Pick up a newspaper today and there's a good chance you'll find a headline about rising energy prices. Or one about the dangers of global warming. These are problems that, at the least, threaten corporate and family budgets and, at the worst, could wreak havoc on the global economy and even alter the way we live our lives. The more people read, the more they want to be part of the solutions.
The nation's public power providers have been listening. In recent years, they've unveiled scores of special programs aimed at helping business and residential customers reduce their energy consumption and costs. And more than ever, these utilities are looking for environmentally sensitive ways to generate and obtain power - and again, use less of it. The solutions they're promoting are true win-win situations, good for customers and the utilities alike.
That shouldn't be very surprising, as the interests of public power providers are completely aligned with the interests of their customers - because public utilities are an arm of local governmental entities, the customers of public power organizations are essentially also their masters.
Lightening the Load
Take Gainesville Regional Utilities as an example. It's Florida's fifth-largest municipal electric utility, providing electricity along with natural gas, water, wastewater, and telecommunication services. These days, it not only sells electricity but also tries to get its customers to buy less electricity.
"We set goals in the summer of 2006 for energy demand reductions for our customers," says Bill Shepherd, energy and business services manager. "We rolled out 22 different programs, and set a goal for a first-year demand reduction of 2.69 megawatts and 13,652 megawatt-hours. We exceeded our energy reduction goals."
In fact, the utility's customers were able to cut demand in that first year by 15,092 megawatt-hours and 2.51 megawatts. That second statistic was lower mainly because two major demand-reduction projects were not finished on-time - exclude those from the goal and the city was right on target with everything else.
Programs include incentives for installing high-efficiency cooling equipment, repairing leaks in ducts, and putting in heat recovery units to capture heat coming off the air conditioner and use it to help with water heating. GRU even has a program that pays to replace exit signs with newer models that use LEDs instead of incandescent bulbs. Each LED exit sign costs its owner $25 less per year by using less energy and eliminating the need to replace bulbs every couple of thousand hours.
GRU has established a network of contractors that can help businesses and homeowners implement energy-saving improvements. Shepherd says the first workshop for contractors drew about a dozen, the second attracted twice that number, and the third doubled the number of participating contractors yet again. Everyone in Gainesville, it seems, wants to get on board the energy-saving bandwagon, thanks to the efforts of the municipal utility.
"We're very pleased," Shepherd says - but not complacent. For 2008, the utility is adding three more programs, including a plan to have contractors conduct energy surveys of structures, making energy-reduction recommendations involving insulation, duct repair, cooling equipment, and the like. Rebates encourage property owners to follow through on the recommendations.
Lakeland, Florida, has developed similar programs. "We have recently developed rebates and incentive programs," says John Adkinson, manager of energy and business services for Lakeland Electric. "These include residential attic insulation rebates, compact fluorescent lighting giveaways, HVAC maintenance incentives, weatherization, and online energy audits." The city utility also has retrofitted more than 100 intersections with LED lamps.
In Nebraska, the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) has been partnering with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to help customers boost energy efficiency, says Roger Christianson, manager of economic development. "Sixty energy efficiency projects so far have resulted in savings of $1.8 million for customers and an estimated reduction of CO2 emissions of 15,000 tons each year," he says. "Some customers saved 40 percent on their energy bills while improving operating conditions and the comfort of the tenants."
Businesses and residents alike are eager for improved energy efficiency. To help on the residential side, he says, "OPPD worked with Habitat for Humanity in 2006 to build a super-efficient home, reducing the energy needs to a fraction of the average home." Strategies included insulated concrete-form foundations and walls, along with high-efficiency windows and air-conditioning systems. During construction, the utility scheduled public events to help spread the word about energy efficiency.
Public utilities all over the country are involved in promoting energy efficiency and cutting the bills of their customers, whether business or residential. Some more examples:
• Energy audits are a popular way for utilities to make a difference. In Westerville, Ohio, for example, the municipal utility's website offers customers a customized online opportunity to explore their energy efficiency and find room for improvement, according to Andrew Boatright, electric utility manager. The company taps into customer billing information to make pertinent recommendations.
