The Forgotten Clean Energy Source That Helps Power The Northwest


America’s energy future is often cast as a battle that pits fossil fuels such as coal and gas against wind, solar and other renewable energy sources. But in the Pacific Northwest, we’ve already slashed greenhouse gas emissions — and saved big bucks — with a clean energy source that often doesn’t even get mentioned in policy debates...

Energy audits... have been around for a long time... the City of Ashland – which operates its own municipal electric utility – was an early adopter of energy conservation programs that help homeowners identify waste – and help them pay to upgrade. 

Now, a political tug-of-war is being waged over whether the US should double down on fossil fuels or invest in wind, solar and other renewable energy sources. But energy manager Adam Hanks says there’s an often-overlooked third way.

“Renewables are excellent and there’s a place for renewables and they’re growing more and more affordable, but the most cost-effective kilowatt-hour generation is really efficiency and conservation,” he says.

Hanks heads energy efficiency and renewable energy programs for the City of Ashland. He notes that the cheapest power is the power you don’t have to produce in the first place. And that focusing on squeezing more use out of each watt has not only allowed Ashland’s utility customers to save on their monthly bills, it’s also meant the city utility hasn’t had to build expensive infrastructure to handle new load demand.

In fact, the Northwest as a region has been at the forefront of treating efficiency as a power source. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Northwest Power Act. The Act required utilities in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana to prioritize the lowest-cost energy resources available. As Tom Eckman explains, that was a turning point.

“It allowed them to select from energy efficiency for the first time, in addition to looking at new power plants. And energy efficiency carried the day because it was cheaper,” he says.

Eckman retired last year as director of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s power division. The Council is in charge of setting energy and environmental policy for the federal Columbia Basin hydropower system.  Eckman says putting efficiency first has allowed the region to reduce the cost of major new generating capacity.

“Utilities, rather than buying new gas-fired, coal or nuclear projects, could invest in your house and your business to improve its efficiency,” he says. “In lieu of spending ten times that amount of money on a generator, they could spend one-tenth of it on better light bulbs, insulation and motors.”

Efficiency is now the Northwest’s second largest power source. The Council says that saves consumers about than $3.7 billion each year and cuts carbon emissions by more than 22 million tons annually.

And Tom Eckman says emerging “smart grid” technologies for connecting appliances via the internet promise even more savings in the future.

“Because we can turn things off when they don’t need to run or turn them down when they need less. And we’re not even opening the door yet. We’re sort of peeking through the window about what those potentials are.”

The American Public Power Association estimates that from 2008 to 2015, aging power plants that produced enough electricity for more than six million homes were retired. And that by 2020, another three million homes worth of power generation will be shut down.

How will that generating capacity be replaced? Energy planners might look to the Northwest for cues on using energy efficiency to reduce the need to build expensive new power plants.

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Home Energy Score Policy Adopted by Portland City Council

(Portland, Ore.)— City Council today voted to approve Portland’s Home Energy Score Policy aimed at cutting utility bills and reducing carbon emissions. The new policy will provide home sellers and buyers with valuable information on energy use, energy costs and home improvements.

“Home energy scores is another key policy included in Portland’s 2015 Climate Action Plan. Similar to a miles-per-gallon rating on a car, it provides important consumer information that allows prospective home buyers to understand the true costs of owning a particular home. This critical information will lead to safer, healthier, more affordable homes that cause less pollution,” said Mayor Charlie Hales. “This is important progress for Portland’s housing market and climate action goals. This policy will ultimately lead to lower energy costs for homeowners, reduce carbon emissions, and build on Portland’s reputation as an international leader on climate action.” The newly adopted policy follows the Mayor’s recent trip to Mexico City to accept the C40 Cities Award for best climate action plan.

Portland’s home energy score policy requires sellers of single-family homes to obtain a home energy performance report, including a home energy score, before a home is listed for sale in the City of Portland. Sellers will be required to include the home energy score and the accompanying report in any real estate listings and provide a copy of the home energy performance report to prospective buyers who visit the home while it is on the market.

Providing vital information to home buyers

The cost of heating and powering homes is mostly invisible and unaccounted for in the home-buying process. Of Portland’s 160,000 single‐family homes, fewer than two percent have an energy score. Home energy scores convey critical information about energy use and costs to buyers and sellers of homes.

Home energy scores:

  • Allow home buyers to compare energy costs and performance between homes;
  • Provide home sellers with information on money-saving home improvements; and
  • Afford consumers a measure of protection when making one of the biggest financial investments most people ever make.

“I am proud to be a realtor in a community that values information, communication and sustainability,” said Hilary Bourassa, principal broker with Earth Advantage Accredited. “The home energy score policy will help our housing community better understand the total cost of owning a home and will assist in changing the conversation to include healthy and efficient living.”

