Utilities try to persuade consumers to conserveby Stephanie Hemphill, Minnesota Public Radio
Minnesota's utilities face a daunting task: the state has told them to cut their sales of electricity and natural gas by one-and-a-half-percent a year.
It's part of Minnesota's response to climate change. Heating, cooling and running our buildings account for almost half of all greenhouse gas emissions.
But the demand for electricity has been growing by 2 to 5 percent a year, so utilities are scratching their heads to figure out how to get their customers to use less energy.
St. Paul, Minn. — The utilities are working on plans for conservation projects that will shave 1.5 percent from the average of their sales over the last three years.
It seems odd for politicians to tell businesses to cut their sales, but the utilities have been pushing conservation for years. Now, instead of a mandate to spend a certain amount of money on conservation, they're obligated to find ways to actually cut energy use.
At Karen Sarvela's house in Fridley, Minn., Jimmy Sparks is conducting an energy audit.
Sparks is with the Neighborhood Energy Connection. Xcel Energy hires the St. Paul non-profit organization to do these audits.
Sarvela has done a lot of work on her house over the years. It's well-insulated; it has new double-paned windows and a modern, efficient furnace. Jimmy Sparks tells her she's in good shape.
"I would suggest some little things, like insulating the water tank and hot water pipes," he said. "It costs about $15, saves about $15, pays for itself in a year."
Sparks calls Salvela's house a "nickel-and-dime house."
"I like finding houses with big bills," he said "because it makes me smarter than I actually am!"
Home energy audits are one of the key conservation programs offered by electric and gas utilities.
But some studies show that only 2 percent of people who have audits ever follow through with recommended actions, such as adding insulation or sealing leaks.
The Executive Director of the Center for Energy and Environment in Minneapolis Sheldon Strom says utilities need to make it as easy as possible for people to follow up. Over the next few months his group is going to try some creative approaches, like neighborhood energy days.
"For example, you could have a program where everybody on a block signs up to get these energy services all on the same day; then it's very low cost to deliver those services," he said. "Or you can take a neighborhood and say, 'On this day, let's everybody recycle all their old refrigerators that are just sitting in their basement wasting energy'."
Minnesota utilities have a number of programs to help their customers save energy.
One of the most effective programs is a switch on air conditioners that lets the utility cycle it off and on during periods of peak electricity use. More than 350,000 Xcel Energy customers are on the switch. Combined with business customers on a similar program, they can reduce demand by the amount of electricity that 750,000 homes would use.
Crystal Manik, Residential Program Manager at Xcel Energy, says customers get a discount on the electric bill during the summer months.
"Most customers tell us they don't even know that the saver switch is being used at that time, because it continues to circulate the cool air in the home," she says. "It's not as if the home suddenly is allowed to get hot."
Minnesota utilities could look at what's happening in other states to motivate consumers to save energy. Some utilities offer low interest loans to help customers pay for energy-efficiency upgrades. The customers pay off the loans on their utility bills.
So-called smart meters track electricity consumption on an hourly basis. That allows the utility to charge more when people use electricity at peak times, which could motivate customers to shift their energy use to other times of day.
So far, utilities have achieved most of their conservation with their commercial and industrial customers. Xcel says in the last two years 95% of savings have come from the business side.
But the new state mandate will push utilities to try to get more savings from homeowners and renters.
Reducing energy use by 1.5 percent doesn't sound like much, but it's cumulative. Sheldon Strom from the Center for Energy and Environment says by 2025 it should cut our projected energy use by 24 percent. And at that point, the state's renewable energy standard kicks in that requires 25 percent of electricity to come from renewable fuels.
"So the combination of those two actions would mean we'd reduce our electricity use and emissions by about 42 percent in 2025 from where they were projected to go," said Storm.
That's still not enough to meet the state's goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions below the levels of 2005.
Strom says consumers can't sit back and wait for businesses and neighbors to save energy. Everyone needs to be involved.
- Morning Edition, 07/18/2008, 7:20 a.m.