Energy Services Bulletin unveils new format for New Year

Change your bookmarks! Starting in January 2014, we are unleashing the power of the Internet to bring our customers more timely—and more useful—news, as Energy Services Bulletin moves to a regularly updated blog format.

The new format combines the best features of the monthly newsletter and Breaking News, the blog Energy Services introduced four years ago. Energy Services Bulletin will continue to explore best practices for energy efficiency and renewable energy development. We will still highlight the programs and policies Western customers use to successfully plan and manage their energy resources.

Like Breaking News, however, the blog will have a continuous publishing schedule. Readers will now get news about training resources, industry events and funding opportunities when they can use it, not when it fits into a monthly window. The world of utility resource management is changing every day, and our goal is to keep our customers current with the latest developments.

Some things change
The monthly email that used to announce new stories will now recap highlights of the previous month. But readers can subscribe to the RSS feed and check in to see what’s new throughout the month.

We believe readers will want to follow the blog because there will be more short, timely news items, along with the feature stories you expect from Energy Services Bulletin. These stories are a central reason for the change in format. Converting the newsletter to an electronic publication made it more accessible and sustainable. But sticking to the pre-Web, print-style schedule missed out on the most important feature of the digital age: instant publishing. We are excited about being able to provide our customers with utility industry news while it is still new.

Interactivity is another benefit of the blog format. Readers can now chime in with their own experiences, ideas and opinions. Those who have read Breaking News or other energy blogs will be familiar with this feature, but the opportunity to respond to feature stories is a first for our newsletter. All respectful, on-topic comments will be posted unedited. Check the comment policy to learn more about the guidelines.

Some stay the same
Energy Services Bulletin subscribers will continue to receive an announcement the first of each month as they always have. (If you don’t already receive the monthly email, subscribe now.)

The stories will still include links to businesses and individuals who are happy to answer your questions in more detail. The link to the Energy Events calendar is still on the front page, and, readers who prefer a hard copy will still be able to download previous issues.

Like the monthly announcement, the printable copies will highlight the prior month’s stories. Of course, if you want to turn a story about your utility into a bill stuffer or handout for member meetings, Energy Services is happy to set up a customized PDF for our customers. As always. 

Ever evolving
Finally, we will be taking advantage of another great feature of Internet publishing—interactivity. Not only are we eager to get your input on specific stories, we want to know what type of stories you find most valuable. We want to know if you are having a problem finding resources or contacts. We want your ideas, not only about the content you want to see in Energy Services Bulletin, but about the services we offer.

Actually, that part hasn’t changed much at all. The mission of Energy Services is to give Western customers the tools they need to meet their energy planning and management goals. The best tools are developed through dialogue. Blogging is just one more way for Western and its customers to communicate.

So join in the conversation by visiting the new Energy Services Bulletin regularly to comment, debate and share your stories. You won’t just be learning the latest industry news—you’ll be shaping it. Keep in touch.

Western Administrator keynotes Rocky Mountain Utility Efficiency Exchange

[Editor’s note: This story first ran in the September 2013 Energy Services Bulletin.]

Western customers who attend the seventh annual Rocky Mountain Utility Efficiency Exchange (RMUEE), in Aspen, Colo., Oct. 9-11 will have the opportunity to meet Mark Gabriel, Western’s new administrator, and hear his views on the challenges facing utilities today.

The popular conference opens Oct. 9 with keynote speaker Jeff Ackermann, director of the Colorado Energy Office (CEO). Gabriel, who was selected to head up Western in April 2013, will deliver the midpoint keynote address on Oct. 10. “We are fortunate to have two keynote speakers with diverse experience and expertise in the electric power industry,” acknowledged Stephen Casey, Member Services manager at co-host Holy Cross Energy.

Aspen Utilities Energy Efficiency manager Jeff Rice  agreed. “The RMUEE always has a good program, but I’m particularly excited about this year’s agenda,” he said. City of Aspen Utilities is once again sharing hosting duties with Holy Cross Energy.

Newcomer, returning keynotes

This is Gabriel’s first time at the RMUEE, but he brings with him more than two decades of leadership in the electric utility industry that include utility management, consulting ,  speaking, and writing on the industry.

