Energy Experts: Efficiency Remains a Critical Electricity Resource for the Northwest

Solar power is inexpensive and can be built quickly, but its output varies with the amount of sunlight. Efficiency, on the other hand reduces demand for power constantly.

Our electricity supply is changing dramatically, here in the Northwest and across the country. In response to local, state, and federal policies that aim to reduce carbon emissions, fossil fuel-burning power plants, the traditional source for much of our power, are slowly but steadily being retired and being replaced by carbon-free generators, primarily solar and wind. Even energy efficiency, a preferred resource in the Northwest for the last four decades, is being out-priced by renewable resources as their prices have dropped dramatically over the last five years or so. California, for example, anticipates the addition of more than 11,000 megawatts of new, low-cost generation between 2023 and 2026, nearly all of it carbon-free.

What these dramatic changes mean for energy efficiency as a future resource was the topic of the annual, three-day Northwest Efficiency Exchange. The conference is an opportunity for energy efficiency professionals to share their work and discuss the future of efficiency programs. The general consensus of the conference was that efficiency remains a vital energy resource for the future.

Tina Jayaweera, the Council’s manager of power planning resources, noted in her presentation to the conference that as the Council works on the latest revision of its Northwest Power Plan, scheduled for release for public comment in August, it is clear the energy world has changed in a big way since the last revision of the plan just five years ago. While analyses at this point are preliminary, it appears the next plan will include less cost-effective efficiency, largely due to price competition with wind and solar power. The price of wholesale power is falling rapidly with the influx of large amounts of inexpensive renewables, encouraged by state clean-energy policies throughout the West, she noted.

This does not signal the end of energy efficiency as a resource, she and others at the conference agreed. On the contrary, the fact that efficiency is being outpriced by renewables suggests that efficiency has been highly successful in the region – the least-expensive efficiency improvements have largely been achieved. For the future, continued investment in research and development will be necessary. In addition, efficiency can become more realizable if co-funding from other sources is combined with funding from utilities, in recognition of the societal benefits of efficiency, Jayaweera said.

Societal benefits of efficiency are an important focus for the future, said Susan Stratton, director of the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (NEEA), host of the conference. Efficiency has matured as a resource, and now one of the key policy issues for NEEA and others including the Council, is energy equity and justice – ensuring that all communities have equal access to energy-saving technologies.

NEEA works on market transformation – testing and helping to bring energy-efficient products to consumers. Right now, NEEA is focusing on heat pumps, which are becoming more and more energy efficient and better able to operate in cold climates, Stratton said. Several sessions at the conference focused on heat pumps, and also on the booming market for electric vehicles – cars, trucks, buses. Utilities are preparing for electric vehicles by opening charging stations, offering rebates for the installation of home chargers, and working with companies that build rapid charging stations to locate them in appropriate places within their service territories, including disadvantaged communities.

The conference also focused on the energy-use impacts of the Covid pandemic. Stratton said statistics show that people changed how they used energy over the last 14 months – for example, using more hot water during the day for chores such as washing clothes. Helping people through the pandemic crisis also was a focus of the Bonneville Power Administration, Bonneville Administrator John Hairston said.

“Covid changed how we live and how we work,” Hairston said. “Our EE team, trade allies, and utility partners have continued to demonstrate the value of energy efficiency in the region. They have provided energy-saver kits to residences across the region to help offset the additional energy costs of working and going to school at home. They’ve helped commercial buildings and restaurants improve ventilation at a time when the virus was spreading and concerns about indoor air quality were on the rise, and they helped reduce operating costs for industrial and federal facilities.”

Energy efficiency is a fundamental resource for the Northwest, he said, noting the importance of efficiency in the Northwest Power Act of 1980, the federal law that authorized the four Northwest states to form the Council.

“While it may feel like we are facing a turning point in EE with the talk of other low-cost alternatives threatening its future, remember where we have been,” Hairston said. “Since the Northwest Power Act we have saved more than 7,000 average megawatts. That’s nearly the average annual output of the Federal Columbia River Power System, or roughly the power use of five cities the size of Seattle, and our air is cleaner because of it.”

Energy efficiency was and will continue to be a critical component in the mix of power resources in the region, he said.

“Just think about the coal plants that are retiring and our state goals for renewable energy,” he said. “We also have to consider that changes in the climate will affect our water supply in the Columbia River Basin, and this is a key planning consideration for hydropower. All of these changes point to questions of power grid reliability and resource adequacy, and they tell me that we need to continue building up our EE powerhouse.”

Now is the time for innovation, not the time to walk away from energy efficiency, Stratton said, adding, “We need to think long-term about the challenges on the horizon.”