Efficiency Guru: The Behind-the-Scenes EE Revolution

April 25, 2008
By Reid Smith & Elisa Wood When consumers open their electric bills and see rates going up and up, it’s natural for them to ask, “Why isn’t anything being done?” Truth is, an enormous behind-the-scenes revolution is taking place when it comes to energy efficiency. To get an inside look, we recently spoke with one […]

By Reid Smith & Elisa Wood

When consumers open their electric bills and see rates going up and up, it’s natural for them to ask, “Why isn’t anything being done?” Truth is, an enormous behind-the-scenes revolution is taking place when it comes to energy efficiency.

To get an inside look, we recently spoke with one of the industry’s long-time gurus, Steve Cowell, chairman and CEO of Conservation Services Group in Boston.

Much of the action is happening on the state level where industry players are hammering out ways to lower costs by reducing energy consumption. In most cases, the goals are aggressive and could increase efficiency investments by 2.5 to 3 times what we have today, says Cowell.

Industry insiders often talk about efficiency as the invisible power plant. If you need 50 MW of new power, you can build a new generating facility. Or you can find ways to reduce energy use by 50 MW. That’s like building a virtual power plant. The virtual power plant saves ratepayers money because a 1% reduction in load during high peak periods can reduce wholesale electricity prices by 10%, according to the Electric Power Research Institute.

Cowell sees three ground-breaking efforts in the works to increase the use of efficiency: portfolio standards, procurement, and demand resources in forward-capacity markets.

Energy efficient portfolio standards require electricity providers to meet a set amount of their annual demand through efficiency measures. In other words, the state decides to cut back on energy use by say 15% by 2015 — the goal set by New York. State officials then work out a regulatory or legislative strategy to reach the goal. This isn’t always easy. What programs should the state push to encourage more use of efficient light bulbs by homeowners, better refrigeration in supermarkets, smart meters by businesses? And who should be in charge of the programs: utilities, a state authority, cities?

A second way to implement energy efficiency is to use the so-called procurement approach. Some people describe this as making energy efficiency the “first fuel.” When a utility needs more power, it must look first at increasing efficiency. “If there’s something cheaper on the efficiency side, you’d have to buy that first,” Cowell explains.

The third approach involves using energy efficiency—such as demand resources—in a forward capacity market. The objective of the forward capacity market is to purchase sufficient capacity to operate a reliable system for the next year at competitive prices. Traditionally, only power generators were allowed to bid in such markets. But ISO New England recently allowed demand resources to compete head-to-head in its auction. Two-thirds of the selected resources were demand resources. This was a huge “win” for energy efficiency in New England, says Cowell. (See our March 6 newsletter, Blog: “Negawatts beat megawatts in New England,” March 6, www.realenergywriters.com)

Whatever method states choose to bring more efficiency to the power grid, the goal is the same. “At the end of the day, when a customer is looking for help to lower their energy use, they will see a unified plan, easy to use, with known technologies,” Cowell says.

For businesses and consumers who are seeing their electric bills skyrocket, we hope that day will come sooner rather than later.

Visit Reid Smith and Elisa Wood at www.realenergywriters.com and subscribe to their free Energy Efficiency Markets newsletter.

About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is an award-winning writer and editor who specializes in the energy industry. She is chief editor and co-founder of Microgrid Knowledge and serves as co-host of the publication’s popular conference series. She also co-founded RealEnergyWriters.com, where she continues to lead a team of energy writers who produce content for energy companies and advocacy organizations.

She has been writing about energy for more than two decades and is published widely. Her work can be found in prominent energy business journals as well as mainstream publications. She has been quoted by NPR, the Wall Street Journal and other notable media outlets.

“For an especially readable voice in the industry, the most consistent interpreter across these years has been the energy journalist Elisa Wood, whose Microgrid Knowledge (and conference) has aggregated more stories better than any other feed of its time,” wrote Malcolm McCullough, in the book, Downtime on the Microgrid, published by MIT Press in 2020.

Twitter: @ElisaWood

LinkedIn: Elisa Wood

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