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New Report: U.S. Ranks 13th out of 16 Largest Economies in Energy Efficiency

Posted By Lowell F. on July 21st, 2014

Based on this story, it looks like the U.S. has a lot of work to do when it comes to energy efficiency.

The U.S. ranks 13th out of the 16 largest economies in energy efficiency, according to areport released today from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, an environmental nonprofit advocacy group.

The U.S. scored poorly for a number of reasons, including relatively low use of and investment in public transit, a high number of miles traveled in inefficient vehicles as well as high energy usage in both commercial and residential sectors.  A lack of energy savings targets and efficiency standards also played a role, the report’s authors said.

This poor ranking is unfortunate for a number of reasons. For one, as Tigercomm’s Bridgette Borst reported in late June, a Johnson Controls energy efficiency forum concluded that not only is “energy efficiency is a great way to save money, reduce carbon emissions [and] put lots of people to work in good-paying, local jobs,” it is also “one of the key four building blocks that states will be able to comply with the part 111-D Rule” (the EPA’s recently-announced proposal for reductions of carbon pollution from existing fossil fuel power plants).

Second, Americans overwhelmingly support energy efficiency improvements, so this is a political “no brainer.”

Third, as an International Energy Agency report in late 2013 found that energy efficiency is a “huge opportunity going unrealised,” with “investments in energy efficiency…still less than two‐thirds of the level of fossil fuel subsidies.”

Finally, with regard to the enormous potential of energy efficiency, see Institute for Building Efficiency’s Jennifer Layke: Insights on Communicating the Enormous Potential of Energy Efficiency and Is energy efficiency condemned to be the “eat your peas” technology?, in which we note that Rocky Mountain Institute Chairman and Chief Scientist Amory Lovins has found that“adopting efficiency technologies aggressively yet cost-effectively, yield[s] at least a 12% annual real rate of return.”

Given the points listed above, there’s really no excuse for the U.S. to rank 13th out of the 16 largest economies in terms of energy efficiency. To the contrary, we should be pushing hard to move towards the top of those rankings, and to do so as quickly as possible.

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Nevada Solar Net Metering Will Save the Grid $36 Million, Says State Report

Posted By Lowell F. on July 9th, 2014

Cross posted with permission from Susannah Churchill, Vote Solar

Step outside in Las Vegas on any July afternoon, and you can’t help but recognize Nevada’s tremendous solar opportunity. Recent solar price declines coupled with a restructured state incentive program and strong net metering policy mean that the state is now primed to make good on its rooftop solar promise in a big way.

And just like clockwork, cue the utility opposition to customer solar adoption. NV Energy, the biggest utility in the state, wants to raise residential fixed charges in southern Nevada a whopping 50 percent to $15.25 per month. Charges like this create a big disincentive for solar and efficiency measures because they are slapped on customers no matter how much energy they buy from the utility. Invest in a new energy-saving refrigerator? You still pay that $15.25 fee on your utility bill each month. Went solar to reduce your dependence on utility power? Still $15.25.

The fixed charge proposal is just one piece of a multipronged effort by NV Energy to make rooftop solar a bad deal for its customers. The utility is also pushing the Commission to recommend changes to the state’s net metering law, the cornerstone program that gives NV Energy solar customers credit on their utility bills for valuable power they deliver to the grid for use nearby. Like many utilities across the country, NV Energy is now aiming to quell the growth of rooftop solar with rhetoric about the costs of net metering. But a Public Utilities Commission (PUC)-ordered study released last week shows just how unfounded NV Energy’s anti-solar efforts are.

The study, conducted for state regulators by consulting firm Energy and Environmental Economics (E3), found that the grid benefits of rooftop clean energy systems installed through 2016 will exceed the costs by $36 million. Private investment in local solar generation delivers real savings to the grid and other ratepayers. If anything, net metering under-compensates Nevada solar customers for the valuable clean energy they produce.

