“States can dictate the energy future,” says Bill Ritter Jr., Director of the Center for the New Energy Economy, and former governor of Colorado. Here’s our report from his welcome keynote and the energy efficiency sessions at the 2013 Future Energy Conference.

Bill Ritter Jr., Director of the Center for the New Energy Economy and former Colorado Governor, talks with attendee Will Dixon at the 2013 Future Energy Conference.
Bill Ritter Jr., Director of the Center for the New Energy Economy and former Colorado Governor, talks with attendee Will Dixon at the 2013 Future Energy Conference.

Mr. Ritter’s organization works with state governments to promote clean energy development. “We think states are where we can move clean energy agendas forward,” he says, pointing to a recent climate agreement between three Western states and British Columbia, and the hundreds of millions of Americans who live in states with Renewable Energy Standards.

“Opponents have gone from state to state trying to undo those renewable energy mandates,” Ritter points out, but so far none have succeeded. “The difference between naysayers and Chicken Little is that the naysayers actually want the sky to fall.” He says legislatures are convinced there is a business case for clean energy.

At the federal level Mr. Ritter does not expect Congress to take action soon. The Shaheen-Portman bill for energy efficiency “unfortunately will never see the president’s desk,” Ritter says. Instead of acting, Congress will continue to react to extreme weather events by paying the increasing costs of disaster relief.

The Future Energy Conference followed former Governor Ritter’s address with four concurrent tracks of panel discussions on renewable energy, energy efficiency in buildings, energy policy and transportation fuels.

In “Buying and Selling Efficiency as a Resource” Matthew Tidwell, policy specialist with Bonneville Power Administration, explained the hard and soft values of energy efficiency. His office helps utilities determine whether an investment in energy efficiency programs will pay off, given the loss of revenue and avoided costs. His primary tool is a model that calculates the financial benefits for utilities and their communities.

“We model what can be modeled,” Tidwell says, but efficiency has benefits that are impossible to quantify. Efficiency mitigates the risk of wide swings in the price of wholesale energy, for example. Efficiency programs have been shown to improve customer satisfaction even among those who do not participate. And there’s an economic development aspect because energy efficiency often involves new appliances or equipment that are bought locally and installed by companies that create jobs in the community.

The hard costs can be accurately measured, says Robert Harmon, founder of EnergyRM. His Portland, Oregon company recently launched a service to not only “meter” energy savings but to also finance commercial building improvements and repay investors. It’s a complex system involving owners, tenants, utilities and financiers — but it has the support of Seattle City Light and is installed in the Bullitt Foundation’s new Living Building.

It takes more than utility incentives and rebates to encourage property owners to improve the efficiency of their buildings. Rodney Schauf, director of engineering for the Sheraton Seattle Hotel, says he has to sell efficiency ideas to his management, accounting and, ultimately, to the hotel’s guests. Schauf was a panelist in “Motivating Building Efficiency Retrofits.”

“If a guest isn’t comfortable with room temperature or lighting, they might not come back to our hotel next time they’re in town,” Schauf says. Through numerous efficiency improvements, he says, Sheraton Seattle enjoys many repeat customers, particularly those planning green meetings.

Darrell Smith, director of facilities and energy at Microsoft, is installing systems to optimize energy use in the tech giant’s 125 sites encompassing 34 billion square feet globally. He says his ideas for efficiency had to pass rigorous financial evaluations before being implemented.

Mr. Smith argued that the company’s former policy of recommissioning buildings on a five-year cycle allowed facilities to fall progressively below their original energy performance. New, smart-building technologies gather and analyze data that allow Microsoft to continuously commission buildings. “By moving from preventive maintenance to predictive maintenance, I can save money on energy and extend the useful life of Microsoft’s real estate assets,” Smith says.

Facility managers are finding that high-tech energy efficiency measures run up against barriers imposed by the puzzling behavior of occupants and operators. Occupants leave lights on and hide space heaters under their desks; operators override automation systems intended to reduce energy waste.

An industry sector is taking shape to study and implement low-tech programs designed to change those behaviors using principles of psychology. But large-scale behavior change — and documenting the savings that come from it — requires technology. That symbiotic relationship between hardware and “wetware” was the subject of “Merging Technology and Occupant Behavior” with panelists from Opower, Bonneville Power Administration and the Psychology Department at Washington State University. More on that in an upcoming article.

This is the fourth year for the Future Energy Conference in Seattle, Washington. It’s presented twice annually by the Northwest Environmental Business Council in Seattle and Portland, Oregon.