"How to Achieve Energy Efficiency with a Blend of Technologies and Human Capital"
The Future Energy Conferences are held each year in Portland and Seattle to address the business and policy issues of the new energy economy.
“We know we want a vibrant energy future,” says Portland sustainability director Susan Anderson at the Future Energy Conference in Portland last week. “And we know we need to pull a lot of pieces together – like solar, wind, and upgrading our existing buildings.” Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber emphasized not only pulling the pieces together, but pulling together through partnerships between Oregon and its neighbors to create a low-carbon future. “Will we shape our energy future, or will it shape us?”
The Future Energy Conferences are held each year in Portland and Seattle to address the business and policy issues of the new energy economy. People from the energy industry and government gather to discuss topics ranging from community solar power to energy efficiency programs and electric vehicles.
There was an entire track dedicated to energy efficiency, which means I got to spend about 4 hours talking efficiency with a bunch of other energy geeks. Few conferences offer that pleasure.
Even fewer conferences bring together renewable energy and energy efficiency — and presenting those topics side by side signifies the focus of this conference on an integrated approach to the future of energy.
Governor Kitzhaber described a “troubling narrative” — the rhetoric that environmental stewardship is a barrier to economic recovery and growth. “Some people are using high unemployment as an excuse to relax environmental policies. We reject that notion because we have evidence to the contrary.”
He noted the success of the clean energy sector in Oregon in creating more and higher-paying jobs that are hard to export. Prime example: jobs in energy efficiency retrofits.
Millions of buildings need updating. But numerous owners have already improved the energy efficiency of their buildings. For those early adopters, the next level of energy efficiency is tough to find. Otherwise it would have been harvested by now, says Chris Smith, principal of Energy 350, an engineering firm in Portland specializing in energy efficiency.
“The better we get at energy efficiency, the tougher it gets,” Smith admits. The barrier to reaching that next level is “a perception that there isn’t any inefficiency to fix.
One solution is a holistic approach that looks beyond replacing inefficient equipment. The first step is to monitor energy use, then scour the data to identify opportunities for improvement.
“Thanks to the available incentives in Oregon, the initial evaluation is practically free,” Smith says. The best improvements often are low-cost changes in mechanical configurations or occupant behavior.
Not every building has the luxury of a sophisticated management system that gathers data about performance. That’s particularly true of industrial facilities, where production takes priority over saving energy, says Ruby Gates, founder of Encapsys Inc., a data analytics firm.
“It’s like walking into the 1970s,” Gates says. “It’s alarming that our economy depends on systems that are old and labor intensive.” Energy monitoring for some companies might consist of going outside once a day and reading the electric meter.
Other companies forego the metrics and jump right into trying to save energy. The key to success is to create persistent behavioral change among a building’s occupants, explains Kendall Youngblood of PECI, a nonprofit that implements conservation programs for utilities and companies.
PECI will launch a pilot program with an undisclosed global retail beverage chain based in Seattle. Eight stores will compete to reduce their energy consumption.
A similar in-house competition at PECI produced a four percent energy savings, Youngblood says. “At PECI we saved four percent for a trophy. Is a trophy persistent? We don’t know yet.”
Jane Peters, president of Research Into Action, says such campaigns need to be evaluated for their effectiveness. Thirty years of research tell her that persistence isn’t the greatest concern.
“The rebound effect from energy efficiency measures is actually quite minute. It happens with a narrow set of measures and population,” Peters says. A more important question is, “what part of the savings would have happened anyway, without a program to promote efficiency?”
Data collection isn’t always practical, so Peters’s firm also uses interviews to assess participants’ behavior changes. “We came up with a new model that measures individuals’ energy awareness, knowledge and attitudes, and how they actually behave.”
“We tend to focus on technology and data,” says Alan Hickenbottom of Christenson Electric in Portland. “But leveraging your human capital, forming energy teams, discovering your organization’s energy champions, combined with the technical solutions, will give you the persistence you’re looking for.”