• In Columbia, Missouri, the local utility also will provide energy audits, and offers rebates and low-interest loans to help customers implement energy-efficiency improvements. The utility will also send representatives to customers' homes to offer landscaping tips geared toward energy efficiency. Customers even receive a free shade tree to plant in a location that will promote energy savings in the summer. Nebraska's OPPD also offers "a tree promotion program that has provided trees to customers and education on how to best use them for energy efficiency purposes, not to mention carbon sequestration," says Christianson.
• The city of Springfield, Missouri, helps with energy and commercial lighting audits and rebates on various efficiency improvements. It also has replaced thousands of traffic signal lights with efficient and long-lasting LEDs, offers classes to share energy-saving tips, and is helping in the design of a local museum to maximize its energy efficiency.
• In Colorado, the Platte River Power Authority of Fort Collins has been running incentive-based demand-side management programs for several years now, and has offered various energy services for a decade and a half. The "LightenUp" program helps replace inefficient lighting; cooling rebates help customers adopt more efficient air conditioning technology; and the electric efficiency program assists businesses in the midst of new building projects, renovations, expansions, or mechanical upgrades.
• The Long Island Power Authority has multiple programs in place to reduce the demand for electricity. Residential customers can have a programmable thermostat installed for free, and can benefit from rebates on lighting improvements, including the latest cold cathode bulbs. Commercial customers can get advice and financial assistance as they work toward creating Energy Star-labeled structures.
• An appliance calculator provided by the city of Braintree, Massachusetts, helps customers make more informed decisions about the appliances they buy and use. From an online menu, customers can select various appliances from refrigerators to waterbed heaters to light bulbs to fish tanks, then figure out exactly where their energy dollar is going and how much carbon-dioxide is produced in the creation of electricity for each item. Did you know that heating a waterbed creates 125 pounds of carbon dioxide a month, but an electric blanket creates only 15 pounds?
Reducing reliance on traditional electric power is clearly good for the bottom line, but it's also good for the environment. "The `greenest' kilowatt is the one that does not have to be produced," says Christianson. In addition to finding ways to help customers cut their power consumption, public power providers are also exploring the most environmentally friendly ways of producing electricity.
In Riverside, California, the local utility has installed solar panels in several places to lighten the load on its power grid and offer customers less expensive energy. For example, the utility placed panels on the roofs at a low-income apartment complex, according to account manager Clay Monroe of Riverside Public Utilities. For Riverside residents seeking affordable housing, the solar panels are cutting their electric bills by more than half. The utility also uses solar power to cool a senior-citizens center where seniors come in the summer to escape the heat, and it installed panels at a commuter train station.
In Florida, the city of Lakeland owns solar-powered streetlights, has a program to promote solar water heating, and hosts two dozen systems generating solar electricity. In New York, the Solar Pioneer Program of the Long Island Power Authority helps customers install solar, or photovoltaic, panels. Rebates and state tax credits help defray the cost, and it's possible for customers to not only reduce the amount of power they buy from the utility, but to even sell back any excess power their solar panels may generate.
Solar panels help power the Longfellow Magnet School and Mark Twain Elementary, served by the public power provider in Westerville, Ohio, according to Boatright. Westerville also uses solar panels to power school-zone traffic signals. And a $1.2 million demonstration project established an environmentally friendly fuel cell generator capable of cranking out 2 million kilowatt-hours per year.
Fuel cell technology also is on display in Omaha, according to Christianson. "OPPD works with its customer, Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, to operate an ultra-clean fuel cell that not only provides electricity but helps heat the tropical ponds in the zoo's Lied Jungle, the world's largest indoor rainforest," he says.
Meanwhile, OPPD makes its coal-combustion plants a bit greener by recycling about 135,000 tons of combustion byproduct fly ash each year. "Fly ash is a substitute for Portland cement," says Christianson, "so each ton of ash is a ton of cement that does not have to be dug out of the ground and processed in a very energy-intensive manner."
Some other green-minded activities involving public power providers: • The utility in Columbia, Missouri, has a self-imposed goal of acquiring and/or producing 15 percent of its energy using alternative resources by 2023.
• A fleet of solar-charged vehicles and gas-electric hybrids helps the Platte River Power Authority do its job.
• Silicon Valley Power in California has been recognized with a Green Power Leadership Award from the U.S. Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency. Strong marketing efforts have persuaded many of its customers to sign up for renewable energy. The average customer pays just $7 a month extra for 100 percent green power from wind and solar sources.