Additional key takeaways from the study include:

  • For systems installed in 2014 and 2015, the annual grid-specific benefits of net metering flowing to other customers exceed the costs by at least $168 million over the systems’ lifetimes, or 5 cents/kWh of net metered energy generated. That means that even excluding important non-grid benefits like jobs, water savings and cleaner air, net metered customers will pay more than their fair share of grid costs in Nevada going forward.
  • If savings from avoiding distribution upgrades are included, E3’s estimated net benefit over the systems’ lifetime increases by $130 million. E3’s base case numbers, since they exclude any distribution benefits, are very conservative estimates of grid-specific net benefits.
  • For systems installed in 2016, after Nevada’s  Renewables Portfolio Standard rules have changed and clean DG no longer receives a compliance adder that boosts its value, the grid benefits of net metering to non-participating ratepayers still exceed the costs by $6 million.
  • Of course, local solar delivers tremendous societal benefits beyond the grid. The study quantifies just one of those non-grid benefits to the state — public health costs avoided from fewer harmful air emissions (NOx, Sox, particulate matter and mercury) — but uses an inaccurate proxy for those health benefits, as discussed below.

We appreciate that the PUC took input from a range of stakeholders during the study’s development, and that impacts were calculated from multiple perspectives (net metering participants, non-participants, and society as a whole). But to be clear, this report is not perfect, and it’s important to note a few big problems with E3’s Nevada approach. First, the study chose to include the price of the state’s solar incentive program as a cost. The NV Energy SolarGenerations rebate is of course an entirely separate program with a separate budget approved by the Legislature, and should not be part of a net metering study. Removing this cost would clarify that net metering delivers further net benefits to Nevada.

Second, E3 accounts for both energy consumed onsite and energy exported to the grid in its accounting of grid costs. Just like turning off the lights or buying a new refrigerator to reduce the amount of energy you use, solar that is both produced and used behind the customer’s meter places no burden on the utility system, and should not be part of the cost-benefit equation. E3 couldn’t show just the impacts from exported energy because the utility didn’t provide E3 with the necessary data on hourly load profiles. Correcting this calculation would also increase the benefits side of this net metering cost-benefit study.

Finally, E3’s Nevada study omits almost all the societal benefits of net metering. No study on the impacts of clean distributed generation is complete without taking into account public health benefits from avoided air emissions, job benefits and downstream economic effects, market price impacts, grid security benefits, and water savings. As noted above, E3 built in just one societal benefit — public health savings associated with air emissions (NOx, Sox, particulate matter and mercury), and even there, E3 used NV Energy’s relatively low cost of avoiding such emissions, which is an inaccurate proxy for the value of avoided premature deaths and healthcare cost savings. In addition, E3 mistakenly assumes that due to the state’s Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS) rules, more rooftop solar means less utility-scale solar. But in fact, Nevada utilities have already largely met the existing RPS, and more customer-installed solar will create additional clean air, water and public health benefits for Nevada.

Including some number for a public health benefit is better than none, but E3 has left a whole lot out of the equation, especially given that the Nevada Legislature specifically included a requirement that “comprehensive” benefits “to the State of Nevada” be included in the study. Net metering programs are not established simply to perpetuate business-as-usual grid economics. They have specific policy objectives, typically related to job growth, environmental or other social benefits. It’s only right that net metering impact studies also account for these very real benefits wherever feasible.

Those shortfalls aside, the results of this study are a good indicator of what other states could and should expect when evaluating the grid impacts of net metering; namely, that this simple crediting arrangement is a fair way to compensate solar customers for the benefits they deliver to the grid.

As utility attacks on net metering have raged across the country, we’ve argued for objective studies that accurately quantify the full range of costs and benefits that flow between solar customers, non-solar customers and the grid. For more guidance on what makes a good cost-benefit study, be sure to read A REGULATOR’S GUIDEBOOK: Calculating the Benefits and Costs of Distributed Solar Generation from our friends at IREC.

When a utility in any given state argues that the sky is falling because a small percentage of their customers are going solar — in Nevada, rooftop solar generates less than 1 percent of total power demand — we need facts to determine whether or not changing course is warranted. E3’s Nevada study is a great example of how data can dispel the utility hype, showing that net metering provides all Nevada ratepayers with grid savings, in addition to tremendous economic, water conservation and environmental benefits. E3’s analysis makes clear that the PUCN and the Nevada Legislature don’t need to change the state’s successful net metering program, or increase fixed charges for Nevada ratepayers. Instead, what really needs to change is the old-school utility model, which isn’t reflecting utility customers’ growing desire to make the switch to solar.

