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.
Colorado-based Platte River Power Authority on Feb. 21 issued a request for proposals (RFP) for at least 20 megawatts of new solar energy capacity that could be added to its system. The RFP also calls for up to 5 megawatt-hours (MWh) of energy storage capacity.
In the RFP, Platte River said it would consider proposals for a long-term power purchase agreement for solar projects that could be built and operational between June 2019 and the end of 2021.
Platte River also expressed strong interest for technologies that could store up to 5 MWh of energy.
Proposals in response to the RFP will be due by 4 p.m. Mountain time on March 30.
Helping key accounts reduce energy or water consumption, shift load or install renewables can pay handsome dividends to utilities, both in terms of bottom line and goodwill. When a city has ambitious environmental and efficiency goals, as Fort Collins, Colorado, does, providing energy services to large commercial and industrial (C&I) customers can turn them into much needed allies.
Fort Collins adopted a Climate Action Plan in 2015, a roadmap for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption below 2005 levels by 2020. The city aims to reduce overall energy consumption by 20 percent from the 2005 baseline, achieve a 20-percent reduction in kBtu per square foot in city facilities and reduce peak demand by 15 percent.
Fort Collins Utilities serves 70,000 meters including 32 key accounts—the top 15 business customers in electricity and water revenues. Fast-growing accounts that are poised to move into the Top 15, customers with large service agreements and businesses that have a strong influence in the community are also considered key accounts. Those customers represent 40 percent of the utility’s annual electricity sales, 30 percent of its total revenue and a big opportunity for significant savings.
Mission in two parts The savings potential from key accounts is the reason Fort Collins Utilities has offered a business customer program in some form since the 1990s. In its current iteration, two representatives service 15 accounts each, ranging from breweries to manufacturing facilities to a world-class university. “The representatives are in contact with their customers on a nearly daily basis, especially some of the larger partners,” said Customer Accounts Manager Lucas Mouttet.
That might seem excessive at first glance, but there is more to customer service than promoting energy efficiency upgrades and cutting rebate checks. “Their job is to make sure our customers are aware of, and taking full advantage of, our energy efficiency and water programs,” Mouttet said. “But maximizing customer satisfaction is just as important.”
To that end, representatives may discuss contracts and agreements on capacity with a manufacturing facility, water conservation measures with a brewery or building design problems with real estate developers. The key accounts program also ensures that the customer’s voice is treated as integral to achieving the utility’s internal goals, Mouttet added.
Building owners and design teams in the utility’s territory can participate in the Integrated Design Assistance Programfor new construction and major renovation. Project teams set a Target Energy Usage Index early in the project using the Energy Star Target Finder and then design and build to that target.
The industry-specific program allows key account representatives to tailor an efficiency improvement plan that saves money and enhances performance for food service, grocery or office businesses. Food service rebates focus on cooking and ventilation equipment, grocery rebates focus on refrigeration equipment and office rebates focus on computer equipment and control systems.
Fort Collins and Xcel Energy are collaborating on an innovative new program to test the idea of “upstream” rebates for heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) systems. HVAC wholesalers receive a rebate to stock only high-efficiency systems, and pass that through to consumers so that they end up paying what they would have for the unit if they received the rebate directly.
Lighting upgrades continue to be a popular choice with business customers, large and small. “About 40 percent of our commercial account rebates are issued for lighting upgrades,” Mouttet acknowledged. “With the short payback period, those projects are easy to understand and justify.”
Really big savings But a 2014 project completed with Anheuser-Busch demonstrates that lighting can be more—a lot more—than just a quick upgrade. The brewer of Budweiser is one of Fort Collins’s largest accounts and an avid participant in its efficiency programs.
This particular project focused on reducing energy use in a 600,000-square foot warehouse. Conventional light bulbs were replaced with LED lamps—light-emitting diodes—and motion sensors were installed. “Now when a forklift rolls across the floor with a pallet, you can see the lights come on in front of it and turn off behind it,” said Mouttet.
The target savings for the project of $113,602 and 2.4 million kilowatt-hours annually will come in part from installing high-efficiency LEDs. The motion sensors deepen the savings by reducing the running time of the lights by 50 percent. The rebate check on the $900,000 project ran into thousands of dollars.
That is a lot of money for a utility to spend on reducing demand, but there are advantages, Mouttet pointed out, particularly for a municipal power provider. It supports the city’s Climate Action Plan, helps keep local businesses healthy and aids in capacity planning. “Efficiency is not a silver bullet,” he acknowledged. “We are having the same kind of conversations as other utilities today. But it continues to be one of the better capital investments.”
What it takes Utilities hoping to capture the benefits of large C&I efficiency upgrades—including customer satisfaction—must first look at how they approach business efficiency programs. The needs of an Anheuser-Busch differ from the brew pub on the corner, so the skills of a key account representative will be different from those of a business customer service representative.
Small-business representatives, like their residential counterparts, tend to focus more on on-site problem solving, Mouttet observed. “They work with their customers to get an electric bill under control or even go door-to-door during an outage,” he said. “The projects they implement are usually smaller and quickly completed, like installing some new windows, adding insulation or changing out inefficient light bulbs.”
Key account representatives, on the other hand, are often shepherding long-term projects over the course of many months. “Project management skills are critical,” Mouttet insisted. “Neither position requires a technology expert, but key account managers often have to go beyond knowing who to call. They have to be able to figure out how to get a big, complex job finished before the end of the year.”
Both positions call for strong people skills and a collaborative nature, however, because customer service is about facilitating conversations and solving problems, Mouttet stated. “They have to be good at networking, at connecting the right people quickly,” he said.
Likewise, a successful customer service program, whether for large or small customers, must connect the utility—the internal—and the community—the external. Build a strong bond, and both parties will prosper and reach their goals.
Western Area Power Administration Administrator Mark Gabriel and Colorado Energy Office Director Jeff Ackermann will keynote the 7th Annual Rocky Mountain Utility Efficiency Exchange. 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.
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.
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.
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.
One of the biggest energy-related problems for utility customers and contractors is HVAC. The goals of the Select HVAC program is to “stop the madness” of poor installation, and to develop a list of competent HVAC contractors within legal bounds.
When the utility receives a call from a customer with an HVAC complaint, it may be about a high bill or air quality, safety concerns or poor performance. An inspector visits the customer and often discovers alarming problems. Systems are poorly designed and haven’t been commissioned. The ductwork may be improperly designed or disconnected or the installer failed to test the system. Sometimes there is no filter.
There are operational problems, too. Homeowners haven’t been properly instructed in how to use the programmable thermostat, or they have not been told how to maintain or service the unit.
It’s time to demand contractors adhere to industry required standards. HVAC systems are complex, and contactors must understand many factors. To be a Select contractor, the contractor must hold all the necessary licenses, maintain proper insurance, comply with program code of ethics, hold any pertinent certifications required by Poudre Valley and Platte River, do proper commissioning and agree to third party inspections.
Initially, the utilities sent invitation to 101 contractors, but only 12 responded—about 10 percent of the contractors are “sane.” To play ball, they have to sign several agreements. Front Range Community College is conducting required training. The college has an established HVAC program.
The customers now have access to reliable contractors, and the contractors get referrals. The program is also promoted on the utilities’ websites, in bill stuffers, city newsletters and newspaper ads. The magazine Colorado Country Life carries ads for the program that the contractors couldn’t afford on their own.
The program is increasing professionalism among the participating contractors. Contractors are able to charge more for a better job, and customers trust the work. No one has dropped out of the program.