Celebrating National Energy Efficiency Day – and Continuing the Work to Rebuild Virginia’s Energy Landscape into a Balanced and Equitable System
Wednesday, October 6th, 2021
October 6 is National Energy Efficiency Day. Today’s post comes from VPLC’s Director of Outreach and Consumer Advocacy, Dana Wiggins and Affordable Clean Energy Project Coordinator, Carmen Bingham.
Energy Efficiency and the Affordable Clean Energy Project
Energy efficiency is the least cost resource for energy, because the least expensive kilowatt hour is the one you don’t have to produce or use. Our Affordable Clean Energy Project advocates for the implementation of utility sponsored energy efficiency programs to reduce energy costs, increase energy savings, and minimize energy burden for Virginia’s most vulnerable electric utility customers.
Energy efficiency is considered a “demand side” resource because it reduces the need for energy by reducing the amount of energy used – or demanded – from the grid without changing the comfort or convenience of the customer. Technology changes have improved the ability of our electrical appliances to use less electricity, and we have also improved our knowledge about building sciences to include changes to non-technology efficiency tools such as building insulation and ventilation.
The Problem: Lack of Awareness, Difficulty Accessing Energy Efficiency Programs Mean High Bills for All – Especially for Low-Income Virginians
All this new technology cannot provide electric bill savings if the consumer does not know about or cannot access these tools. We have heard directly from utility customers that just the process of accessing the programs can be a deterrent. After consulting with electric utility customers and energy efficiency experts in the state, we’ve learned that someone contacting their utility for assistance regularly or who has trouble with payment plans is not directed to or informed by their utility about energy efficiency programs they may be eligible to participate in. The “Field of Dreams” approach has been the technique of utilities and state programs around energy efficiency: build it and they will come. But this approach has proven to be ineffective. Monopoly utility stakeholders have acknowledged the need to better collaborate with state agencies offering energy relief programs (whether direct bill assistance or program assistance) to engage customers in as many available programs to achieve the maximum amount of energy savings and cost reduction for the household. The utility is currently developing marketing plans to spread awareness on utility sponsored energy efficiency programs.
These efforts – while tangible, immediate, and giving electric utility customers greater control over their bills through reduced usage – do not resolve the root cause of Virginia’s higher than average monthly electric energy burden (US 2.7% versus Virginia’s 3.1%). While utilities will point to Virginia customers’ higher than average monthly electric usage (US 906 kWh/mo versus Virginia’s 1117 fc kWh/mo), the impact of the cost to the most vulnerable utility customer will always be higher because Virginia’s regulatory and legislative systems have become increasingly imbalanced to favor monopoly utility’s shareholders’ interests over Virginia’s captive utility customers.
A System Off-Balance: Interests of Monopoly Utility Shareholders Outweigh Customers’ Need for Fair Electric Bills
Virginia’s State Corporation Commission (SCC) has the constitutional duty to ensure that in exchange for monopoly status, our investor-owned utilities can recoup their costs to provide electric service to their granted territory customers plus receive a fair profit. In exchange, Virginia’s utility customers are provided reliable and consistent access to electric service. This service is, in theory, to be provided at a fair and reasonable price. Unfortunately, over the last two decades, Virginia’s lawmakers have neglected to ensure that policies enacted for the benefit of interested parties (sometimes the utilities, sometimes other stakeholders) do not prevent the SCC from finding that “fair and reasonable” price sweet spot. The new policies have always come at the detriment of the customer – particularly the most vulnerable customer.
The Solution: Change the Landscape to Create Fair Results for All
While we celebrate the growing popularity of energy efficiency and continue to make energy efficiency tools more accessible and useful for families to reduce their energy demand and lower their monthly electric bill, we must continue working to equitably shape Virginia’s legislative and regulatory energy landscape. Such a landscape should be centered on equitable access and provide for a balanced, holistic approach to Virginia’s monopoly utilities and their customers. It will take bold steps towards equity to get beyond the current suite of residential efficiency programs to ensure the greatest success with energy efficiency efforts getting to those who want or need them. It will also take bold legislative and regulatory shifts towards equity to level set our system to be one of collaboration in creating and keeping a fair balance between the needs of monopoly utilities and their customers.
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