Juice: Efficiency Hide & Seek

By Published On: August 10, 2012

When dealing with challenges, I think of those scantily clad guys hanging on crosses in Monty Pythons’ Life of Brian along with Jesus, AKA Brian, with their heads bobbing to the lyrics “Look at the bright side…”. You may be wilting and counting the days to lower temperatures and utility bills. The bright side: you’re not lost in the Sahara Desert. Bay Area summers are the inverse--Arctic blasts. But hey, I’m not stranded in a glacial crevasse. Admittedly I’m insulating with fuzzy sweaters and slippers as a cost-effective strategy to protect against the nippy temperatures inside my old Berkeley home. But that’s not been my only step--I also attempted to line up an energy audit. I called Pacific Gas & Electric to learn what I could do to raise the indoor thermometer a few degrees without sending my bill the same direction. After making my way through PG&E layers, I was informed it discontinued doing in-home energy audits. If I wanted one, I’d have to find and hire a contractor. I asked about rebates for installing double-pane windows to keep the cold out. PG&E doesn’t have rebates for installing energy efficient windows. There are, however, federal tax rebates. But I was hoping to tap into the bright $3 billion efficiency program to which I contribute. I searched on PG&E’s residential energy efficiency section of its website. All I found were possible rebates for a select group of energy efficiency appliances and systems. But the rebate process I perused was about as clear as a fog-laden summer day in the Bay Area. Because I’m more interested in warmth at the moment, I checked out qualifying for a furnace rebate--maximum $300. That involved translating and answering questions, including the configuration of the new furnace, whether it is a “lowboy,” for instance. Criteria include the furnace having an “annual fuel utilization efficiency” rating above 94 percent, and if within designated climate zones also being equipped with a “variable speed motor.” How many time- and resource-constrained ratepayers can grasp the requirements and find the time to wallow through the application process to land a possible rebate? It’s just not worth the time or effort of the 99 percent of us--and, the rebate is a fraction of the cost. Consider that central gas furnaces with 90 to 97 percent annual fuel utilization efficiency can cost in the range of $4,000-$12,500, including installation. There is also the challenge of finding a reputable contractor. PG&E has a link to the CA Contractors State License Board’s website. It only gives some generic tips on how to avoid being scammed. I visualize cheery crucifixions. After a few foggy hums, I wondered what PG&E--and the other utilities--have been doing with the billions of dollars they’ve been getting for their energy efficiency programs. I got a partial answer in my inbox with the recent arrival of utility and ratepayer advocate filings to the California Public Utilities Commission in response to utility requests last month for $2.5 billion for their 2013-14 efficiency portfolios. The commission is supposedly using the upcoming two-year cycle to find the bright side of the energy efficiency programs. It seeks to increase energy savings and reduce demand and associated greenhouse gases at “just and reasonable” rates. Regulators unanimously approved significant revisions to its investor-owned utility energy efficiency programs, with a focus on long-term, more complex home efficiency retrofits (Current, May 10, 2012). The Aug. 3 briefs note that utilities have unspent funds in their current efficiency budgets. As of June 30, 25 percent of PG&E’s budget went unspent; 40 percent of Southern California Edison’s; 36 percent of San Diego Gas & Electric’s; and 51 percent of SoCal Gas’. Why are regulators considering raising rates to give utilities up to $2.5 billion for the next two years? Adding in the $3 billion they got for the 2010-12 cycle, that totals $5.5 billion. In addition to unspent funds, utilities have fallen short of the commission’s efficiency goals, and that’s while focused on the low hanging fruit, such as compact fluorescents and small appliance rebates. And the costs have risen. According to The Utility Reform Network in a filing made at the end of last week, the cost of efficiency measures has increased at an “alarming rate.” The levelized costs of the efficiency proposals is likely around 12 cents/kWh, “with an upper range of 15-20 cents/kWh,” in contrast to 3-4 cents/kWh estimated several years ago as part of the Commission’s 2004 goals, TURN found. It added that energy efficiency’s “contribution to any load growth reduction is questionable.” And energy savings attributable to state-mandated codes get counted by the utilities. The Division of Ratepayer Advocates raised concerns that utilities’ proposals may not be more cost-effective “but rather tinker, often at the direction of the Commission, with numbers such that the program appears cost-effective.” Enveloped in utilities’ request for recovery from ratepayers are millions of dollars for “marketing, education and outreach.” PG&E wants $24.8 million, Edison $21.4 million, and SDG&E nearly $6 million. The strategy will “inspire customers to take action via [investor-owned utility] programs,” Edison asserted in an Aug. 3 regulatory filing. Given the years of disputes in measuring and verifying utilities’ claimed energy savings from ratepayer-funded efficiency programs imagine the ease with which energy savings from marketing and outreach would be measured. There have been years’ of hearings over how to better measure the effectiveness of efficiency strategies and measures. Meanwhile, the CPUC approved spending $3.1 billion in ratepayer funds in the current three-year cycle. It also approved spending $2.2 billion of customer funds to procure energy efficiency savings during the 2006-08 cycle. And that’s not counting executive bonuses. Disagreement over measuring metrics continues and there are few Life of Brian-like bobbing heads. Dear regulators, before casting any votes on the next round of efficiency spending plans, try navigating the energy efficiency rebate sections of utilities’ websites. See if you get a rebate in hand. Record the time, results, and present them along with votes cast for the latest utility efficiency spending plans. I suspect the venture will lower your resistance to having third parties run the programs to increase energy savings, cast a pall on the utility spending requests and shift the focus away from the efficiency savings calculation morass to real conservation. You are sure to get not only a heightened appreciation of the need for competing efficiency financing options. That includes pushing for the revival of regional programs that offer home owners and small businesses upfront financing for energy efficiency and renewable rebates in exchange for long-term property assessments. Instead of approving millions of dollars in marketing, give the utilities money for free in-home audits. Tailored assessments would bolster the effectiveness of home efficiency retrofits--be it installing a new furnace, double pane windows or insulation. Your decision approved in May will have a much better chance of increasing the programs’ cost-effectiveness and leading to real, lasting energy reduction strategies. It also will reveal the bright side without having to hang from a cross.

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