Economy dims energy efficiency efforts

Economy dims energy efficiency efforts

Michele Ellson

John Tredgold looked down from his office at the bright, airy bakery below.

“Right now, there’s no lights on in the facility,” said Tredgold, who is Semifreddi’s director of bakery operations.

Leaders of the artisanal baking company – which uses minimal packaging, recycles 95 percent of its waste and limits delivery trips in its effort to be a good steward of the environment – installed 44 solar light tubes that refract soft white sunlight through the ceiling of their 33,000-square-foot Harbor Bay Business Park home, a move that helped cut the company’s energy usage by 20 percent and its bill by thousands of dollars a year.

“It’s real money,” Tredgold said. “Financially for the company, it’s great.”

Despite the environmental and financial benefits of projects like the one at Semifreddi’s, fewer companies and homeowners are doing them. Energy-saving efforts promoted by Alameda Municipal Power saved triple the amount of energy its leaders hoped to save in 2008 and 2009, but those numbers dropped substantially in 2010 and last year, a report the utility is submitting to the state shows.

The utility paid $224,026 in rebates to residential and commercial electricity customers through its lighting, refrigeration and other energy efficiency programs in 2011. In all, it spent $653,816 on the programs and saved 1,433 megawatt hours of electricity. (One megawatt hour is enough electricity to power 1,000 homes for an hour.) That’s more power than the utility’s programs saved in 2010, but far less than the 2,211 saved in 2009; the utility spent $510,067 on its efficiency programs that year. The money comes from a surcharge utilities are required to include in customers’ bills to cover public benefit programs.

The manager charged with AMP’s efforts to reduce energy use said a weak economy has made her efficiency programs a tough sell, particularly to the small business owners who make up 81 percent of the utility’s commercial customer base. And fewer homeowners are building or renovating now than before the 2008 economic crash, meaning fewer are purchasing the energy efficient appliances that fuel savings. Building permit valuations were $84.4 million in 2011, up from $63 million the year before but lower than the $152 million recorded in 2007, AMP’s leaders said.

“People are not buying a new refrigerator unless the old one dies,” said Meredith Owens, AMP’s energy management supervisor.

Statewide, publicly-owned utilities like AMP spent $123 million in energy efficiency programs in 2010, the first decline since such information was first collected in 2006, and energy savings declined for the first time as well, a draft report to the California Energy Commission said.

But the report, which said publicly-owned utilities had fallen short of their 2010 energy savings goals in large part due to the completion of a single project by a Los Angeles-based utility, offered an optimistic view of the results.

“Despite 2010’s lackluster economic conditions, mid‐sized and small utilities performed reasonably well in both efficiency spending and savings,” said the report, which said publicly owned utilities are expected to reduce energy usage by 29 percent by 2020.

Alameda Municipal Power’s energy efficiency programs have seen interest from bigger organizations, Assistant General Manager Sherri Hong said, though seeing a project through can sometimes take years as it winds through an organization’s management layers. Smaller businesses are more of a challenge, Hong and Owens said, because small business owners typically don’t own the spaces their businesses are in, even if they do pay the electric bill.

More than two-thirds of the business owners who responded to a recent customer satisfaction survey said the economy is having a major impact on their willingness to invest in energy efficiency, though Hong said the utility is having some success with a new program aimed at contractors who would install energy-saving devices.

“A lot of it is waiting for the cost to come down. And waiting until there’s proven technology,” Hong said.

The utility’s efforts could face another, more fundamental challenge: A lack of awareness. The heads of two organizations representing Alameda businesses said they haven’t talked to their members about energy efficiency programs; the manager of a third didn’t return a call seeking comment.

“We haven’t done that,” said Mark Sorensen, executive director of the Alameda Chamber of Commerce. “There’s been no membership support, feedback, or anything on that so far.”

But the financial benefits of the project can be quickly realized, Owens said. In a report to the Public Utilities Board, she estimated the commercial projects the utility helped fund last year will on average be paid off in fewer than three years, and residential projects, in less than a year.

“They get the payback on their investment in terms of efficiency, and after that, it’s just pure savings,” Owens said.

Tredgold said Semifreddi’s lighting system, which includes the solar tubes, high-efficiency lighting and a computer to run the system, cost $70,000; the company got $21,000 back in a rebate from the power company. A press release issued when the company's lighting project earned them a Green Powerstar award from AMP showed that the company's project saved 204,409 kilowatt hours a year - and, Tredgold said, about $21,000 a year in power costs.

“When it came to the lighting system, it was a no-brainer,” Tredgold said. But solar panels company co-founder Tom Frainier hoped to install are still too expensive, Frainier said.

In addition to being free, the light produced by the pipes is better than what the company got from the 500-watt sodium halide lights it had in its old facility in Emeryville, Tredgold said.

“When we put the light tubes in – it was like, ‘Wow, look how much light is in this building,’” Tredgold said.

For more information on Alameda Municipal Power’s energy efficiency programs, click here.