In a state that many consider to be synonymous with energy innovation, the City of Colton Electric Utility 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.
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. 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.
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.
When Tom Clark Jr. sized up the grocery store space he’d leased in Snowmass Village, Colorado, last year, it was clear Clark’s Market needed a soup-to-nuts overhaul to take advantage of today’s advanced heating, refrigeration and lighting systems.
Gutting the 14,000-square-foot space and installing new super-efficient systems were going to cost more upfront, but, “Going with the standard was never really an option for us,” said Clark.
Clark’s Market turned to member-owned Holy Cross Energy and its We Care energy efficiency program for help, just as hundreds of other businesses and households served by the electric co-op have done over the past nine years.
A rebate of $15,000 from Holy Cross made the market’s investment in high-efficiency upgrades a lot easier to swallow. “These things aren’t cheap, but once you get them in place the benefits are numerous,” said Clark, who opened the market for business in July 2014. “When you are operating with energy-efficient equipment, it runs cooler, runs longer, there’s less maintenance and you can put out a superior product. It has been such a runaway success for us.”
Clark is focused on quality, but the high-efficiency systems are also saving energy. From September 2014 to March 2015, Clark’s Market used 155,000 fewer kilowatt-hours (kWh), cut the store’s electric demand in half and saved $13,268 on electric bills compared to bills tallied by the previous grocery store in the same space.
Results at Clark’s Market prove that energy efficiency is a solid investment, and Holy Cross Energy is working to help more of its business and household consumers benefit from similar paybacks.
One of 1,000 upgrades Seeking deeper energy savings from its We Care program, Holy Cross Energy set a five-year goal in 2013 for its consumers to save 33,000 megawatt-hours (MWh) of electricity per year by 2017. That is equal to all the electricity used per year by 2,457 homes in the Holy Cross service area, spread across Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield counties.
Last year, 829 Holy Cross consumers completed more than 1,000 energy upgrades that will save 10,106 MWh of electricity per year, according to Mary Wiener, energy efficiency program administrator for Holy Cross. “This is on top of 6,241 MWh of annual savings from projects done in 2013, so we are halfway to our goal in the first two years,” Wiener said.
The first half of 2015 builds on that trend with the co-op paying out rebates for 667 measures. Wiener estimates that the annual savings from this year’s projects so far will total more than 3 million kWh. “And these savings will continue for years into the future,” she added.
Rebates offset project costs Holy Cross Energy provides expert help and rebates to help its residential and commercial consumers make these upgrades.
“We understand that people appreciate getting help to make smart decisions, and the rebates show our consumers that we are their partner in energy efficiency,” said Wiener.
Holy Cross paid out more than $1.1 million in rebates in 2014 to consumers to offset a portion of their investments in energy savings. A 2-percent surcharge added to electric bills provides funding for the rebates.
Holy Cross staff visited more than 200 homes to provide complimentary home energy assessments. The co-op also helped pay for 68 Energy Smart Colorado home assessments. A total of 592 households made energy upgrades in 2014, said Wiener. “LED lights and recycling old refrigerators were by far the most popular upgrades,” she said. “People also replaced leaky windows, switched to programmable thermostats, swapped out their old holiday lights for LED strings and installed heat tape timers.”
Holy Cross also continued its partnership with the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments (NWCCOG) to offer a home weatherization program to income-qualified households. In 2014, the NWCCOG crew made upgrades for 22 households, using a $46,000 contribution from Holy Cross.
Because such facilities use so much more electricity than single-family homes, projects at 177 of these properties delivered 93 percent of the total electric savings from 2014 projects.
For these projects, LED lighting was the upgrade of choice, delivering the added benefit of reduced maintenance. “LED lighting is the hot ticket for businesses, lodges and condos,” said Wiener. “These projects deliver immediate energy savings and rapid payback on your investment. We expect to see a lot more lighting upgrades as people see the excellence of these new LED fixtures and bulbs.”
