How does a utility with some of the country’s lowest electric rates convince customers to do anything to save energy? Denis DuBois talked with John Francisco, who manages Energy Services for Inland Power, to find out why their energy efficiency programs are successful. Inland Power and Light is an electric co-op powering 39,000 homes, farms and businesses in eastern Washington.
JOHN FRANCISCO has a tough job — to increase energy efficiency in the 39,000 homes, farms and businesses in Inland Power‘s territory in eastern Washington. Like most utilities, Inland Power needs new energy resources to meet growing energy demand. And, like most utilities, it gets those resources in part by offering energy efficiency programs to its customers. The programs give consumers a way to manage their electric bills, and using less energy regionally means building fewer new power plants.
Unlike their counterparts in larger metropolitan areas, rural electric co-ops don’t have large bases of big commercial customers who can afford to make energy-efficient improvements to their facilities. And the co-ops themselves usually are short on funds for incentives to offset the cost of improvements.
Inland Power serves mostly homes and farms across thirteen counties in two states. In fact, eight tenths of the electricity from Inland Power is consumed by homes and another one tenth is used by farms. These days, in rural communities like Odessa, WA, and Blanchard, ID, many families are struggling to make ends meet. Paying for energy retrofits just isn’t in their budgets.
To make Francisco’s job even more challenging, Inland Power’s electric rates are some of the lowest in the United States, in part because Inland Power gets all of its electricity from hydroelectric dams operated by Bonneville Power Administration.
Cheap electric rates in farm country translate to lower food prices for you and me. But these rates are so low that customers aren’t easily motivated to save energy, even though many of Inland Power’s customers would welcome a smaller electric bill. Any barrier — like up-front cost or the effort to find contractors — is enough to stifle their interest in taking action.
“I moved into energy efficiency three years ago because it’s a new challenge,” Francisco says. He has been with the utility for 18 years, much of that time in the finance department. He’s also a CPA. Those skills helped him to craft energy efficiency programs that are not only cost-effective for the utility, but also entice cash-strapped rural customers to say yes.
ONE OF Inland Power’s most successful initiatives has been a program to seal heating and air-conditioning ducts in homes. The program has reached about 2,500 households so far. Inland Power hires the contractors and pays for the work, so the homeowners don’t need to take any initiative or dish out any cash for the service.
“Energy efficiency programs typically reach more affluent homes in a utility’s territory,” Francisco explains. “Ours is a program that reaches all income levels, including families who can’t afford to pay for this type of service.”
Inland Power covers about a fourth of the cost of marketing and implementing the program. Bonneville Power Administration funds the rest.
When contractors go into homes to seal the ducts, “they often find hidden problems that waste a lot of energy,” Francisco says. The fix usually is simple and invisible to the occupants, who subsequently report more comfortable homes and significant savings on their energy bills. Weatherization savings persist for many years after work is done.
FARMERS ARE the target of another of Inland Power’s popular programs. The utility helps growers pay for more efficient lighting and irrigation pumping equipment.
“Growers have very little control over the cost of their goods, and even less control over the selling price when they harvest,” Francisco says. “Energy is a cost that they can influence.” His utility helps farmers retrofit lighting to use less energy and improve the quality of light in their shops.
Many pumping plants in use today for crop irrigation are decades old and have significant potential for energy and cost savings. Inland Power provides assistance to irrigators who want to upgrade aging components and inefficient pumps for their super-sized sprinkler systems. In both agricultural programs, farmers are approved for incentives in advance so they know exactly how much their rebates will be.
John Francisco likes new innovations as much as he likes new challenges. What’s on his list of leading-edge energy efficiency technologies? Light-emitting diode lamps have his attention. “Their cost curve is coming down,” he says, and if utilities are going to meet the growing energy needs of the region, “we need more quantum leaps in technology.”
Denis Du Bois interviewed energy industry executives at Efficiency Connections Northwest.