If you’re like me, and spend a lot of the day drinking coffee and getting increasingly paranoid with the creeping suspicion that solving climate may not be possible, it’s good when you find glimmers of hope in the wreckage. One of those glimmers (actually more like a tractor beam) is called Energy Trust, an organization in Oregon that, if widely copied, would move us well on the way to solving climate change.
I recently spent a few hours with my friend Greg Stiles, who helps run their business sector programs, and I was blown away by their creativity and success. Here are some tidbits: Energy Trust is funded to the tune of $130 million annually through a public purpose charge on Oregonians’ utility bills. That alone is arguably part of a solution to climate change — it’s a price signal on energy costs that will force people to conserve. (By the way — it’s also a sign of things to come, and the program’s enormous success puts the lie to the delusional notion that to solve climate we need to make energy cheap (that might happen one day, but first it will have to get expensive. No freebies on this one, techno-optimists.)
Two programs caught my attention. The first is one approach to solar electric installations. Most utilities offer rebates for residential and commercial systems, and that’s it. The problem is that these systems, even with good rebates, are still frickin’ expensive. (As an example, I’m putting 4.5 kW on my roof, and with three different rebates and a hell of a deal from my installer, I’ll see a return on my investment of 6 percent. It’s OK for me, but not for most.)
What Energy Trust did is a form of “end-use, least cost” planning, a term Amory Lovins coined. They asked: “What do we want, and what is the cheapest way to get that?” What they wanted was clean energy, in the form of solar on people’s roofs. So they brought together everyone interested into a bulk purchase. Then they bid the contract in one huge chunk. Economies of scale enabled everyone to get what they wanted — their own system, on their own roof — but at a 25 percent discount. Brilliant, right?
But we aren’t going to solve climate change with brilliance, we’re going to solve it with applied common sense. The next smart innovation came in the form of lighting retrofits. I’ve banged my head against this problem for a long time, and if I were to implement a program, I’d do the same dumb thing I always do — go to the owner of a property and try to convince him or her to upgrade. But that’s the wrong approach.
Energy Trust recognized that first, owners don’t listen to the random enviro dude. They listen to their contractors. And they know that only electricians have the time or interest to care what a T5 is vs. a T12, and to note the rebates available for a switch.
By reaching out to contractors and electricians with info on the best technology and the rebates available, Energy Trust created a free, motivated sales force, and one that could actually get the retrofits done. Granted, Energy Trust has lots of money to make these improvements happen, and it comes out of customers’ pockets. But that’s what it’s going to take — a tax.
Remember — solving climate change is going to hurt. And a few dollars on your utility bill is not the kind of pain I’m talking about. That’s a pleasure.
Meanwhile, with that public purpose charge, Energy Trust is achieving the holy grail of energy geeks: they are helping utilities actually meet growing demand with efficiency, not new power. The utilities love it so much they are kicking in more of their own money to fund the program. The customers get disproportionately good service and love that. And I love it because it gives me a massive dose of that heroin-like drug — hope.