Beyond Admiration: Changing the Energy Efficiency Conversation

“You coming or going?” a gruff voice asked as I tightened my seatbelt and settled in for my flight from Little Rock to Dallas.  I turned towards my seatmate, a large man with scuffed cowboy boots, extensive tattoos and a long, gray beard, and told him I was headed back home after a very informative and interactive two day conference on energy efficiency. Although I expected a quizzical look, instead he nodded with enthusiasm and told me about some of the clean energy work he had done at his own home. Feeling a kinship with this clean energy enthusiast, I inquired about his work and travel plans.

“I’m headed to Midland, Texas.” he replied. “I used to fix oil rigs for a living, but now I work on fracking equipment. The hours are long, but I don’t mind. These companies pay me a lot of money to keep their equipment running.”  Realizing he had just changed the dynamic of our conversation, he added, “I admire what you are doing, though.”

And there it was. In a single sentence, he had summarized my last two days at the ACEEE “Energy Efficiency as a Resource” conference. Representatives from over 300 utility, state, federal, private and non-profit organizations were in attendance, discussing how energy efficiency could play a role as a low cost alternative for utilities’ electricity generation plans. These were healthy and vibrant discussions about the value of energy efficiency initiatives in a utility’s overall energy mix, but they had a common theme. Despite the amazing potential that energy efficiency has in reducing energy use from all sources and across all sectors, it is still an afterthought. Albeit an admirable afterthought as my new friend succinctly pointed out.

How do we raise energy efficiency’s status as a contender in energy generation discussions? What will it take for energy efficiency to become the go-to resource for utilities as they strive to maintain reliable, low-cost electricity for a growing number of consumers?  How do we change the conversation so energy efficiency is not just an add-on afterthought for utilities, but rather a fully integrated part of their energy generation mix?  Here are a few key strategies to consider as we answer these questions and move energy efficiency beyond admiration.

Change the mind-set.

Utilities must embrace energy efficiency as a valuable low-cost resource to enhance fuel diversity and offset load growth. A few are already starting to include investment into energy efficiency and demand response as a resource option when modeling new generation strategies to accommodate forecasted load demands. Tom Eckman from the Northwest Power and Conservation Council reminded the ACEEE audience of this compelling fact:  Northwest Electric’s load hasn’t grown in a decade because energy efficiency savings have offset the equivalent of 1.1 percent of the territory’s annual load growth since 2006.

Level the playing field.

To put energy efficiency initiatives on equal footing in the energy mix conversation, investment into energy efficiency needs to earn a commensurate rate of return to generating facility alternatives. Energy efficiency should be considered a capital expenditure just as an investment into a new natural gas or nuclear generating plant would be. This creates a correlation between demand-side and supply-side investment and puts energy efficiency on equal footing in utility investment decisions.

Take a portfolio approach.

In a recent ACEEE report, the authors outlined the top energy efficiency measures that would result in cost-effective energy savings.  Beyond lighting upgrades, there is no single measure capable of capturing a major share of savings – the savings for each of the selected measures ranged from 0.5% to 3.4%. However, when approached as a portfolio of measures, the estimated total savings is 22% of estimated total electricity sales in 2030.  Energy efficiency programs should look at the building as a system, combining measures to gain the greatest energy savings at the lowest cost.

An hour with an unlikely energy efficiency supporter is not enough time to fully discuss the future of energy efficiency, however I was encouraged by the conversation. We may come from different backgrounds, but at the end of the day we both agreed that a sustainable future depends on changing perspectives and encouraging new conversations about how to move energy efficiency into top-of-mind status in order to meet our collective energy needs.

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