More rebates available Saving energy through efficiency upgrades and generating energy from solar panels means Holy Cross Energy is passing up sales of electricity. “Why would a utility want its consumers to use less electricity? Because it actually saves Holy Cross money,” explained Holy Cross CEO Del Worley. “In fact, we expect the savings from this past year’s efforts to save Holy Cross $1.8 million in power costs over the next five years.”
Worley pointed out that energy conservation is a cost-effective alternative to investing in costly new power plants, and it reduces the peak demand charges utilities pay their suppliers. Conservation is the most cost-effective investment we can make,” he added.
Members have shown that they support that investment by their participation in the co-op’s rebate program. Holy Cross Energy will continue to support their members—and its five-year goal—with rebate funding and technical assistance to home and business owners.
The Relight Mountain Village program provided town residents with deeply discounted LED bulbs to improve lighting efficiency in their homes or businesses. Cooperative Business Lighting Partners sold a variety of LED bulbs at a reduced rate to Mountain Village residents. San Miguel funded the discount with a generous rebate passed through from its wholesale power provider, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, along with $20,000 from the town’s energy reduction projects budget.
Cooperative Business Lighting Partners estimates that the project will reduce the town’s overall energy use for lighting by 518,998 kilowatt-hours annually, and have a payback period of less than four months.
Palo Alto’s municipal utility takes solar energy mainstream in drive for 100% carbon-free electric supply
The Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA), an educational nonprofit organization that helps utilities integrate solar electric power into their energy portfolios, has named the City of Palo Alto Utilities (CPAU) as Public Power Utility of the Year. The award was announced on Oct. 21 at the Solar Power International conference in Las Vegas.
Julia Hamm, president and CEO of SEPA, praised the municipal utility for “walking the talk” of community focus, and pointed to CPAU’s customer-friendly menu of solar services and tariffs. “The agency has demonstrated innovation and pragmatism in leveraging affordable solar to meet its goal of becoming a carbon-free utility,” Hamm stated.
Founded in 2005, SEPA’s annual awards recognize organizations and individuals advancing utility innovation, industry collaboration and leadership in the solar energy sector.
Palo Alto Mayor Nancy Shepherd called the award a tremendous honor for the city. “We continually strive to be on the cutting edge of environmental sustainability,” said Mayor Shepherd. “This award recognizes how public and private partnerships, along with forward-thinking community support for renewable energy, can allow cities to successfully reduce their carbon footprint.”
Road to carbon neutrality
The 2014 award recognizes the City of Palo Alto Utilities for its leadership and innovation in demonstrating solar energy’s viability as a mainstream power source. The utility has continuously increased the size of its solar electric portfolio. A recent power purchase agreement puts the city on track to have a 100-percent carbon-free electric supply portfolio by the year 2017. The city implemented a 100-percent carbon-neutral electric policy in 2013, purchasing energy from renewable sources, as well as purchasing renewable energy certificates to offset “brown” market power resources.
Most recently, The Palo Alto City Council approved a plan to encourage local solar generation, with options for community and group buys for customers who want to support solar energy but cannot install a solar system on their own property. With the Local Solar Program strategy, the utility aims to increase the local solar installations from 5 Megawatts (MW) at the end of 2013 to 23 MW by 2023.
The utility also offers customers a full set of solar services and incentives, including residential and commercial rebate programs, expedited permit processing, green power purchase premium options, workshops, one-on-one advice and coordination with industry representatives. A feed-in-tariff CPAU established in 2012 provides third parties with the opportunity to install solar arrays on local businesses and sell the energy back to the utility.
Western congratulates the City of Palo Alto on its award, and on its progress toward a carbon-neutral power supply. Energy Services is available to help all Western customers meet their planning and sustainability goals. Contact Energy Service Manager Ron Horstman or your regional Energy Services representative for more information.
Fast Water Heater Company has released a white paper suggesting that utility energy-efficiency programs built around strong cooperation between contractors and the power provider are likely to get more customer participation.
Approaches on Utility-Contractor Partnerships compared the experiences of two utilities marketing very similar rebates for an almost identical product over a similar time period. The major difference between the programs was the level of contractor engagement and accountability—and the results. A large utility serving 5 million customers used a conventional, partner-neutral business model with minimal contractor evaluation. The second utility, with 700,000 customers, actively collaborated with approved contractors on program promotion and follow-through.
