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Renewable Energy’s “Ugly Sister”

In my last post (A Long and Windy Road to Our Renewable Energy Future) I talked about how renewable energy standards like Arizona's may be harder to achieve than we think.  That doesn't mean I think they're useless - I do believe we should diversify our energy sources - but I think that perhaps there are other ways to accomplish that goal than by transitioning to solar and wind technologies as they're currently developed.

One alternative, which I think should be part of any "alternative energy" transition is a reduction in energy usage.  Reducing our energy consumption by weatherizing our homes and replacing our old A/Cs is far less sexy than building what will be the world's largest concentrating solar power facility.  But this "ugly sister" is one we shouldn't ignore.

The Arizona Corporation Commission agrees - a few weeks ago the Commissioners ruled to require the regulated Arizona power companies to cut their customers' annual energy use by at least 22 percent by 2020.  This week, the ACC launched a parallel rulemaking to require natural gas companies to lower demand by 6 percent by 2020.

These kind of rules force utilities to consider cutting their use of fossil fuels through demand-side management: by getting customers to reduce peak energy consumption through time-of-use rates, encouraging more energy efficient building standards, weatherization, replacement of traditional light bulbs with compact fluorescents, and replacement of inefficient appliances. I should also note that if the ACC is serious about achieving the energy reductions, it must also remove the inherent financial disincentives (i.e. lower profits) that exist when the utility companies are told to sell less energy to customers.  Revenue decoupling is one mechanism that could cure this cruel dilemma.

The reduction in energy demand is the driving force behind an exciting new project along the light rail corridor in Phoenix.  Dubbed Energize Phoenix, the project is funded with a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  "The Energize Phoenix federal grant will be used to transform 10 miles of light rail line into a Green Rail Corridor (GRC). The program will be a model of energy efficiency and sustainability through the installation of energy-efficient systems and equipment, including air conditioners, water heaters and energy-efficient windows, as well as smart metering devices to help customers reduce energy usage."

The project is run by a partnership that includes the City of Phoenix, Arizona State University, and Arizona Public Service Company.  It has a number of key goals, according to the Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU:

  • To establish novel financial mechanisms to spur energy efficient investments and cut monthly energy costs for households and businesses.
  • To retrofit 3,500 homes and 30 million square feet of office and industrial space for greater energy efficiency, with the goal of shrinking home energy consumption by 30 percent and commercial energy use by 18 percent.
  • To reduce harmful carbon emissions and improve residential and commercial buildings through energy efficient upgrades and weatherization with the goal of reducing carbon emissions by 50,000 metric tons per year.

Energize Phoenix is expected to boost area employment by 2,700 workers or so - people who will be hired to help retrofit the homes and businesses along the corridor.  They'll install insulation and energy-efficient windows and lighting, replace old air-conditioning units and water heaters, and install APS smart meters to help residents see their real-time energy consumption.

I'm really excited to hear what researchers will discover about driving reductions in energy consumption.  I wonder if smart meters and education that help people learn about their energy consumption will really change people's behavior, or if making homes and businesses more energy efficient (which requires just the one-time investment on the owner's behalf) will be more effective.

People talk about the "Prius effect." The Prius has a dashboard monitor showing the driver his gasoline consumption.  Research has shown that the display has helped drivers drive more efficiently, to reduce their gas consumption.  But I wonder if that's because Prius owners are already pre-disposed to energy efficiency - they're the kind of people who want to save energy (and the planet), so making it easier for them to do that really works.

Then I wonder if the same can be said for the average homeowner who doesn't care nearly as much about his energy consumption or carbon footprint as the Prius owner does.  All else equal, will a smart meter really change his behavior?

I think it's a fascinating question, and I'm excited for Energize Phoenix to show us the answer.  And I'm glad that the project is tackling energy demand from both angles - by trying to change consumers' behavior, on one hand, and simply making buildings more efficient on the other.

What's your take?  Write a comment below - no registration required.

Written on Tuesday, 24 August 2010 16:35 by Gary Yaquinto

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