Advocates have learned that energy efficiency programs are significantly more effective when they have the support of local utility companies.
“We make the case that these polices are good for the utility company, the economy and the environment,” said Howard Geller, executive director of the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP). “We work with utilities in a collaborative way. We offer to help make energy efficiency programs financially attractive to both them and their customers.”
For 15 years, SWEEP representatives have worked to make the case for greater energy efficiency in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. This public interest organization argues in favor of tax incentives for highly efficient new buildings. They support polices that replace fossil fuels with renewable resources. They recognize the benefits of utility energy efficiency programs and encourage utility companies to expand them.
What are the results of their advocacy efforts?
In 2001, when SWEEP was founded, funding for electric utility energy efficiency in those six states was just $21 million. "Now electric utilities in our states spend $400 million per year to implement energy efficiency programs," Geller said.
“If you look at what the utilities have avoided through their energy efficiency programs, it’s equivalent to 6 large baseload power plants,” Geller said. “Utility customers will save over $6 billion on their utility bills as a result of these programs. In 2015 these programs also avoided 12 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions,” he said.
Geller attributed his organization’s success to working with utility companies and “making sure the utilities could still earn a profit, if not more, when investing in energy efficiency programs for their customers.”
SWEEP initially focused on utility energy efficiency policy and programs along with the promotion of combined heat and power systems. In 2010, SWEEP initiated new programs to improve energy efficiency in the industrial sector, and provide technical assistance to states, counties and cities.
“Energy efficiency is one part of the solution to global climate change. Along with maximizing energy efficiency, we need to move dramatically toward renewable energy resources and eventually phase out fossil fuels,” Geller said.
Geller recognized the “tremendous job” that the city of Las Vegas has done to reduce its energy use citywide. The city retrofitted public buildings to reduce energy use, installed LED street lights and partnered with NV Energy to make every streetlight, city park, community center, fire station, service yard and public building owned by the city become solar powered.
Las Vegas has cut its energy use for city operations by one third. The city is now using this cost savings to pay for solar power to meet 100 percent of its remaining electricity demand.
“They justified it by saying that a strong energy efficiency program would save the city money,” Geller said, and he added that Las Vegas is the first city of its size to power all municipal operations with renewable energy.
Las Vegas’ efforts are only the beginning. They are the model. More cities and utility companies are recognizing the benefits of renewable energy and working on ways to power their communities with it, Geller said.
“If they can do it, other cities, businesses and communities can do it. We all can do it. We can work to be a part of that clean energy future,” he said.
Before founding SWEEP, Geller was the executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. After leaving that position he wanted to focus on energy efficiency in the southwest because he saw the region's potential.
“At that time (2001), very little was happening to support energy efficiency programs in this part of the country. Polices were lagging compared with other states. There was a lot being done to promote renewable energy but if you looked at the policies and what electric and gas utilities were doing to save energy it was quite minimal,” Geller said. “Our initial focus was to build up the energy efficiency programs of electric and gas utilities in the region.”
Penelope Purdy, director of communications, said SWEEP is a non-profit, public interest organization registered as a 501(c)(3) under federal law.
“As such, we focus strictly on improving public policy but strictly avoid any partisan politics. We are proud to count among our many supporters and allies not only other environmental groups but many businesses (including some on the Fortune 500 list), local governments and forward-looking utilities,” Purdy said.
“Traditionally this is a high growth region where energy efficiency efforts were lagging compared to some other regions, air pollution is a growing concern, and coal-fired power plants provide the majority of electricity supply,” Purdy said.
She recounted a number of SWEEP’s accomplishments:
• The annual energy savings from electric utility DSM programs in the region increased from 350 GWh per year in 2005 to more than 2,300 GWh per year in 2014.
• States in the region enacted dozens of laws to advance more efficient energy use that SWEEP proposed or influenced. These laws enacted or led to the scale-up of utility efficiency programs, strengthened building energy codes, minimum energy efficiency standards on light bulbs and other products, tax incentives for highly efficient new buildings or vehicles, energy savings goals for public buildings, new energy efficiency financing mechanisms, and more.
• Arizona adopted some of the strongest energy efficiency requirements for investor-owned electric utilities in the nation, requiring electricity savings of 20% by 2020.
• With SWEEP’s backing, either the 2009 or 2012 version of the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) has been adopted in New Mexico, Nevada and in all major municipalities in Arizona and Colorado. A number of cities are now considering adoption of the 2015 version of the IECC, influenced by SWEEP's advisory and advocacy work.
• Colorado adopted 9 laws to promote purchase of electric vehicles and to enable cities and counties to invest a portion of their gasoline tax revenue in mass transit systems and non-motorized transport.
• Utah adopted 5 laws to promote the purchase of electric vehicles.
Financial support for SWEEP is provided primarily by charitable foundations and the U.S. Department of Energy, Purdy said.
Charitable foundations include Edwards Mother Earth Foundation, Energy Foundation, Heising-Simons Foundation, Kaiser Foundation and L.P. Brown Foundation. SWEEP is also funded by government organizations like the city of Boulder, Colo., Colorado Energy Office and the Nevada Governor's Office of Energy. SWEEP also receives financial support from Tucson Electric Power, Arizona Public Service Company, Salt River Project, Southwest Gas Company and Xcel Energy.
“We also have 36 allies who each contribute $5,000 a year,” Purdy said.
Allies include Lockheed Martin, GE, ecobee and the North American Insulation Manufacturer Association.
SWEEP’s board of directors also reflects the organization’s commitment to diverse viewpoints working together on energy efficiency.
The board’s chairman is Bruce Ray. Ray works as associate general counsel at Johns Manville, a Denver-based company that manufactures insulation, roofing materials, and engineered products. Other board members include Laura Nelson, executive director of the Utah Office of Energy Development and Brent Rice, vice-chair executive manager at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Geller said SWEEP works on crafting policies and programs in its key states to identify energy efficiency programs that will work best for that region.
“Talking to them about what is working in California or Massachusetts is not helpful. We needed to have grassroots solutions that make sense for Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming” Geller said.
These solutions are identified through collaborative relationships.
“We have staff on the ground. We are there in those six states day in and day out working with local groups and businesses,” Geller said.
Looking forward, SWEEP is focusing on its key policy areas: utilities and regulation; transportation including electric vehicles; modernized building codes; and the industrial sector, Purdy said.
Geller said widespread adoption of electric vehicles will be a key focus for SWEEP in the next 5 years.
“We are supporting polices and investments that will facilitate the purchase of electric vehicles,” he said. “We need to move electric vehicles from a small fraction to the majority of cars and light trucks on the road.”