Energy efficiency in the Borderland
- October 4, 2018
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The correct energy efficiency strategy varies greatly depending on the location. Hydro-power, for example, is a boon for Seattle but almost unthinkable in a place like Tucson. Having recently moved my business from New Jersey to El Paso, Texas, and with Energy Efficiency Day around the corner, I was curious to learn how energy consumption is tackled right here in the heart of the Chihuahuan desert. To find out, I reached out to George De La Torre, Manager of External and Public Affairs at the El Paso Electric Company (EPE).
EPE serves about 420,000 customers located in the greater El Paso area, spanning from west Texas into southern New Mexico. Since the utility crosses state lines, it’s subjected to two seperate regulating committees. Consequently, the company offers different sets of energy savings programs, one for customers in Texas, and another for those in New Mexico. Although there are some differences, the two programs have much in common. They have offerings for residential and commercial customers alike, and both incentivize things like solar screens, duct sealing, ENERGY STAR® Pool Pumps, cool roofs, and much more.
When asked to speak about specific regional challenges to energy efficiency, George was quick to highlight the recent emergence of refrigerated air in the area. This might surprise some readers. After all, conventional wisdom would peg this desert city to be prime swamp cooler country. And, until recently, it was. However, over the past decade, the utility’s customers have been reporting diminishing efficiency from their evaporative cooling units, which they attribute to ever higher temperatures and even increasing humidity.
Whatever the reason for El Paso’s air conditioning boom, EPE has come to accept that many of its customers will abandon their efficient wet air coolers. So, to ensure that those who switch do it in the greenest way possible, the utility has begun offering incentives to do evaporative to refrigerated air conversions through their vendors.
All of those new air conditioning units represent an extra burden during the region’s already taxing summer months. To mitigate the energy consumption spikes from June through September, EPE started a demand response initiative in 2017. The three year pilot project, called the eSmart Thermostat Program, uses customers’ smart thermostats to encourage them to reduce their electricity usage during peak hours in the summer. EPE signals the thermostats, which are connected to central air conditioning systems, to slightly modify the temperature setting for a period of up to four hours. Of course, customers can opt out whenever they want.
While extreme heat certainly complicates energy efficiency, there are some advantages to desert climates. Namely, the great potential for solar energy. EPE’s major investments in solar, dating back to the beginning of this decade, have already proven to be quite fruitful. The utility became 100% coal free in 2016, a rarity in Texas, and hasn’t looked back since. They continue to strike up partnerships for new solar production sites, and they offer customers incentives to install solar screens and solar film.
All of EPE’s energy cutting incentives, however, would be of little use if the clientele weren’t on board. That’s where George and the rest of the company’s communications department come in. As he explained to me: “The goal is to help customers understand that these technologies, although costly at first, will actually reduce their costs in the long run.” Not just through individual household energy savings, but by keeping consumption in check across the grid, thus preventing the utility from having to add new power stations. Any such projects, in the end, would be financed by increasing the customers’ electricity rates.
George and his team get the message out in a number of different ways. As you’d expect, there are ad campaigns that push the incentives and stress the benefits of energy efficiency. Representatives from the utility also make appearances at community gatherings to talk directly with their clients. However, even once customers by into the idea, it is important to follow up to make sure that they are moving forward with vendors that are certified by the utility. Importantly, all of these marketing and PR efforts are delivered in English and Spanish to the border community.
EPE's energy effiency programs saved 36,041,034 kWh in 2017 alone, enough to power 4,698 homes for a year. However, the utility still has its work cut out for it. El Paso is expected to keep growing into the next decade, and the desert certaintly isn't getting any cooler. To make sure they aren’t overwhelmed by the region’s increasing energy needs, EPE will have to stay ahead of the curve by continuing to push new technology and educate the public.