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Making energy efficiency a community effort

THERE'S AN OLD ADAGE THAT SAYS THAT there's no sense reinventing the wheel. However, in the case of energy efficiency (EE), new technology and new thought along the years have continually increased the opportunities for utility energy efficiency programs to make their mark.

Take, for example, tiny Sauk Centre Public Utilities Commission in central Minnesota, which introduced EE programs as early as the late 1980s.

Starting small
Sauk Centre, the birthplace of Sinclair Lewis, the first American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, has a population of 4,317. The utility itself has 2,400 electricity/water/wastewater customers, and 70 percent of its load is commercial.

The city's motto, "A view of the past-vision of the future," is particularly apt when it comes to energy efficiency measures and sustainability.

Back in the late 1980s, according to Marty Sunderman, the general manager of Sauk Centre PUC, the public utility installed load management receivers on 300 air conditioning and water heaters, with no monthly incentives to participating customers. "They understood that the money saved would go back to benefit the entire community in keeping rates low," Sunderman said.

A second program initiated in the same time period was commercial stored in-floor heat. "Twenty-five percent of our load was off-peak," Sunderman explained, so the program was activated between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., at a rate of 2.95 cents.

Fast forward to the 1990s, as Sauk Centre began to explore additional energy efficiency options. "We upgraded our distribution voltage from 4160 to 7200 for less line loss," he said, resulting in an improvement of 2.5 percent to 3 percent. As well, the city developed a capacitor program with its industrial customers, with the new equipment being financed by the savings the customers were gaining by using it.

Little Sauk Centre makes big gains
In the past decade, even more savings have been effected by energy efficiency. The city built a new city hall, a new fire hall, and new water and wastewater treatment plants, all as energy efficient as possible. And even more customers have joined in. Industrial customers have replaced their 400-watt metal halide fixtures with T8 high bays, and the city schools have changed all fixtures to T8s and added pop machine computer devices that will adjust the temperature upward when they are not being used, Sunderman said. "Our utility also has an annual recycling event, and exchanges old appliances for cash incentives [to purchase new ones]," he added.

In order to ensure proper recycling of CFL bulbs, Sauk Centre PUC has initiated a CFL recycling program for its customers with a very simple and effective message: "Looking to recycle your old CFLs? Bring in an old, unbroken CFL and we will replace it with a new CFL at no cost to you! Limited wattages available. Limit of four bulbs per month."

Finally, one of its most interesting solutions, managed and administered by Missouri River Energy Services as the joint action agency, is Bright Energy Solutions (BES). Briefly, the program offers cash incentives and information to help residential and business customers save energy. Sunderman said Sauk Centre's BES savings of 1,117,715 kWh achieved during 2011 far exceeded the goal of 958,630 kWh, with $59,318 in incentives paid out to customers.

Making history with an ambitious goal
Farther west, larger public utility Seattle City Light holds the record for the longest continually operated energy conservation program in the country, which has been running since 1977. Since that time, it has delivered 1.5 billion kWh total savings, and more than $500 million in unreimbursed rate-payer total investment.

Seattle City Light (SCL) serves Seattle, Washington, and seven suburban cities. It is the 10th-largest public electric utility in the U.S., and delivers power to nearly one million Seattle-area residents, as well as commercial and industrial (C&I) accounts. It holds the distinction of being greenhouse gas neutral since 2005, the first electric utility in the nation to achieve it.

"Energy efficiency is least cost, least risk, least environmental impact," said Glenn Atwood, SCL's conservation director. "Energy efficiency is Seattle City Light's first-priority energy resource." In fact, he added, it has doubled its EE targets and budgets since 2007.

SCL focuses on reducing customer bills
"In terms of least cost, you might want to think of it as greatest net benefit," Atwood said. "Our focus historically has been on reducing customer bills rather than focusing on rates-not that we're indifferent to rates."

Also, he added, "If you have local transmission or distribution bottlenecks, you can use energy efficiency to defer upgrading."

Ninety-five percent of SCL's generation is hydro. "We have no need to acquire new generation to meet load. We're all about the kilowatt-hours," Atwood explained. That, and Initiative 937, passed in Washington state in 2006, with the intent of requiring large utilities to use renewable energy (defined as solar, wind, geothermal, ocean energy and some forms of biomass energy) when new sources of generation are needed. (Interestingly enough, hydroelectric power is not defined as renewable energy under the I-937 mandate.)

"Least environmental impact" has been a particularly compelling argument for energy efficiency in Seattle. "It is generally agreed that conservation has the least impact on the environment," Atwood said.

Seattle City Light is mindful of this "to the extent that our customers and community want to highlight the least environmental impact aspect and highlight those values," he said, and there is the additional benefit of helping to mitigate the risk of future environmental impact.

"There is a nuance in our analysis ... particularly around carbon creation and fossil fuel plants. The reality is, in any given year there's going to be only so much water behind the dams, and only so much wind that is going to be carbon free," Atwood said.

Finally, there is the least-risk aspect to energy efficiency. "Inherently, there's a risk management aspect to energy efficiency," he pointed out. "If we fail on the efficiency side, we fail on the margins."

All about the customers and the community
"Of course it's all about the customers. Fundamentally, providing energy efficiency helps them to manage the cost of their bills," Atwood said. "And our engagement with customers on energy efficiency helps build loyalty, helps build awareness of our brand."

And it's about community, as well. "Community is the `public' in `public power,'" Atwood pointed out. Energy efficiency has proved to be a cost-effective strategy for building economies across the country without necessarily growing consumption, and this is true of Seattle, as well. "The money saved in energy efficiency stays-in a multiplier effect-within the community in terms of economic benefit," he said.

The bulk of the utility's residential savings recently have been in lighting, and in particular CFL sales. "There's still work to be done there," Atwood said.

All on board!
Whether it's CFL sales or other energy efficiency improvements spearheaded by the utility, it's imperative to get the community on board. With energy savings reflected on energy bills, it shouldn't be a hard sell. At the same time, though, it's critical that the win-win be clear. Our next story in this feature highlights ideas for successful programs, both in energy efficiency and demand response, and why they work.


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