• The "Capture the Wind" program of Moorhead Public Service in Minnesota allows customers to buy into wind power generated by a pair of turbines the utility operates. The wind power replaces the portion of participating customers' power that previously was generated by coal combustion, about a third. The remaining two-thirds already is produced through environmentally friendly hydropower generation.
• In Eugene, Oregon, the city's Water & Electric Board promotes solar water heaters for those who use electricity to heat water for homes or swimming pools. The utility can arrange cash discounts of up to $600 for home water heaters and $1,100 for pool water heaters, along with zero-interest loans of up to $4,000. In addition, the state of Oregon offers tax credits of up to $1,500 for this kind of installation.
"The answers for many of our energy challenges will be discovered by our youth," says Christianson. "To encourage students in this area, OPPD initiated the Power Drive program in 1998. The program provides students with hands-on experience and instruction in the area of power and mechanics as they design and build one-person electric vehicles and then compete against each other to see who has produced the most efficient vehicle." The Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) joined in sponsoring the program, along with the Clean Cities program of the U.S. Department of Energy. It has grown to involve some 70 high schools and colleges in Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota.
"The lessons learned in Power Drive are particularly relevant as hybrid vehicles have gone from experimental to commonplace and plug-in hybrids have been promised for public availability by 2009," says Christianson, who adds that the program is "having an impact on a new generation of energy decision-makers."
It's easy to see how customers benefit from energy-efficiency initiatives, and how the environment wins when businesses and homes use less power and obtain more of it from green sources. But isn't it a bit counterintuitive for utilities to work so hard to get customers to use less of their product?
On the contrary, says Adkinson, it's a winning situation for all parties: "This helps the utility by offsetting for the need for future generation, reduces emissions, and saves our customers on their energy costs."
"We do have capacity needs going out into the future," says Shepherd. "For part of those capacity needs, we're hoping to fill them with energy conservation instead."
Indeed, creating new power generation operations is incredibly expensive. If the need for new plants can be delayed or even eliminated, the savings are great enough to make it worth spending some cash on demand-side reduction.
What's more, Shepherd adds, it's a good thing to do for customer satisfaction. "You don't want customers having higher bills and complaining."
Public Power Benefits
That kind of customer-focused attitude is prevalent in the public power business. That's because the customers are, essentially, also the owners. And that's one of the things that makes a business location in a public power community so attractive.
"Public power communities are great in that you have a say-so in local policymaking," says Shepherd. "That's where the decisions are made. The customer has a lot more input."
"It's very, very local," agrees Monroe. "Businesses definitely receive more attention."
Some other advantages:
• Public power providers don't have shareholders to serve, Christianson points out, because they're owned by governmental entities. "We don't have to worry about making a profit for shareholders," he says. "Public power profits are reinvested in our system to ensure supply and reliability for our future customer growth. Dividends are returned to our customer-owners in the form of low rates."
• Public utilities often offer more than just electricity. "We provide electricity, natural gas, water, wastewater, and telecommunication services," Shepherd says. "We can offer businesses a package of services that can help them grow."
• Public power is more affordable. According to the American Public Power Association (APPA), residential rates in communities served by private utilities are on average more than 10 percent higher than they are in public power communities.
• Public utilities are strong boosters of their communities. Public power systems provide state and local payments-in-lieu-of-taxes and other support that on average are worth 15 percent more than the state and local taxes paid by private power companies. And they've heavily involved in economic development efforts.
• Public power is reliable. Management and maintenance personnel are all local, so if there's a problem, they're right there to fix it promptly. Lots of people have heard about "rolling blackouts" when the power supply gets tight in California. Not in communities like Riverside, Shepherd says: "During rolling blackouts, Riverside didn't black out once."
• Customer service tends to be attentive, again because employees and management are locals. In Omaha, Christianson notes that OPPD has been honored by quality gurus J.D. Power and Associates six years in a row for outstanding customer service.
What's more, public power utilities often serve relatively small territories, and as Boatright in Westerville, Ohio, points out, small can be a good thing. "With only 13 square miles of service territory, the city's consumer-owned utility provides excellent service response 24 hours per day, seven days per week, 365 days per year."
For more information about the benefits of public power, contact the American Public Power Association at 202-467-2900 or visit www.appanet.org.