By Lisa Stifller
Saving energy is like creating new energy — and it’s easy to do
At the Cougar Mountain Baking Co., the lights overhead used to buzz. The cavernous freezer, big as a two-car garage, was dark and shadowy. The fluorescent bulbs cast a greenish pall over trays of golden snickerdoodles.
The lights sucked up energy like an insatiable black hole.
In April, founder David Saulnier pulled the plug on the decades-old lights at his Magnolia bakery. He spent about $8,000 to install 54 new fixtures with the most energy-efficient fluorescent lights available.
They consume two-thirds the amount of juice. They illuminate quickly and silently. They need to be changed only once every three to four years. They shine with a lovely white glow.
The changes do more than showcase chocolate chunk and peanut butter cookies. Energy-smart upgrades by Cougar Mountain Baking — and businesses and residents everywhere — are a crucial part of saving power and slowing global warming.
They also fulfill key requirements of Initiative 937, the voter-approved energy initiative that calls for increased use of renewable energy sources combined with cutting consumption.
Boosting conservation in businesses and homes is critical to those goals, but it’s still slow going in many parts of Washington.
“It seems very clear to me that there are efficiency improvements out there that are spectacular,” said Sara Patton, executive director of the NW Energy Coalition, a Seattle-based non-profit group. “We’re beginning to scrape the surface.”
Saulnier agrees, and hopes his actions are an inspiration.
“I want other businesses to know that this is possible,” he said. “Every watt we save is energy we don’t have to generate in some nasty way.”
Bean counters at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center like what conservation does for the bottom line. The 13-building campus was built to be energy efficient and is routinely examined for upgrades. The newest building contains more than 3,000 sensors that automatically turn off lights and computer monitors when people leave. They detect daylight and adjust lighting accordingly.
At the home of online retail giant Amazon.com, investing in lighting upgrades and improvements to the heating and cooling system have to pay for themselves in energy savings — and it needs to be quick.
“We typically look for a 3 1/2-year payback at the most,” said Brian Buckland, a chief engineer at Wright Runstad & Co., which manages and subleases the Amazon building on Beacon Hill.
It’s a funny idea — that saving energy is like creating new energy, that saving 1,000 megawatts by installing more efficient air conditioning units in an office building or packing the attic with insulation is akin to building a wind farm with hundreds of turbines cranking out the same amount of power. Yet by using less energy, utilities can add customers without constructing new power plants.
In the past two decades, Washington has saved about 14 million megawatt-hours of power through better energy efficiency. That’s enough power to light and heat about 1 million average homes a year.
The state ranked sixth nationally last year for its conservation efforts, as scored by the non-profit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Vermont, Connecticut and California tied for first.
When it comes to conservation, “we treat it as a resource,” said Cal Shirley, vice president for energy efficiency at Puget Sound Energy, an acknowledged leader in the field.
Other utilities, particularly those in slower-growing Eastern Washington counties, haven’t pursued efficiency with the same enthusiasm. Pretty soon, they won’t have a choice.
I-937 requires the state’s largest electric utilities to capture all of the “cost-effective conservation” available in their service area. If they don’t, they face a $50 per megawatt-hour fine.
Beginning in 2010, the utilities will start setting two-year conservation goals mandated by I-937. Independent oversight agencies and auditors will review the targets and their performance.
Puget Sound Energy already has laid out some of its goals. Through conservation programs, it’s working to save the greenhouse gas equivalent of taking 255,000 cars off the road each year.
“We don’t see it as being easy to do,” Shirley said. “But we see it as necessary because it’s more cost effective.”
Conservation equals money
Thank California for the rebate on your new low-power washer-dryer and your double-pane windows.
Back in the mid-1970s, the Golden State was the growing state. Utilities were scrambling to satisfy new energy-hungry residents and businesses. They realized that making existing power go further was cheaper and smarter than new power plants.
That forced the federal government to take action. In 1975, Congress ordered the Department of Energy to set minimum energy-efficiency standards for consumer goods, including refrigerators, dishwashers, furnaces and hot-water heaters.
State and city governments across the country adopted building codes with strict conservation rules. Seattle has one of the nation’s more stringent efficiency codes for commercial building construction.
These conservation efforts are about more than environmental do-gooding. When they fail, it costs consumers — a lot.
In January, congressional investigators with the Government Accountability Office found that the Department of Energy had failed to set new energy-efficiency standards for 20 product categories — in some cases missing deadlines by up to 15 years.
The GAO reported that “delays in setting standards for the four consumer product categories that consume the most energy — refrigerators and freezers, central air conditioners and heat pumps, water heaters and clothes washers — will cost at least $28 billion in forgone energy savings by 2030.”
The feds aren’t the only ones sluggish on energy conservation. Many utilities statewide have failed to meet conservation goals as well.
The rub comes because when there’s a surplus of cheap energy — say when an industrial plant closes or population growth is slow — there’s not a lot of incentive for encouraging conservation. After all, power companies make money by selling electricity, not saving it.
In recent years, Tacoma Power has lagged behind energy efficiency targets, achieving less than 20 percent of the 2005 regional goal. Businesses had closed and demand was down.
“There was a decision to go slow on investments in the conservation side,” said Bill Gaines, who took the helm of Tacoma Power earlier this year. That’s all in the past, he said. “Tacoma is about to launch a major scale-up of its conservation efforts.”
The utilities’ various programs — whether it’s giving coupons to residents for free high-efficiency light bulbs or providing rebates for upgraded boilers and industrial machinery — do require money up front. But the investment pays for itself in the long term, managers said.
“The utility would do this whether Initiative 937 were passed or not,” Gaines said. “It’s really the underlying economics of it.”
Start with bulbs
The curlicue compact fluorescent bulb is the unofficial mascot of energy conservation.
The shopping behemoth Wal-Mart aims to sell 100 million of them by the end of the year — the equivalent of one bulb for every three Americans.
The Web site 18seconds.org — so named for the amount of time it takes to change a light bulb — tracks the sales of the fluorescents nationwide. So far, about half a million have been sold in Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue this year.
Those numbers could rise; Seattle City Light has arranged in-store discounts on the bulbs for its customers at stores including Costco, Home Depot and Bartell Drugs.
Fluorescent lights “are getting really good now. They’re getting small, they’re bright. Their color quality is better. If people haven’t been happy with them in the past, I encourage them to try again,” said Andrew Gibb, energy planning analyst with Seattle City Light.
They’re a good investment, too. “They will pay for themselves in a matter of months, rather than a matter of years.”
The bulbs are a start, but the potential for conservation is much bigger, and always evolving.
While a lot of attention is paid to new technology that leads to thinner, brighter TVs and faster, smaller computers, “some of those leaps are being made in the electricity industry,” said Elizabeth Klumpp, senior energy policy analyst for the Washington Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development.
Saulnier, for one, is staying ahead of the curve.
He didn’t stop with his light fixtures. He installed an energy-efficient front-loading washer and dryer to launder towels and aprons. A few weeks ago, he traded his bulky water heater for the tankless variety, which heats water as it’s needed so it doesn’t sit around getting heated and reheated.
“It’s awesome,” Saulnier said of his new appliance. “It never runs out of hot water.”
(Editor’s note: This story has been changed since it was first published. Seattle City Light’s program to encourage customers to switch to fluorescent light bulbs was described incorrectly.)