioning is 10 to 15 years old, or you suspect it is just not performing up to par, you may want to service or replace the unit before it gets really hot. Consider calling in a qualified home performance contractor so you don’t end up selecting an inefficient model that will add to your expenses over the long term. The decision should depend on your climate, and whether you are replacing an existing unit or installing an entirely new system.
  • Use your air conditioning (AC) less and fans more.  You can take several steps to optimize the performance of your cooling system. Start by keeping the air filters clean so they don’t impede air flow and damage the unit, conditioning only when ventilation is inadequate and avoiding cooling unoccupied rooms. Also, using your AC in conjunction with ceiling or standing fans is a more efficient way to cool. Whenever you leave home, adjust your thermostat to a warmer temperature to save energy. Better yet, install a programmable thermostat to automatically adjust the temperature every day. You can save 3 to 5 percent on cooling costs for each degree that you raise the thermostat, and it works in the winter, too!
  • Drive green. You are leaving You don’t have to wait until you buy a more eco-friendly vehicle to reduce your environmental impact from driving. Little changes in the way you maintain and drive your car, like properly inflating your tires or carrying a lighter load when you travel, can make a big difference. Did you know that carrying around an extra 100 pounds reduces fuel economy by about 1 percent?
  • Change your lights. In the average American home, lighting is about 5 to 10 percent of total energy use, or $75 to $200 on the annual electricity bill. Reduce those numbers—and your cooling costs—by replacing traditional heat-generating incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents (CFLs) or light-emitting diodes (LEDs). Gain even more savings by installing light sensors and lamp timers on fixtures.

Read more tips.

SmarterHouse is the evolution of ACEEE’s Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings, and like that resource, it provides a roadmap for improving home performance and cutting energy waste. Utility program managers will find it useful for communicating the value of efficiency programs to customers and for increasing customer satisfaction with upgrade projects.

The environmental challenges the nation faces on Earth Day 2015 can seem daunting. The good news is that energy efficiency is a secret weapon that consumers can use to gain control of their energy use and comfort, and utilities can use to turn customers into partners in load control.

Source: American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, 4/22/15

Learn “cool moves” to reduce air conditioning peak

Those “lazy, hazy, crazy” days of summer are here, but Nat King Cole might have sung a different tune if he had to answer calls from utility customers demanding to know why their electric bills are so high. Incentives for efficient new cooling systems can chip away at your summer peak, but they only work when a customer is ready to replace an old system. What you really need is a low-cost strategy that works for every customer with air conditioning—you need to show them some cool moves.

(Artwork by the Ad Council)
(Artwork by the Ad Council)

Energy-efficiency expert Jill Cliburn offered her road-tested tips for reducing a utility’s cooling load in last month’s Lunchtime Webinar, presented by Clean Energy Ambassadors (CEA). What Are Your 4 Cool Moves?Redirecting to a non-government site laid out a campaign that significantly lowers electricity bills and improves comfort for customers at little (or no!) cost to the utility.

Social marketing sells
If you want to get customers to change their energy use habits, you have to make those changes personally meaningful to them—that is the lesson of social marketing. Instead of peppering people with bill stuffers listing common-sense energy-saving tips, put the tips in a timely and fun context. Give your customers a reason to get on board.

Social marketing has been around for a while, but if you need some help getting started, Cliburn suggests the book, SwitchRedirecting to a non-government site, as a resource for planning your campaign. “Social marketing is a process that works very well with the kind of behavior change demand-side management programs seek,” she said.

The book recommends seven steps for launching a campaign:

  • Define the change – This seems pretty obvious, but it is surprising (or not) how often programs just drift. You can’t hit a target if you don’t know what it looks like, so whether you have a community-wide sustainability goal or a target for peak demand reduction, define a specific outcome.
  • Form a team – That is not just utility staff, either. According to a study by Mckinsey & CompanyRedirecting to a non-government site consulting firm, simple behavior changes could potentially reduce energy demand in the U.S. by 16 to 20 percent. It takes teamwork to even approach results like that, so make sure to include community partners and customers on your team.
  • Look for bright spots – Identify some easy successes that make positive stories.
  • Script critical moves – Give your customers instructions—“cool moves”— to get similar results.
  • Shrink the change – Turn the change into something people can picture themselves doing in a short amount of time. Achieving small successes often motivates people to aim higher.
  • Get the “story” – The story is a fundamental part of the campaign because people want to hear how their actions can make a difference.
  • Use behavioral triggers – Facts and figures will only take your program so far. Tie offers or calls to action to events that are happening to your customers now.