Lead image: Nevada sign via Shuttertock

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Intelen CEO on Approaching Energy Efficiency Engagement from a Human, Not Utility, Perspective

Posted By MarkS on July 8th, 2014

Vassilis Nikolopoulos is CEO and co-founder of Intelen, Inc, a New York-based emerging startup focused on smart grid big data applications and energy analytics/engagement. I had a chance to catch up with him a few weeks ago at Greentech Media’s Grid Edge Live conference in San Diego. In part, I wanted to follow up on the interview he did back in April 2013 with Greentech Media President Rick Thompson, in which they discussed the networked grid and what Intelen does to optimize energy efficiency in buildings. That includes Intelen’s integrated engagement platform that combines data analytics with human behavior. In that interview, Nikolopoulos talks about Intelen’s dynamic approach to “gamifying” demand response using mobile applications and its engagement platform. Here, we talk about the “human element” of the energy efficiency equation, on the energy cloud and on how utilities will need to change their business models in this rapidly evolving market.

Tigercomm Executive Vice President Mark Sokolove: Intelen recently released a white paper about optimizing not just technical approaches to managing and reducing energy consumption, but also about focusing in on the human element of the equation. Can you tell us a bit about Intelen’s work in better analyzing and mapping human behavior relating to building consumption?

Intelen CEO Vassilis Nikolopoulos: Sure.  One of the biggest challenges and problems in the engagement domain is how you actually measure engagement, because human behavior is something intangible. So we had to provide some way, we had to innovate in order to create a data-driven technology to measure the actual behavioral change and to see human engagement going on.  What we did was to create a unique data analytics platform: a combination of a dashboard, a learning management system and a mobile app that can act as an information and educational gateway in between the cloud platform and the humans. As we all know, smart phones can be considered as your digital extension to your behavior.

So what we did was to approach the engagement problem from a human perspective and not from a utility perspective. Right now, the definition of engagement is it’s something the utilities want.  Utilities want that because they just set up smart meters, so as soon as they understand the value of data and what lies beneath, they go and search for an optimized engagement mechanism to engage their customers. On the other side, we go in and approach the engagement problem from the customer’s side and not from the utility’s side.

So, we set out and we have analyzed,  after several years of continuous R&D, specific, permanent human needs that can sustain a continuous engagement philosophy and procedure. We built the so-called subliminal learning technique. What is this?  Based on our R&D, we found out that if we create training and educational material around an educational objective and we “gamify” the educational objectives, we can actually change human behavior.

How do we do this?  By offering training materials to users, to people, to students, to customers, based on their behavioral aspects. Let’s say that you want to change student behavior – to set up the thermostats in their dorms correctly, for instance.  We go and create educational material that can last 2-4 weeks, and we have as an educational objective to raise awareness on this specific topic by offering multiple-choice quizzes, tips, announcements and multimedia content, articles, videos, how-to guides,  and other educational features about how to correctly set up the thermostat. We offer videos, surveys, educational material you can use from your smart phone app. At the same time, we “gamify” the whole experience and we offer the possibility of prize incentives or social competitions.

Then, we go and we measure 5-6 important data-driven engagement metrics. We measure engagement. We measure efficiency. We measure participation, knowledge, commitment and influence. Those are metrics for which we have data from the mobile app, social networks, demographics, real-time energy data and our dashboard. Based on this combined data, we create data-driven human behavioral metrics.  So we know exactly how engaged you are with the platform, how efficient you are in switching the lights on and off, or how efficient you are in setting up the thermostat.

Of course, we measure the impact because we have the data monitoring platform that can be hooked up to smart meters. We have some great partnerships in this space, such as Obvius, where by using their advanced data loggers, we can track energy or water information to the second, and we can measure the immediate impact of our engagement. So, as soon as we engage you and offer you this material to change your human behavior, we can measure the impact to the actual building’s consumption. It’s like closing the loop.  First of all, we know how to engage people. We know how to quantify this engagement mechanism. We have the real-time Key Performance Indicators that actually measure the engagement and can actually measure also the result of this engagement to the actual daily consumption.

M.S.: So taking that example of the college dorms, what kind of participation rates have you seen?

V.N.: The participation is high. Currently, after July 15, we are starting another big engagement pilot with a top university in Boston. We have already run many pilots with over 20 U.S. universities and several commercial clients as well. So we have great participation that is continuous. The secret here is how to actually make this participation go on and on.

