Hot new energy efficiency measure is ductless heat pumps, as market for CFLs is saturated

Written November 5th, 2012 by
Categories: Energy Business, Energy Efficiency, News

Snohomish County Public Utility District is known in the Pacific Northwest for its innovative approaches to energy efficiency and renewable energy. Denis Du Bois interviewed Bob Gunn, senior utility analyst for the PUD, to find out what programs are successful today and why.


Snohomish County PUD is the second largest publicly owned utility in Washington. It serves 320,000 electric customers in a service territory that covers over 2,200 square miles, including all of Snohomish County.

Robert Gunn, Senior Utility Analyst, Snohomish County PUD

What energy efficiency programs have been particularly successful for your utility?

Compact fluorescent lamps and ductless heat pumps have been very successful for us. CFLs have been a mainstay for 10 years, but federal standards are now in place to increase the efficiency of incandescent light bulbs. We still get a lot of our residential energy savings from CFLs. It’s the low hanging fruit and it’s very cost effective for us. So we’re trying to continue our CFL program as long as possible. The question for us is, how can we continue to deliver high levels of energy efficiency when the low hanging fruit become less plentiful? That’s why we’re turning our attention to other measures, because five years from now CFLs won’t be as big a part of our portfolio.

Are ductless heat pumps one of those other measures?

Yes, it’s one of my favorites. Ductless heat pumps are a good option to replace baseboard or cadet wall heaters that use a lot of energy and are widespread in the Northwest. You drill a single hole in the wall and you get heat pump technology with high energy efficiency coefficients. They also provide cooling for the few days a year that we need it here. I have one in my home and I really love it.

We’ve had a ductless heat pump program since 2009, when the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance worked with its members to launch a regional promotion. There was another big push in 2010 with federal incentives. Utilities are really gaining traction with ductless heat pumps in the U.S., but they’ve been popular in Asia and Hawaii for decades.

What incentives do you offer for ductless heat pumps?

SnoPUD offers rebates and low-interest loans. Our program doesn’t target a particular niche, it’s applicable in any single-family home without ductwork — that’s half of the electric resistance heating market. We offer low-interest, no-fee loans in hopes that they allow everyone to participate. We have contractors qualified and lined up to do the work. When they’re done the customer gets a rebate check for $800.

How do you measure the success of energy efficiency programs like these?

The primary metric is the avoided cost. As an economist in the group I can say that we’re always looking at the cost effectiveness of our programs. We view energy efficiency as a resource. We’re confident that by purchasing efficiency we’re reducing our need to build or buy new power, thereby keeping rates lower than they may otherwise have been. There’s also a risk in market prices, and conservation removes that risk of price fluctuation.

How are the energy efficiency incentives funded?

They’re built into our rates and annual budgets. Bonneville Power Administration helps with the incentives and validates the energy savings.

What gets ratepayers past their inertia?

We hope the incentive is a good carrot to do something now. It’s a little extra work to fill out a form and be inspected. We’re telling customers it’s important enough that we’ll give them $800 to do it. The economics pencil out for them without the incentives, but the money helps get them past their inertia. Our marketing department educates customers that this is a way to decrease energy costs and increase the comfort of their homes. Marketing to the customer and customer education are still the biggest hurdles.

How much of your own power do you generate today?

We own about nine percent of our own generation, which consists of a handful of hydroelectric facilities in our service territory. We also have eight percent wind and other renewables including electricity from cogeneration resources like the Hampton lumber mill in Darrington. We’re a large customer of the Bonneville Power Administration, which provides 81 percent of our power.

What would you do if all barriers were down?

If cost were not a barrier I would insulate every home in Snohomish County. Before 1992 it wasn’t required to install insulation in homes. There are homes literally without any insulation. SnoPUD is beginning to focus on more whole-house efficiency measures. I’d love to be able to insulate every attic, wall and crawlspace.

What led you to the job you have today?

I joined SnoPUD four years ago, after I left a job as a financial analyst for Todd Pacific Shipyards, now called Vigor Industrial. The opportunity at SnoPUD to apply my skills to a field I’m really interested in was a perfect fit for me. The thing I like about energy efficiency is that it uses the same skills — economics is all benefits and costs — but instead of dollars per ton of steel I’m using kilowatt-hours. Same metrics, different units.

Denis Du Bois interviewed key players at Efficiency Connections Northwest.

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Denis founded Energy Priorities Magazine on Earth Day 2004 and hosts the radio program by the same name distributed by NPR. He has authored hundreds of cleantech articles for a variety of publications, ranging from Sustainable Industries Journal to the New York Times, and he has been interviewed by major news outlets, including FORTUNE and MSNBC. He lives in the Seattle, WA area. Follow him on Twitter: @Cleantech. Contact him here. Disclosure information.
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