Gabriel’s award-winning 2009 book, Visions for a Sustainable Energy Future, offered specific steps that a progressive U.S. power industry could take to meet the nation’s electricity needs in an environmentally responsible way. “Customer programs for energy efficiency and conservation are going to play an important role in that effort,” he said. “Regional conferences like this give program managers who have a lot in common the opportunity to share their experiences so they can build on their successes and avoid repeating mistakes.”

Attendees have plenty to share after seven years, noted Jeff Ackermann, a veteran of the RMUEE as well as the Colorado energy industry. “We’ve done a good job of establishing strong utility and local government programs in the state and putting innovative financial tools in place,” he said. “Colorado is now poised to move to the next level of energy efficiency in the built environment.”

Ackermann’s first-hand knowledge of those programs and tools comes from his role as director at the CEO, and as head of research with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). Prior to his time with the CPUC, Ackermann was manager of the state’s low-income demand-side management (DSM) programs, as part of the staff of the (then) Governor’s Energy Office. He has provided leadership in this area twice in his career, from 2004-2007 and 1984-1995 (in the Department of Local Affairs), playing an integral role in negotiating a state-utility partnership with Public Service Company of Colorado (PSCo). Those efforts yielded the Energy $aving Partners Program, which has been serving low-income households since 1993.

“The time has come,” Ackerman stated, “to expand such partnerships and assess the gaps in our programs. We need to better focus our resources to bring energy efficiency to areas and customer classes that are currently underserved,” he said. “That’s the message I’m bringing to the Utility Exchange this year.”

A little change-up

Attendees will have more time for networking and renewing contacts because the RMUEE starts in the morning this year, instead of the afternoon as it has in the past. Roundtable discussions will begin at 8:30 a.m. on topics the agenda committee will determine in advance from registrants’ surveys.

Following lunch and Ackerman’s presentation, Wednesday’s general session will focus on a subject that never ceases to challenge program managers: customer engagement. Speakers from local organizations like Fort Collins Utilities, City and County of Denver and Eagle County will share the microphone with representatives from the Shelton Group and National Rural Electric Cooperative Association

Thursday opens with dual session tracks in the morning, but attendees come together in the afternoon for another general session, this time on program integration. We’ll explore different aspects of program management, including demographic analysis, measurement and evaluation, finance strategies and product vendor relationships. The afternoon will wrap up with a presentation on communitywide initiatives in Northern Colorado aimed at achieving widespread deployment of plug-in electric vehicles (EVs).

Attendees will get to do more than talk about EVs on Friday morning. The planned roundtable discussion on setting up an EV integration program at your utility includes the opportunity to test drive one. Western Energy Services Manager Ron Horstman is very enthusiastic about this session. “Electric vehicle technology has huge implications for the utility industry,” he declared. “Our customers need all the information they can get about EVs to figure out how to integrate this new load.”

Efficiency finance strategies, marketing efficiency programs and the ever-popular (and perplexing) contractor workforce development are among other proposed topics for the informal sessions.

For the first time this year, attendees can also arrange to visit Aspen Utilities and other local energy program offices and facilities. Don’t miss this chance to meet the people who make the energy savings happen and see the nuts and bolts behind the success stories.

Back by popular demand

Of course, when something works as well as the RMUEE, you don’t want to mess with the formula too much. Along with the new twists, there will be plenty of familiar features.

On Thursday morning, choose your track—commercial or residential—to dig into the nuts and bolts of program management with a smaller group of like-minded professionals. The poster session is back too, and the lineup promises plenty of fodder for lively discussion.

A little incentive for newcomers has also proven successful in the past. Energy Services is once again offering $100 scholarships to first-time attendees from Western customer utilities. Contact Ron Horstman at 720-962-7419 for more information.

Attendees come to Aspen Meadows Resort expecting great talk over great food and they won’t be disappointed with the breaks, meals and receptions. Networking is, after all, a big part of why we come to the RMUEE, why we keep coming back and why the conference keeps attracting newcomers. “This is a great chance for me to meet several Western customers at once and to learn about their operations and concerns firsthand,” said Gabriel. “I’m really looking forward to the conference.

Western, Wheatland REA team up for science class demonstration

Cody Teel, on the roof of Chugwater High School, signals that he has successfully installed weather monitoring equipment borrowed from Western’s Equipment Loan Program. Science students will use the data from the weather station to study the effects of weather on energy use and agriculture. (Photo by Wheatland REA)

[Note: This story first appeared in the September 2012 Energy Services Bulletin.]