The To-do list
Lists are a great way to organize our world, but long lists can take focus away from the items on the list. Many social scientists believe that people can keep only seven to 10 items on their mind at once, but Cliburn keeps her critical “cool moves” to a concise four:

  1. Lose the hot lights – Old-fashioned (pre-2007) incandescent lights are better at heating than lighting, and add to a building’s cooling load. Let your customers know that energy-efficient lighting is much cooler than standard lighting, and they have plenty of options. Suggest that customers change a few lights at the beginning of summer. If they notice a difference, they might change a few more.
  2. Seek shade – Shading done outside the home is more effective than interior cooling systems. A fully grown oak provides cooling equivalent to four air conditioners. While waiting for that tree to reach maturity, homeowners might consider planting fast-growing vines where they can block the sun. Creating a schedule for closing window shades is another cost-free way to keep the house cool. Remind customers who put reflective film on their windows to take it down in the winter.
  3. Set it right – Installing a programmable thermostat or one that is remote controllable can pay off all year around. Talk with your customers about what temperature is comfortable rather than picking an arbitrary set-point. Many stores and offices are over-cooled in the summer to the point where occupants need sweaters. A good rule of thumb is that 15 degrees cooler than the outdoors feels comfortable by comparison. If your customers are causing a 5 p.m. peak by cranking the air conditioning when they get home from work, suggest they set the thermostat to pre-cool the house before they get home. Remind them, too, that setting the thermostat lower does not cool the house any faster.
  4. Cool efficiently – The “cool moves” list is a good opportunity to discuss utility programs that promote high-efficiency cooling equipment. Whether it is an attic fan, a room unit or central air conditioning, there are energy-efficient options on the market. Educate customers about high-SEER (seasonal energy-efficiency ratio) and Energy Star-qualified systems and efficient alternatives like ceiling fans, swamp coolers and heat pumps.

A few more pointers
Your customers are on social media, so you need to join them if you haven’t already. Utilities can also partner with community organizations like newspapers, radio stations or municipal sites that have established media outlets already.

Make your program a part of your customers’ world. Ask people to share their own tips on your Facebook page, and post photos of their families putting their energy-saving strategies into action. Be a presence at community events, like farmers’ markets, outdoor movie nights and summer festivals.

Translate those energy savings into something tangible. One utility sent customers bill stuffers that proclaimed, “Save energy, save vacation,” or even just “save movie night.” Another utility set up a partnership program where customers could donate their savings to a veterans’ organization.

Limit your campaign by space and time. Pick a season, a message and a few objectives and stick to them. Bracket the campaign with roll-out and wrap-up events, and don’t forget to communicate with other staff members. They may have events on their schedules that tie in well with your campaign. Finally, celebrate your successes. Let customers know what they accomplished and let them know how much you appreciate their efforts.

Do it now
It may be too late to do a full-scale campaign for the summer of 2014, but you can start laying the groundwork for next year. Or you can plan a heating season campaign using the same social marketing strategy.

Whichever peak you are trying to control, feel free to steal the ideas in the archived webinar on the CEA website. Just be sure to share your success story with CEA and Energy Services afterward.

Get ready for cooling season with free webinar

May 20, 2014
12 p.m. CDT

Most of the country is still emerging from a brutal winter, but it is time for utilities and community energy programs to be planning for a sweltering summer. Learn how to help your residential and small business customers through peak cooling season with What Are Your 4 Cool Moves?Redirecting to a non-government site, the latest Lunchtime Webinar from Clean Energy AmbassadorsRedirecting to a non-government site.

Join Jill Cliburn, an energy strategy consultant, social marketing trainer and former utility program manager, to explore both technical research about low-cost cooling and market research about creating a strong customer response. The presentation focuses on four “cool moves” that save customers money and achieve utility goals to improve load factor and minimize peak demand. Find out why this strategy works and discover how you can customize it to highlight your own favorite cool moves. Cliburn grounds the discussion with her own top measures, including improvements for lighting and windows, fans and managed air conditioning.

The Clean Energy Ambassadors present the monthly free Lunchtime Webinar series to highlight issues that affect consumer-owned power providers serving rural areas and small towns in the Great Plains and the West. Each hour-long event focuses on cost-effective, easy-to-implement strategies to help utilities save money and build customer relationships. Discussions are lively and informal opportunities to share ideas with peers. If you have any questions, please contact Conor Tokaz at 406-969-1040.