The results, summarized in an article in Intelligent Utility, were strikingly different. The utility using the partnership model achieved a 63-percent penetration rate, in contrast to the 8-percent penetration rate of the program relying on the traditional approach.
The effect that the difference in the size of the utilities might have had on the results does not get much attention in the article, but may be explored in more depth in the report. Also, the report doesn’t state whether the utilities are investor-owned or public power, which might reflect on the pre-existing relationships with their customers. Even so, the correlation between the partnership model and program success is worth noting.
The author, who is the CEO of Fast Water Heater subsidiary Demand Management Installation Services, addresses some of the reasons utilities prefer contractor neutrality, offering credible arguments for a more hands-on approach to energy-efficiency programs.
Studies like Approaches on Utility-Contractor Partnerships will be the focus of the Smart Cities conference, Nov. 3-5, in San Diego, California. Innovative utilities and industry leaders will be presenting case studies and hosting discussions on the future of the energy and water efficiency as well as municipal-level sustainability programs.
Reid was strolling through the electronics department of a department store and noticed that the plasma screen televisions were giving off a lot of heat. Further down the aisle, he realized that there was no heat coming off of another flat screen model. “I assumed it was an LCD (liquid crystal display) screen, which it was,” Reid recalled. “But it was also LED backlit.”
It was about the same time the state of California was considering efficiency standards for TVs. Reid decided that this was a great application for a rebate program.
LCD screens come in two formats—cold cathode fluorescent backlit or LED backlit. The LED screens use about 90 percent less energy than plasma screens, and about 25 percent less than cold cathode LCDs. That efficiency comes at a price, however, and Reid designed the rebate to help offset the price difference.
Customers send the municipal utility proof of payment and the box label for a 25 percent rebate (up to a maximum of $750). “It works out to splitting the difference in price between the LED and the cold cathode TVs,” said Reid.
The rebate also applies to computer monitors, including iMacs which have the computer built into the LED screen. Reid prorates the average rebate for a TV screen based on the diagonal inches of the computer screen.
Simplicity also applied to program marketing. Azusa announced the rebate in bill inserts and placed an ad on a calendar put out by a local recycling company. “Bill inserts are super-effective,” said Reid, “and the calendar worked really well. We didn’t need to do more than that.”
Since the program debuted last July, Azusa has paid out about two dozen rebates, and receives two to three requests weekly. Reid includes the program in his state energy savings reports and has determined that it is more cost effective than cool roof or window replacement incentives. Now, that’s efficiency.
The Home Star Energy Retrofit Act cleared a major hurdle today when the House of Representatives passed the bill 246 to 161. The bill would authorize $5.7 billion over two years to provide rebates for homeowners to make energy-efficiency improvements. An additional $600 million would be available to states for programs to make mobile homes more energy-efficient. Some 3 million households would be expected to take advantage of the program.
There are two components to the bill:
The Silver Star program offers rebates of between $1,000 and $1,500 for each improvement installed, or $250 per appliance. Benefits do not exceed $3,000 or 50 percent of total project costs. Covered measures under Silver Star include air sealing; attic, wall and crawl space insulation; duct sealing; window and door replacement, furnaces, air conditioners, heat pumps, water heaters and appliances.
The Gold Star program provides $3,000 to consumers who conduct whole-house energy analyses and install technology that improves their overall home energy efficiency by 20 percent. They could receive an additional $1,000 rebate for each additional 5 percent improvement, to a maximum of $8,000. The rebate is limited to 50 percent of the total project cost.
The Home Star initiative differs from the tax credit in last year’s economic stimulus bill that paid up to $1,500 for energy-efficiency improvements. That tax credit expires at the end of this year.
President Obama called Home Star a common sense bill that will create jobs, save consumers money and strengthen the economy. Supporters say it would create almost 170,000 jobs in the construction industry and reduce home energy costs by almost $10 billion over 10 years.