Wheatland Rural Electric Association You are leaving (REA) took advantage of Western’s Equipment Loan Program to help science classes at Wheatland You are leaving, Chugwater You are leaving and Glendo You are leaving high schools.

Educational displays are among the most requested items in the Equipment Loan Program. Utilities set them up at customer meetings, classrooms and community events to open up conversations with their ratepayers, explained Equipment Loan Manager Gary Hoffmann. “For example, the lighting display shows consumers how much energy they can save simply by replacing a conventional light with a compact fluorescent light,” he said.

The fuel cell demonstration is good for illustrating complex ideas about energy production and storage,” continued Hoffmann. “Utilities are more likely to borrow that display to take to a school.”

Tools to help community
That’s what Wheatland REA Member Services Manager Al Teel had in mind when he asked to borrow the program’s weather station and soil monitoring equipment last spring. “It’s a good way to help out the science teachers in our territory,” Teel observed.

Wheatland REA is a frequent borrower, and Teel said he is always on the lookout for equipment that can help members. “I’ll call Gary and ask him what’s new, what haven’t I tried yet. He was very enthusiastic about the weather stations,” recalled Teel.

There is a lot to get excited about. Some educational displays collect only one type of data, like anemometers with wind speed. The weather station measures wind speed, solar index, ultraviolet levels, precipitation and soil temperature and moisture content. “Instead of just evaluating renewables potential, the weather station gives a complete profile of the area’s weather,” said Hoffmann.

For residents in a largely agricultural economy, that information is relevant to their daily lives, Teel observed. “It’s more than a science project—students will be collecting data that has real value to the three communities,” he said.

Loads of useful data
The Wheatland High weather station went into the school’s science “ecology area,” an unused area students turned into an outdoor lab with fish ponds and gardens. From there, the equipment wirelessly transmitted data throughout the summer to the science classrooms at the south end of the building. Students will download the information when they return in the fall. “A tornado went through the area the day after we installed the weather station,” said Teel. “It will be interesting to see what it recorded.”

The schools have big plans for the data their students will be collecting. One teacher wants to start a workbook that will become a weather history for future classes to use as a reference. The solar and wind data might one day help the schools apply for grants for renewable energy systems, Teel suggested.

The students will also be working on interfacing the weather stations with the district administrative building’s public website. Eventually, anyone in the area who might need weather history—the highway department, farmers, teachers and students at other schools—will be able to access real-time data on local weather.

The value of the weather stations as a teaching tool has caught on with teachers at other schools in the Platte County School District. “Glendo School is the latest to set up a weather station,” said Teel. “The town is about the same distance north from Wheatland as Chugwater is south, so now we have weather data for a contiguous portion of our territory.”

Co-op, Western benefit too
There are lots of community-minded reasons for power providers to borrow educational displays from Western, but there are benefits for the utilities as well.

Wheatland REA will be able to use the real-time data to schedule maintenance crews during weather events. Teel admitted that students, teachers and administrators involved in the weather station project are more likely to be open to less “exciting,” but far more vital electric safety demonstrations.

In the long term, teaching future consumers about how weather affects agriculture and energy use prepares them to make sound decisions about both. “It’s always good for a co-op to work with well-informed members,” he added.

Just as utilities borrow Western’s equipment to build relationships with their communities, we use the loan program to bond with our customers. Hoffmann, who traveled up to Wyoming to assist with installing the weather stations, said, “Meeting with our customers and their members gives us the chance to learn more about their needs and their experiences with the equipment they borrow. That feedback helps us build our tool library and identify training needs.”

He added praise for the students, teachers and Wheatland REA employees who did so much preparation for the project. “The bottom line is Western is just a small part of a really awesome team.”

Western congratulates University of Utah’s green power leadership

The latest list of the Top 50 Green Power Partnership organizations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) includes Western customer, University of Utah (UU) at number 50. Recently featured in the Energy Services Bulletin, UU also ranks third in the Top Twenty Green Power Colleges and Universities.  

