Proving new technologies will keep momentum for regional energy efficiency improvements, panel says

The ubiquitous compact fluorescent bulb, which played a major role in improving the efficiency of electricity use and lowering consumers’ bills in the Northwest, was an emerging technology just 20 years ago. Today the hunt for new technologies must continue if the region is to sustain its nation-leading progress toward an ever more inexpensive, efficient, and low-carbon power supply, according to the Northwest Energy Efficiency Task Force (NEET).

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council and the Bonneville Power Administration convened NEET in 2008 with members representing Northwest utilities, businesses, governments, and citizen groups as a collaborative approach to identify ways to accelerate energy-efficiency programs and projects. NEET meets annually, most recently last month.

Through 2011, the Northwest had acquired about 5,100 average megawatts of energy efficiency over the past three decades -- expressed as power, enough for five Seattles today.

"There is a lot of pride in what the region has accomplished, but also concern about maintaining momentum and the infrastructure of energy-efficiency programs," NEET Facilitator Ken Canon said in a discussion this week with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

From the Council’s perspective as the regional electricity planning agency, maintaining the momentum of energy efficiency programs will help ensure efficient, low-cost and reliable electricity with energy efficiency measures that fit best in the regional power system, Chair Rhonda Whiting said.

"The Northwest has been very successful in reducing energy use through retrofits of existing buildings and replacing inefficient equipment," Whiting said. "Continuing the region’s momentum will mean shifting our focus to a broader perspective, such as groups of measures in whole buildings so that opportunities are not lost, while also confirming the savings from new technologies. This will help reduce regional peak energy use to create more flexibility in the existing power system and help respond to variability in power generation."

Testing and proving new technologies is the first step in an important process that leads to new technologies being adapted into utility energy-efficiency programs and ultimately, as with compact fluorescent bulbs, to widespread public acceptance. Like those ubiquitous bulbs, energy-efficient clothes washers and other efficient appliances are now widely available in the Northwest, as they are elsewhere in the country, and research into new products is well under way to identify sources of the next generation of savings. The effort is helped by a program initiated by the Bonneville Power Administration and the Portland-based Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance three years ago that committed $6.5 million to research into more than 50 emerging technologies in 2012. Just those 50 alone could yield savings of about 3,000 average megawatts over 20 years once they enter the marketplace.

These include higher-performance heat-pump water heaters; a new generation of lighting controls in which every fixture is equipped with a wireless communications port and smart controller; evaporative air coolers that are twice as efficient as current units; new control technologies that reduce consumption up to 30 percent in retrofit applications; low-energy irrigation equipment; and a new generation of ductless heat pumps that produce 90-degree air at outside temperatures of minus 15 degrees, a technology that eventually could replace baseboard heaters, which are notorious for their power consumption.