The Power Of Energy Efficiency

Our nonprofit sits in the sun-drenched San Joaquin Valley. It's not the hottest part of California, but it is close. It gets warm here, as in my hands-burn-when-I-touch-the-steering wheel warm.

Thus, power bills are high. My June bill topped $400, and was the second-highest monthly expense behind my mortgage. Most of it is my own fault: The air conditioner is 18 years old. We haven't added extra insulation or taken many efficiency measures. And my family likes the house cool. My daughter is home from college (Go Ducks!) for the summer and unemployed, so the a/c runs much of the time. It is an argument I can't win.

But, I still believe in energy efficiency. EnergySavvy claims 1.6 million homes could receive energy upgrades and 220,000 jobs could be created for half the cost of one nuke plant. The savings are remarkable, and they really aren't that costly to obtain. Take lighting for instance. Many people have told me that lighting retrofits aren't worth it. That's not true.

In this Clean Technica post, the Earth Policy Institute notes that lighting is responsible for 19 percent of the world's energy demand, and that its carbon emissions equal 70 percent of those released by vehicles globally. A concerted effort on that front could be powerful.

LED lights are taking center stage, and assuming a larger presence. Their prices are dropping, and places with lots of lights are seeing significant savings. The Clean Technica story notes that New York City cut its yearly maintenance and power bill some $6 million just by replacing traffic lights with LEDs.

By the way, our organization is working with cities through the San Joaquin Valley, helping them reduce costs by, among other things, retrofitting lights. Many of these communities have slashed staff and cut budgets in this horrible recession. Maybe they can preserve a few positions or reopen a library with money saved from lower power bills.

Efficiency is the easiest and most cost effective part of the clean energy movement, and the government supports it. Just today, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency listed a variety of products that are among the most energy efficient. More on that here.

Efficiency really is, as DOE chief Steven Chu says, more than low-hanging fruit: "It is fruit on the ground."

And ready to be picked.

Banking On Energy Retrofits

One of the largest banks in California says it will finance $55 million worth of energy-conservation improvements in older buildings.

Bank of America will provide low-interest loans and grants to Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) that specialize in financing energy-efficiency improvements. The bank will select 12 community development lenders throughout the nation.

Bank officials said the program is a way to address climate change.

"Residential and commercial buildings account for approximately 40 percent of all primary energy consumption in the United States. That's why, if we really want to address climate change, we have to improve the energy efficiency of existing buildings, particularly older ones that tend to be the least efficient," said Anne Finucane, the bank's Global Strategy and Marketing officer.

More information is available in this press release. And here is a list of certified Community Development Financial Institutions by state.

How much of that $55 million winds up in the San Joaquin Valley remains to be seen, but we are happy that BofA is targeting energy conservation. The SJVCEO is heavily involved in efficiency, and is helping budget-strapped and staff-decimated cities in the Valley with energy and cost-saving retrofits.

Changing lights, replacing air conditioners and installing new motors are less glamorous than solar farms, wind turbines and the renewables part of the clean-energy movement, but is the most cost effective and easiest to accomplish. In fact, Federal Department of Energy head Steven Chu called it "low-hanging fruit" until deciding even that wasn't an accurate characterization. He now says energy efficiency is "fruit on the ground" and ripe for picking.

As this blog states, minimal investment in energy efficiency can reap maximum benefits. Studies show that commercial retrofits can cut power bills in the United States by billions of dollars. That is money that can be reinvested or stimulate the economy.

Feds Unveil Energy Efficiency Recommendations

We here at the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization tout the power of energy- efficiency improvements. Changing windows, adding insulation, sealing air ducts, installing efficient lighting and other upgrades can go a long way toward reducing power bills.

Such improvements - the industry calls them "retrofits" - are the low-hanging fruit of the green-energy movement. It's been shown time after time that a minimum investment can result in maximum returns. At my house in Fresno - where summer temperatures hit triple digits and the air conditioner runs all day - the power bill is the second-largest expense behind the mortgage.

If I can cut energy expenses, I save money. It sounds so simple, but the federal Department of Energy says energy conservation is not a pressing issue for most people. So, the agency is trying to come up with a plan that would encourage energy conservation among homeowners.

Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have unveiled some recommendations for prodding homeowners down the energy-efficiency path, and for guiding the government's future efficiency programs.

  • Sell something people want: identify an issue such as health, financial savings, energy security or comfort to attract public interest;

  • Target the audience and tailor messages accordingly. A blanket marketing campaign won't work;

  • Partner with local organizations and local leaders, and build on existing relationships;

  • Language is powerful: avoid using words such as "retrofit" and "audit." Focus instead on concrete examples, personalize the material and frame statements in terms of loss rather than gain;

  • Contractors can be used as program ambassadors;

  • Make it easy, make it fast: package incentives, minimize paperwork and pre-approved contractors;

  • Repeat the message: advertising studies show that people need to be hit with a message at least three times before being convinced. Energy efficiency can be a tough sell because homeowners have to spend money to reap the benefits. Plan a multilayered campaign;

  • Rebates, financing and other incentives do matter;

  • A well-qualified workforce is essential: promoting a program before contractors can handle the workload leads to disgruntled customers;

  • Be patient: programs need to last for more than a year or two to be successful;

  • Use pilot programs to test strategies.

Lawrence Berkeley's report came out one day after Vice President Joe Biden unveiled a new federal program that offers certified contractors new software to show how much energy homeowners are wasting and to offer low-cost financing to finance improvements.

Dubbed "Recovery Through Retrofit" (thus going against the recommendation listed above to abandon the phrase "retrofit"), the software produces an energy score for each homeowner.

Should There Be A National Retrofit Program?

It is no secret that retrofitting existing buildings is the best and fastest way to cut energy use. We've written about it here and here, but it's a difficult concept for some people to grab.

Now, the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan research group in Washington D.C., and independent power producer Energy Resource Management are calling for a national program to retrofit homes, offices and factories for energy efficiency.

The report examines effective programs in various states, and suggests those could be models for a national program that mobilizes private sector investment. The paper identifies 10 effective policies; lists 10 states with cutting-edge energy programs (California is there) and 10 states that have strong potential for development of energy-efficiency programs; and acknowledges certain market barriers.

Some federal energy retrofit initiatives already exist, such as the Weatherization Assistance Program, which helps low-income families. In addition, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) provided millions in stimulus dollars for such projects.

But, the money hasn't necessarily translated to results, as this blog post and this letter from the state Office of the Inspector General in California note.

However, a national program could yield stunning results, the Center for American Progress says. A national retrofit program that retrofitted only 40% of the residential and commercial buildings in the United States would generate 625,000 jobs, spark $500 billion in new investments to 50 million homes and office buildings and generate $64 billion in energy savings.

That $64 billion is more than the $41 billion cited in a the aforecited Pike Research report, but the point is clear: retrofits are more bang for the buck.
"In the United States today, it takes nearly twice the energy required to produce every dollar of economic output compared with European and Asian nations, the American Progress study says. "But our current inefficiency is also a hidden resource."

The San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization is a nonprofit dedicated to improving our region's quality of life by increasing its production and use of clean and alternative energy. The SJVCEO works with cities and counties and public and private organizations to demonstrate the benefits of energy efficiency and renewable energy throughout the eight-county region of the San Joaquin Valley.