The quarterly list recognizes partner organizations voluntarily using clean, renewable electricity from resources such as solar, wind, and low-impact hydropower. UU joins such companies as Intel Corporation, Kohl’s Department Stores and Microsoft Corporation in using more than 15 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of green power annually. Combined, the Top 50 partners avoid carbon pollution equal to that created by the electricity use of more than 1.3 million American homes each year.

EPA’s Green Power Partnership works with more than 1,300 partner organizations, over half of which are small businesses and nonprofit organizations, to voluntarily use green power. Green power resources produce electricity with an environmental profile superior to conventional power technologies, and produce significantly fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Western applauds the University of Utah for its efforts to reduce carbon pollution and move toward a new era of clean energy.

On-bill financing moves to the mainstream

Editor’s note: This story is the first in a series on overcoming barriers to energy-efficiency improvements, and originally appeared in the February 2012 Energy Services Bulletin.

Of all the factors preventing consumers from upgrading the inefficient systems and equipment that run up their utility bills each month, financing may rank as Number 1. It’s certainly hard to argue with a lack of money—if you don’t have it, you don’t have it. Moreover, the people who could benefit most from energy-efficiency improvements often have the least available cash to pay for them. One solution that  many utilities around the country are exploring is on-bill financing.

How it works
This financing mechanism rolls the loan payment for the energy-efficiency measures into the customer’s monthly utility bill. Utilities may service the loan themselves or partner with state energy offices, financial institutions or other third-party providers. The sources of capital, program design, target market and implementation strategy vary widely, depending on the utility’s specific situation and goals.

The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) recently published a report listing many advantages to on-bill financing:

  • The loan is secured through an existing relationship with the utility, instead of a (potentially unfamiliar) financial institution.
  • Monthly utility bills decline, even though the loan payments are included.
  • The customer’s payment history can be used to establish creditworthiness.
  • Utility bills showing reduced energy use create a clear link for participants between their energy-efficiency investment and the resulting savings.
  • Rebates and incentives available through the utility can be bundled with the financing to improve the terms of the loan.
  • Capital investors see on-bill programs as a more secure investment since they are based on an established payment relationship.
  • Loans can be tied to a rental property’s meter, so the renter benefit from lower utility bills and greater comfort while occupying the unit, and landlords benefit from increased property values.

Of course, when a program has so many moving parts, it is difficult to pin down the precise elements that are most likely to ensure success. Utilities launching a first-time program will also have to deal with administrative challenges such as:

  • Identifying or setting aside capital to use for loan funds
  • Up-front costs if billing systems need to be modified
  • Diverse utility and regulatory structures
  • Specific needs of different communities
  • Differing state and regional legal regulatory landscapes

What’s in it for utilities
In spite of the challenges and drawbacks, the number of utilities exploring on-bill financing programs is growing. Just as no two programs are alike, the reasons utilities offer them are just as diverse.

Case studies from the ACEEE report show an early on-bill program in Wisconsin saving 1.8 GWh and 93,000 therms over the life of the investments. According to KW Savings, a South Carolina nonprofit, its significant investment in an on-bill pilot offset the cost of building additional generation to meet current demand. Clean Energy Works Oregon uses on-bill repayment not only to reduce energy waste, but also to create green jobs and make efficient technologies more affordable.

As far back as 1997, Delta Montrose Electric Association (DMEA) was using on-bill financing to move its customers from expensive propane heat to geoexchange heat pumps. First with the Co-Z Energy Plan and now with its Geothermal Loop Tariff, DMEA has been building its electrical load while improving its customers’ comfort and saving them money.

Midwest Energy created How$mart in 2006 to convert energy audits into actual energy-efficiency improvements and to reach the underserved tenant market. To date, 650 customers have taken advantage of the program to fund measures in the program’s free energy audits. The utility estimates that measures implemented under How$mart have saved 2,000 kilowatt hours annually for electric projects and 260 therms per year for natural gas.

Want to know more?
Obviously there is much for a utility to investigate before undertaking an on-bill financing program: capital sources, administrative logistics, local regulations and legislation, technical support, consumer protection, and program design. But for all of the complexity and potential risk, on-bill financing offers utilities a way through one big barrier to energy efficiency improvements.

Western would like to help our customers explore this tool. If you would be interested in participating in a workshop or webinar on on-bill financing, contact Energy Services Manager Ron Horstman at 720-962-7419. Also, if your utility has explored or implemented a program, share your experiences with Energy Services Bulletin.