We’re off to see the world, the wonderful world of… collaborative market transformation! Who are “we?”

Monica Cowlishaw
Contributing author Monica Cowlishaw is Manager of Energy Efficiency & Community Outreach for Cascade Natural Gas Corporation in Kennewick, WA. Cascade serves more than 272,000 customers in 96 communities in Washington and Oregon. Monica has worked with Cascade for the past 7 years and primarily focuses on the facilitation, support and growth of energy efficiency and demand side management in Washington and Oregon.

We are a group of regional gas utilities and local energy efficiency organizations including Cascade Natural Gas Corporation (CNGC), Puget Sound Energy, Avista, NW Natural, Energy Trust of Oregon and Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (NEEA).

This collaborative recently announced an aggressive five-year, $18.3 million plan to advance the development and market adoption of energy-efficient natural gas products, practices and services in the Pacific Northwest. See this news story “New Regional Program Targets Natural Gas Efficiency” for details.

From a natural gas perspective this is a whole new stage, and world of potential. Electric market transformation efforts have been in place for years, with significant strides toward improved energy-efficient products and increased market adoption rates. NEEA alone has spent close to two decades in electric focused efforts in partnership with its electric and dual-fuel utility partners.

The ultimate goal of this collaborative is to make more efficient choices available for all natural gas customers in the Northwest.

This goal alone speaks to a reason for Cascade to engage on our customers’ behalf. It will boost uptake of conservation incentive programs in a much quicker timeframe than that which could occur naturally.

With the development of the collaborative, not to mention the $18.3 million of funding provided by the combined participating Northwest natural gas utilities, this effort allows us as a natural gas-only utility to leverage NEEA’s market transformation experience and well established position in the market. It also offers advantages inherent in the economies of scale of a regional effort as opposed to what we could achieve under our own auspices.

While our Conservation Incentive Programs in Washington continue to monitor the market and, when feasible and cost-effective, have been updated to include new technologies, it’s been a slow process to find new viable rebate-eligible natural gas measures.

Around the time NEEA introduced the idea of establishing a collaborative of the large gas utilities in the Northwest, Cascade considered our own limited pilot efforts to introduce new technologies to our service territory in Washington State.  Upon discussions with the NEEA collaborative group, our Conservation Advisory Group and other stakeholders we instead elected to invest the funds toward supporting the collaborative.

By engaging in a joint effort of this nature, we increase the effectiveness of the efforts while we garner the benefits from more pilot programs than we could have undertaken on our own.

Having made that point, from our perspective it’s imperative these market transformation efforts have a direct advantage for our service territory as well as the region at large.

Does size really matter?

In this case, yes, when the goal is to boost natural gas product adoption and overall market availability. The Cascade service territory is comparatively small. We serve a little over 272,000 customers within our 68 Washington communities and 28 Oregon communities. In Washington State we deliver our energy-efficiency incentive programs directly to eligible customers, whereas the Energy Trust of Oregon implements programs on our behalf for Oregon rate payers.

As a utility providing incentives for our customers through a rebate program it can be difficult to find new natural gas options for customers who wish to remain gas users while increasing their equipment’s efficiency.  The issue is not the lack of new technologies and higher-efficiency natural gas equipment, but rather the lack of widespread accessibility on the market, unavailability in our specific service territory and general unfamiliarity with newer higher-efficiency products by the public.

By participating in the NEEA pilots for natural gas-fired heat pump water heaters, combined space and water heating, hearth products, commercial rooftop HVAC and residential natural gas clothes dryers, we’re helping raise the bar on the efficiency options available to environmentally conscious natural gas customers in the Northwest.

The electric to gas conundrum.

How will NEEA, as a traditionally electric focused entity, equitably promote natural gas focused efforts while avoiding promotion of fuel-switching?

While supporting similar efforts in the Natural Gas industry, NEEA remains cognizant of the interests of their other funding partners. Their Business Plan includes language barring fuel switching from electric to natural gas as well as cross-subsidy funding. From a gas-only perspective these efforts should not affect existing customers, nor would the efforts deter customers from purchasing new technology for natural gas upgrades.

Although it can be argued in certain situations, switching from a standard-efficiency electric measure to high-efficiency natural gas makes sense and reduces overall energy usage and carbon impact from a source to site standpoint, that’s not the intention of these pilot efforts.

By the end of the 5-year pilot the hope is for these efforts to serve as a model for the nation’s natural gas product industry as we move toward more efficient use of our natural resources. We’re interested in seeing the affect we’ll have on the growing natural gas market.

Photo credit: gas flame by Max ☢ / CC BY-NC-ND