In the mobile app we have created a crowd feeding mechanism, features actually, where the user of the app pushes valuable information to us.  This means that we actually register building faults to the platform, such as thermal discomfort, lights/mechanical problems, HVAC problems, etc.  Building faults could be that the thermal discomfort level inside a classroom or inside the building or a room is rising, which means that something went wrong with the HVAC or the set point of the thermostat. So, as soon as you keep people engaged, and as soon as you give them the possibility and the power to push data -and of course by pushing data at different points you’re just raising some awareness, then you give badges and things like that.

At the same time, because we’re talking about how to socialize the whole thing, we call it social engagement.  Thus, at the same time, you can see how your colleagues are performing, by using our live news feeds and status updates. You can see that I just scored a 87% in the recycling quiz so I want to compete with you, not in the general and classical leader boards but in the specific knowledge area. Based on the social network effect, we help keep the users engaged, because they want to learn and get educated in a social classroom

M.S.: Where do you see utilities going in terms of adapting their business models from a centralized, top-down grid model to a more decentralized, distributed, smart grid model proceeding in coming years?  Any thoughts on the emergency of the “energy cloud” and energy data analytics in general?

V.N.: That’s a very good question. In the utility space, right now, there is a big change, there is a big transformation going on. Because utilities are searching for new ways to engage people. So what we are proposing to utilities is to create live customer communities. Community management in general is something really strong. Imagine that the utility’s objective is not just to send a monthly utility bill and that’s all. They have to educate their customers, they have to make them believe that they are next to them all the time, they are educating them about energy efficiency. At the same time they need to focus on some other social and community-based areas, let’s say recycling, volunteer management, etc

This is extremely important for the utility. What we want to do for the utility is to help them transform themselves to a social university about energy efficiency and sustainability. We want to help them transform into entities that can manage communities. By doing that, they will of course enhance their communication with the customer, and they will become more social entities rather than the financial entities that they are now. In short, it’s a transformation from being a financial entity to a social entity.

M.S.: Any thoughts on the emergence of the energy cloud and energy data analytics in general.

V.N.: That’s a big discussion. Right now, analytics is a big buzzword, everybody’s doing it.  Analytics is the means to do things. There are many niche markets to that. You can have analytics for the grid management, you can have analytics for the HAN (home area networks).  A big question, a big challenge will be how to actually harvest and get data from inside houses and homes. This is something very important, because in my opinion, in a couple of years you will have the utility meter only for billing purposes and that’s all.  All the other information we will be able to  get it directly from the appliances; you know, the internet of things.

This is a space where Google and Apple will battle. So just sit down, sit back and watch. But at the same time you have to be proactive, you have to be ready to step into this space and get the data that humans will be able to get. So for me, in the future, it is that the people will be at the top of the data chain, and that the people will actually choose who is going to be the stakeholder that will get their data based of course on the incentives that they will receive from them.

M.S.: If you could project out 10 years, how do you see the energy management space evolving in general?

V.N.: That’s a tough question. Actually, you cannot…I mean, the market is moving so fast, there are many disruptions entering into the space, it’s hard to predict and estimate. But for me, it’s going to be a very volatile, dynamic ecosystem.

Just to mention a very simple business case that we had analyzed 1 year ago, the electric vehicle case: imagine that by giving specific incentives to humans, you change their behavior. Then, this change of behavior has impact to other things – the way people drive, the way they park, or where exactly they park their electric vehicle. And that, in turn, changes the way they consume energy inside buildings or inside their offices, even the entire grid management philosophy. So for us, this is why we’re a human-centric company. We follow human engagement to all the buildings that a human can be: at his university, at his home or at his work.

So for me, the important factor is that humans will evolve. And as the humans evolve, the technology will evolve as well. And this will create new business models and new amazing ecosystems. But for me, it’s going to be a very volatile ecosystem. Things are moving very fast. You’re going to have storage, you’re going to add renewable energy sources to the grid, distributed energy sources, electric vehicles. You’re going to have some other disruptive energy harvesting products. But for me, right now, the key variable is the people.