Said Charity Fain, Executive Director of Community Energy Project, “CEP strongly supports the proposed home energy score policy. For lower income homebuyers, knowing the potential heating and cooling costs is essential when considering whether a mortgage will be affordable. The home energy score program will make this information accessible — and that is of particular value to lower income buyers.”

“We know from our work with thousands of customers over the years that providing details about energy performance empowers homeowners with a tangible value for energy efficiency,” said Tim Miller, CEO, Enhabit. “That value translates into immediate benefits for home comfort, efficiency and health — and recurring climate benefits for their communities.”

Homes that are energy efficient cost less to operate, making these homes more affordable over the long term. Energy-efficient homes also are more livable, more comfortable and healthier.

Helping to achieve climate action goals

Residential buildings account for nearly half of the emissions from buildings in Portland. Portland and Multnomah County’s 2015 Climate Action Plan goal is to reduce local carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. To meet this goal, Portland must significantly accelerate building energy efficiency.

“A home energy score has been a priority in Portland’s Climate Action Plan since 2009,” said Bureau of Planning and Sustainability Director Susan Anderson. “This vote means that Portland will continue to be among leading cities nationally to implement new and easy ways to reduce energy bills for residents and reduce our citywide carbon footprint.”

The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability developed the draft proposal over the last year, with input from real estate professionals, homebuilders, recent home sellers and buyers, energy efficiency practitioners, housing providers, affordable housing and equity advocates and other interested stakeholders.

Jana Gastellum, Oregon Environmental Council’s program director for climate, said, “A home energy score empowers people to make choices that line up with their budget and their values when buying a house. Saving energy means saving money and lowering a home’s impact on the climate. Portlanders value both. Like a miles-per-gallon rating for cars, energy use for a home needs to be part of the conversation when buying. A home energy score and a focus on efficiency are a triple win: better homes, more good jobs, and less climate pollution.”

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Infographic: Better Buildings Challenge.

Small commercial buildings provide a great opportunity for energy reduction in the US.  There are many easy, very cost effective ways to improve building efficiency.  Simple lighiting improvements and mechanical control retrofits are a must for any small building owner.  These efforts offer short payback periods and significant improvements to buildings.  Here's an initiative that I am following and think will show nice results for reducing America's carbon footprint.

The Better Buildings Challenge, part of the President's Better Buildings Initiative, encourages organizations to reduce the energy consumption of their buildings by 20% over a 10-year period. Here's a status update:


Read the original post from The Better Buildings Challenge.

Upgrade Your Refrigerator, Save Money Twice.

One of the biggest energy guzzlers in your home (besides, most likely, your thermal envelope, which lets expensive conditioned air escape through air leaks and poorly insulated walls) is the refrigerator. Upgrading it, believe it or not, can save you a bundle of money in the long run, as long as you don't simply put your old fridge down in the basement and plug it back in. Now, before you balk at the high upfront cost of replacing your fridge, let us explain why we (admittedly, energy-efficiency/penny-pinching geeks) think it's a good idea:

1) You pay twice for an inefficient refrigerator.

If you have an older fridge, it's getting cool on the inside by running a motor that makes the room itself warmer, just like a heater would. If you have air conditioning, it has to work that much harder (also using electricity) to remove the heat from your house — so there's a double-whammy penalty for having an inefficient fridge.

2) New Energy Star models are much, much more efficient than older refrigerators.

A friend of ours at Energy Circle (Tom) did a little research on a fridge he bought in 1998 (not too long ago), and discovered that replacing it with an Energy Star model (of the same design, size, etc.) that he could buy today would use less than 1/2 the electricity. If he got a more efficient design (i.e. freezer on top instead of side-by-side), it would use 1/4 as much. If he got the most efficient model of the most efficient design, it would use about 1/6th as much electricity. And none of this accounts for the important point that all of that inefficiency is released in the form of heat, which makes his house hotter! Yikes!

Energy Star has a great tool for calculating the savings of upgrading your refrigerator on their website. A quick test of the tool shows, for example, that replacing a side-by-side model from 1992 with a new Energy Star model would save about $125 per year (along with the savings garnered from having to run the AC less frequently).

We think the old refrigerator problem is actually bigger than most people think. The Energy Information Administration estimated that in 2001, more energy was used for refrigeration than for space heating, water heating, or lighting. We also have a great deal of faith in the Energy Star program itself: despite some recent criticism, the Energy Star label has been hugely successful in driving energy efficiency in appliances and electronics since the program's creation in 1992; and, as we saw recently when the label was peeled from a number of LG and Kenmore refrigerators, the program continues to evolve and improve.

On a final note, it's important to keep in mind that simply buying a new refrigerator, and sticking the old one down in the basement to keep a six-pack cold, doesn't fix anything. To help drive the point, in addition to rebates and other incentives for purchasing Energy Star appliances, a lot of states are now issuing rebates for recycling your old fridge (essentially a cash-for-appliances program aimed at getting those old fridges out of the basement).

So the mantra is simple: refrigerate, recycle, rebate.