An overarching theme of the Energy Rant is that much energy policy has a feel-good foundation of fluff. Last week I ranted about the feel-good dream of having plentiful, inexpensive renewable energy. This will take a miracle because conventional sources are still huge and growing. We have enough coal, natural gas, tar sands, oil shale, and offshore energy to last beyond our kids’ great grandchildren. Of course most readers of this are champions of energy efficiency, but energy efficiency also has too much feel-good fluff.
Consider compact fluorescent lights, which despite my rant about it’s mandate a few weeks ago has been a fantastically successful development from the private sector sped along with the aid of EE programs. That market has been pretty well transformed, especially in states with high rates and years of EE programs behind them. Here’s the “problem” – the program has been successful. The market is transformed. Programs can no longer take credit for it but they don’t want to let go of the “savings”. Well c’mon!
This guy’s letter from the National Resources Defense Council illustrates this. He is responding to a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece describing the “ineffectiveness” of California CFL programs. An independent evaluation of the program demonstrated that savings were much less than claimed. Sounds familiar per our first hand evaluation of some similar programs. He says the op-ed is based on a “consultant report that makes arbitrary and unsubstantiated reductions to the benefits of the compact fluorescent lamp program”. Well if that isn’t the cat calling the kettle black. Talk about unsubstantiated. I’m sure there’s nothing in the report to back up its conclusions. The guy probably hasn’t even read the executive summary.
Per our experience, this hack’s comments are unfortunately not uncommon. Utilities, program administrators, and implementers do not want to be told their programs are saving less than they claim – as they almost always are. I’m not sure who did the above evaluation in California but I will bet my house that they did not underestimate savings because: (1) it jibes with results we see for similar programs and (2) evaluators do not hammer savings for fun because it can lead to confrontation. We tell it like it is; not how someone wishes it would be.
We’ve recently completed impact (savings) evaluations for programmable thermostats; let’s just say in a state with a temperate climate – a state that has been lampooned in this rant a couple times. A programmable thermostat is 98% a heating-energy-saving technology. In the referenced temperate climate, where you can heat the entire house with a toaster oven, or at most your basic kitchen oven, what do you expect? Even in states that need heating, the attributable impacts can be tiny. Reasons for poor attributable savings include customers not using their furnaces; they were the programmable thermostat, programmable thermostats replacing programmable thermostats, and programmable thermostats in permanent override.
Impact evaluation for residential end users is often done by billing regression, which is a sexy term for comparing the bills before implementation to the bills after implementation and making appropriate adjustments. Consider evaluation for programmable thermostats with the only gas-using device in the home being the furnace. Billing regression is the ONLY way to go. Any engineering analysis is going to have much lower precision and confidence. But noooo! The program people didn’t like the regression results. Can we “engineer” savings? NO!
The other thing I’m seeing is rules changes to capture more savings. Incentives are limited by total dollars per year per customer, minimum paybacks, and maximum percentage of measure cost. This of course protects against free riders. Then there is the incentive itself – how much incentive is there per kWh, kW, or therm saved? Some utilities are greatly increasing incentives, lowering payback limits, and increasing annual payout limits. Does this result in more attributable energy savings? Probably not much. Evaluations will probably show they are mainly making more projects eligible and thus claiming more savings. I estimate free ridership will go up a lot. Program evaluators walking into the evaluation of these “upgraded” programs should prepare for pushback and maybe a little firestorm in some cases.
Some utilities whine to regulators that they’ve already done a great job of saving energy and all the easy stuff is gone (hence the expanded pay out and slackening rules discussed above). I don’t buy it. First, their 20th century programs are running low on remaining opportunity. Could be, but there are alternatives if they AND the regulators would open up to program innovation. Second, opportunities are created every day by engineers, architects, contractors, building owners, tenants, the milkman, janitor, cooks… you name it.
I haven’t seen any studies yet but I would bet there is more opportunity for cost effective measures in NEW buildings – ones that are already built. You just need to be capable of seeing the hand in front of your face and know how to “read” – i.e., understand what you are looking at. Buildings are loaded with opportunities we find but rarely see coming out of programs. Why? Perhaps because in many cases there is no equipment to sell. Examples: grocery store has a main air handler maintaining 75F in the space and at the same time an adjacent one is struggling to maintain 70F. The little one is cooling like crazy in the summer and pumping cold outdoor air all winter to try to get to 70F while the main unit is burning gas like crazy to make up for it. Obviously, this is an incredible opportunity and a very simple concept. Somebody just has to LOOK. And THINK! This is far more common than a congressman would ever imagine.