6 Ways Efficiency Programs Saved Californians $850 Million in Just 2 Years


By Lara Ettenson

As 2013 draws to a close, it’s a good time to highlight how California is trying new ways to help homeowners, businesses, governments and industries cut energy waste while continuing a 40-year record of energy efficiency success.

The state’s four largest privately owned and nearly 40 publicly owned utilities (with the help of their partners) have been major drivers in energy efficiency initiatives for decades, offering a variety of programs to help the 38 million Californians cut energy waste. As a result of the $1 billion invested annually, these programs reduced enough energy in the past two years alone to save customers an impressive $850 million on their energy bills after accounting for costs.

The energy savings are also more than enough to power all of the homes in the County of Fresno and cut the same amount of carbon pollution that comes from more than 300,000 cars.

These achievements and the programs outlined below are just a taste of the great things happening in California that build upon a long history of success from 40 years of advances in efficiency programs, as well as codes and standards. Not only have Californians seen billions of dollars in savings, but efficiency efforts also have avoided the need for 30 large power plants and helped spur an efficiency industry that has been the “bright spot” in the California economy. 

Graphic credit: 2012 California Energy Commission Energy Almanac

While we are on track to avoid at least 10 more power plants over the next 20 years by relying on efficiency, the California utilities have differing track records for how much they use efficiency to meet their customers’ energy needs. Bottom line: utilities across the state can do even more and we need to expand efforts to further reduce electricity consumption in the quickest, most cost-effective way possible. This will save customers even more money and help meet the state’s goals to cut carbon pollution that harms our health and our planet.

Innovative and continuing programs capture savings, spur collaborations

To make sure programs keep saving energy, the state’s utilities and efficiency providers (like nonprofits, governments, and companies) are trying new ways to reach customers in addition to continuing successful programs. Here are just a few examples of the programs that utilities and their non-utility allies are using to help customers learn how to stretch their energy dollars so they can invest those savings elsewhere:

1. Using “smart data” to save more money: Utilities and other companies are providing new ways of helping customers use the detailed information coming from advanced meters to better target ways to save energy. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), for example, provides personalized “Business Energy Reports” that make it easier for customers to figure out next steps. They also use “how to” videos – like the one below – to teach customers how to better manage their own energy use.

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The Sacramento Municipal Utility District provides a “Home Energy Calculator” (as well as other calculators for things like TVs and heating) to help homeowners and renters figure out where their energy and dollars are going.

In addition, companies working with utilities like PG&E and Southern California Edison (SCE) are using modern software tools to figure out how to make school, government, and commercial buildings more efficient. This new technology can figure out the smartest plan without stepping foot on the location. This greatly reduces both the cost and time it takes to make an energy-saving plan and avoids disrupting customers’ daily activities. As an added bonus, a number of these tools can keep tabs on the energy use of a building over time and can modify plans as new technologies are available as well as provide personalized monthly billing information.  

2. Keeping energy bills affordable: All California utilities have programs that save money for their customers. Some reach the entire state (like many of those described below) while others are more localized and are often carried out by utility partners.

The private utilities – such as PG&E, SCE, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) and Southern California Gas (SCG) – help homeowners and renters save energy and money through a suite of Statewide Residential Energy Efficiency Programs. These programs provide rebates for efficient appliances and heating systems, and offer tips on how to change behaviors to reduce energy use and make homes more comfortable. Public utilities provide similar programs. For example, the City of Palo Alto’s Refrigerator Recycling Program offers incentives to replace what could be one of the highest energy users in the home and provides free water and energy conserving measures to eligible multi-family buildings.

Many utilities also offer interactive ways to learn how to save money in a home. See, for example, SCE’s Home Energy Guide to find out ways to take action in each room. PG&E’s “Energy House Calls” website provides videos to highlight what homeowners and renters can do, shows how to look for energy guzzlers in a home, and connects customers to efficiency programs. SCG also offers a “Buyer’s Guide” to make it easier for customers to figure out their most efficient options and shares energy saving tips through short videos. 

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The privately owned utilities also use the suite of Statewide Commercial Programs  to help small and large business owners better manage energy use as well as provide direct installation of more efficient equipment for qualifying customers. 

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3. Testing new ways to capture savings through Local Government Networks: In addition to the numerous local government partnerships continued from 2012, two new networks of local governments were formed to help increase energy savings for customers who do not always participate in utility programs (such as multi-family buildings and government agencies). The Southern California Regional Energy Network works with SCE and SCG to offer comprehensive energy upgrade services for cities, counties, and other public agencies. Since the program was launched just two months ago, it has enrolled 23 agencies and has 70 energy projects in the pipeline.

In the northern part of the state, the Bay Area Regional Energy Network plans to experiment with an innovative way to get customers to install both water- and energy-saving measures—like low flow shower heads, faucet aerators, efficient lighting, and appliances. In addition to lowering energy and water bills, this program will also allow customers to repay their portion of the equipment cost on their water bill.

4. Tapping the efficiency industry for new ideas: California’s privately owned utilities periodically reach out to thousands of non-profits and companies (big and small), looking for original energy-saving solutions for customers (such as software to figure out the best way to save a customer energy or new strategies to get a proven technology to more people). This approach helps new ideas and companies gain footing in the state while reaching underserved areas – such as middle-income customers and multi-family buildings – and supports a growing efficiency workforce. In addition, the utilities established a program to pair newer technology providers with other companies or non-profits that can help the newcomers get customers to use their new ideas. (See the different ways you can get involved if you have an idea for a new technology or program)

As a result of these efforts, the privately owned utilities’ rely a great deal on non-utility entities to capture savings. Just last year, they funneled nearly half of their $1 billion energy efficiency funding through non-utility players to carry out programs such as energy upgrades, trainings, marketing, and other necessary activities to ensure these programs are successful.

5. Creating inventive partnerships to catch more than energy savings: New and existing partnerships across the state help capture efficiency savings that may have previously been missed or that allow customers to tap into other benefits, such as saving water or funding school programs.

For example, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (the nation’s largest municipal utility) and SoCalGas (the country’s largest gas utility) have partnered on 10 joint energy and water efficiency programs since late 2012. Working side by side enables the utilities to promote electric, gas, and water efficiency programs as a “one-stop-shop” for customers, making it easier to participate in multiple programs at once that produce far greater utility bill savings in combination.

In addition, statewide partnerships carried out by the privately owned utilities help school districts and community colleges integrate clean energy technologies into their buildings and save money that can be reinvested into core school functions. Here’s an example from Sweetwater Union High School District, the nation’s largest high school district:

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6. Making sure customers save what’s expected: Innovative technology is key to scaling up efficiency, but it’s also important to know whether the expected savings are actually achieved. To guarantee that investments in efficient equipment result in real energy savings, PG&E, for example, offers a program to make sure commercial building heating and air conditioning systems are working like they should. By making sure correct settings were in place for over 2,000 heating and air conditioning units in 2013, this program saved participating customers nearly $1 million on their energy bills.

California has a long history providing energy efficiency services to all customers. Trying new techniques to reach customers is a great way to scale up our effort and save them even more energy and money, spur the state’s economy, and meet our climate goals.

This piece was originally published on NRDC’s Switchboard blog.

Visit EcoWatch’s GREEN BUILDING page for more related news on this topic.

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