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Johnson Controls Forum: Energy Efficiency a Key Building Block for EPA Carbon Rule Compliance

Posted By Lowell F. on June 25th, 2014

Reported by: Bridgette N. Borst

Video and photography by: Jacob Miller

Earlier this month, Johnson Controls held its 25th annual Energy Efficiency Forum at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. After a quarter-century, Johnson Controls continues to encourage the discussion of key topics related to energy efficiency and the positive impact of reduced energy consumption on the environment, national security, and economic growth.

The forum provided an impressive line-up of speakers, a networking reception and the release of the annual Energy Efficiency Indicator survey, which highlights trends and provides new insights into energy management and investment decisions. Our Scaling Green team had the opportunity to speak with Johnson Controls’ Vice President of Global Energy and Sustainability, Clay Nesler, who shared with us a few key highlights from the 2014 Energy Efficiency Indicator report. Nesler’s overall point was a crucial one, that “energy efficiency is a great way to save money, reduce carbon emissions [and] put lots of people to work in good-paying, local jobs.” Energy efficiency is also, as Nesler further explained, “one of the key four building blocks that states will be able to comply with the part 111-D Rule” (the EPA’s recently-announced proposal for reductions of carbon pollution from existing fossil fuel power plants).

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy was the forum’s keynote speaker. Conference attendees were especially interested in hearing from McCarthy following the release by her agency three weeks ago of the first-ever rule that limits carbon pollution from existing U.S. power plants.

Additionally, Dennis McGinn, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations and Environment; and John Hoeven, U.S. Senator from North Dakota, were both speakers at this year’s forum. Many attendees, such as Gregg Merritt, Vice President of Marketing at Cree (see his comments on the video) and Peter Kimmel of FM Benchmarking told us that they were excited to hear from this year’s speakers at the Energy Efficiency forum and to learn more about the development of energy-efficient technologies and market opportunities. 

In between sessions, our Scaling Green crew interviewed guest speakers including: Roger Duncan, Research Fellow at the University of Texas and Chairman of the Board for the Pecan Street Project; Trisha Miller, Senior Advisor of the Office of Economic Resilience at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Maria Koetter, Director of Sustainability for the City of Louisville. You can listen to what they had to say in the video. In general, though, it’s fair to say that throughout the conference, attendees heard a consistent, shared message from the speakers – namely, the importance of advocating for common-sense strategies that optimize productivity, drive sustainability, and increase energy efficiency.

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“Smiley Faces” for Energy Conservation, “Frowny Faces” for Water Conservation?

Posted By Lowell F. on March 18th, 2014

A year ago, we wrote about Opower’s finding that peer pressure was highly effective in persuading people to use energy more efficiently.

….the real key is one last box: a grade assessing your energy consumption. You receive two smiley faces for great conservation (that is, using less than 80 percent of what your neighbors do), one for good (using less than most of your neighbors do), none for bad (using more than most of your neighbors). As soon as customers recived their first reports and saw the smiley face box, they began increasing their energy efficiency.

It turns out that, just as “smiley faces” help encourage people to conserve energy, “frowny faces” appear to help convince people to save water.

To encourage people to consume less water and energy, conservationists often turn to taxes, rebates, or advertising.  But there may be a more cost-effective tool out there: peer pressure. A public utility in drought-stricken California is getting people to conserve water with some good old neighborly competition.

Giri Seshagiri is proud of his new low-flow showerhead, because it uses far less water than the old one. He installed it after his local utility, East Bay Mud, started sending him reports that compared his monthly water usage to that of his neighbors. He saw that some similar-sized households were using less water, so he began taking steps to cut back.

The water reports Seshagiri receives come with simple bar graphs and “empathetic gauges,” a fancy name for these emoticons shaped like big water droplets. Do better than most neighbors each billing period, and your water droplet is happy and smiling. Do worse, and your water face is anxious and concerned. At the bottom, the report has simple recommendations on how to conserve water and improve the mood of your emoticon.

Peter Yolles is the CEO of WaterSmart Software, the start-up that generates the reports. He says the easy-to-understand bar graphs and emoticons compel customers to change their behaviors. “In a way,” he says, “it’s like looking at a mirror of yourself.” And that reflection can have powerful effects.

It’s fascinating how simple things can be sometimes, like tapping into people’s natural competitiveness, their desire to receive positive feedback (and avoid negative feedback), etc. Yet despite being simple and effective, these approaches are often overlooked. Which is where companies like Opower and WaterSmart Software come in!

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