Breakfast of Efficiency Champions: A Panel Discussion on Energy Efficiency in the Southeast and the Impact of the Clean Power Plan

On a near-perfect day for a summertime conference in Atlanta, with cooler-than-usual temperatures and not a drop of rain, I had the pleasure of attending the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance‘s (SEEA’s) recent quarterly breakfast meeting. The July 16 event featured a panel discussion covering topics ranging from state building-code adoption and compliance, to the politics surrounding the Environmental Protection Agency‘s (EPA’s) draft Clean Power Plan.

Energy efficiency is increasingly a big business in the Southeast, and the numbers speak for themselves. A report published by Southface, and co-authored by breakfast attendee Shan Arora, indicates that the energy efficiency and building sciences sector employed 4,112 Georgians full-time in 2013 and generated $1.3 billion in revenue in 2012. Our host state is not alone, as new energy efficiency programs are taking root and expanding all across the Southeast.

As we’ve discussed in previous blogs, EPA’s Clean Power Plan may represent the biggest new opportunity in the energy efficiency sector. Efficiency is one of the four building blocks EPA has laid out for states to consider in their proposed implementation plans. The draft carbon rule sets a goal of reducing carbon emissions by 30% by 2030, compared to 2005 levels, and energy efficiency is a very cost-effective strategy for reaching that goal. While the Southeast has lagged behind other parts of the country in energy savings, the untapped efficiency potential that is factored into base-year carbon levels actually makes energy efficiency even more attractive for our region. As you can see in the chart below, the efficiency goals proposed by EPA would result in a major increase in cumulative energy savings compared to a yearly continuation of the savings achieved by Southeastern utilities in 2013.

 

Before introducing the moderator and panelists for SEEA’s quarterly breakfast meeting, Mandy Mahoney offered some introductory remarks on behalf of SEEA:

“Our goal is to transform the marketplace so that energy efficiency can serve as a catalyst for economic growth, for workforce development and for energy security across the region. One of the challenges we face is that not only is energy efficiency invisible, but no one ever says to any of us, ‘The problem I am trying to solve is that I don’t have enough energy efficiency! Can you sell me some?’ Still, it serves as a tool that helps to solve many different kinds of problems – from growing our small businesses and communities to building a clean, prosperous and economically vibrant future – there’s a very real, very human face to energy efficiency!”

The panel discussion was moderated by SEEA board member Greg Merritt, who is the vice president of marketing and public affairs at Cree Inc. – a market-leading innovator and supplier of LED lighting products based in Durham, North Carolina. The panelists were: Maureen Guttman, a licensed architect who serves as the executive director of the Building Codes Assistance Project; Zach Ambrose, who has held a variety of strategic leadership roles in state government, political campaigns and the military, and is the founding principal at Ambrose Strategy; and, Dan Matisoff, an assistant professor of public policy, energy policy and corporate sustainability at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Ga. Tech).

Moderator Greg Merritt

The Clean Power Plan will almost definitely lead to an increase in energy efficiency in the Southeast. Mr. Matisoff suggested that the region’s high per-capita energy consumption could mean that energy efficiency is the low-hanging fruit among the carbon-reducing strategies that are on the table. A big part of the energy savings would likely come from new building efficiency codes and improvements to existing buildings, since residential and commercial buildings presently consume 40% of our energy. Ms. Guttman noted that national policy can lead states to approve new building codes, as was the case following federal stimulus incentives for adopting the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code.

Panelists from left to right: Zach Ambrose; Maureen Guttman; and, Dan Matisoff.

Energy efficiency, as one of the four building blocks of the Clean Power Plan, is also fraught with challenges. Mr. Ambrose indicated that political dynamics could make it difficult to get energy efficiency policies approved in Southeastern states as long as the issue of energy policy is in the national spotlight. Mr. Matisoff predicted that every state will be a battleground, and utilities will probably continue to fight hard for capital-intensive investments that support significant rate increases, rather than focusing on energy efficiency. Ms. Guttman expressed concerns that incremental energy-saving goals tied to the Clean Power Plan might lead to a piecemeal approach to building efficiency improvements, which could make it difficult to fund total building retrofits.

Overall, the opportunities seem to outweigh the challenges. The panel discussion was thought provoking, and I enjoyed hearing from a variety of perspectives on the key issues facing energy efficiency efforts in the Southeast in light of EPA’s Clean Power Plan. The key takeaway is that the draft carbon rule holds tremendous potential to move the region forward on energy efficiency, but it also introduces new obstacles that need to be addressed. It is heartening to see the energy efficiency advocacy community come together to focus on making the most of the opportunities and effectively tackling the challenges. I look forward to continuing to contribute to those efforts on behalf of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

If you would like to attend SEEA’s next annual conference, mark your calendars for November 5 and 6, and plan on making arrangements to meet at Ga. Tech in Atlanta. I hope to see you there!

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