The CPUC Should Accelerate, Not Derail, Energy Efficiency Programs

Is your home or business wasting much of the energy you pay for every month? Probably.  Many older homes and apartments are leaky, poorly insulated, and have inefficient heaters. We all know this is uncomfortable and expensive, but what can we do about these energy guzzlers?  A program called Energy Upgrade California can help you save up to 40% of the energy your home uses.

California recognizes the urgent need to accelerate such efforts to help homes and businesses improve their efficiency, in order to lower utility bills, increase comfort and safety, meet the state’s clean air and climate goals, and create jobs. But a pending ruling by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which regulates the state’s major utilities, could derail rather than accelerate this effort. 

The state has a great foundation to build on thanks to decades of national and international leadership on energy efficiency programs. Utilities together with contractors, NGOs and local government partners offer numerous programs to help customers save energy. While past programs offered incentives mainly for single measures (such as insulation or lighting upgrades) and left you to figure out what would make the most sense and how to find the right contractor, recent efforts have sought to make it much easier by centralizing the options for consumers. Energy Upgrade California does just this. This statewide effort helps you figure out the best way to save energy throughout your entire home, recommends the most cost-effective package, helps you find the right contractor to do the work, and provides a significant incentive to help cover the upfront cost.

The CPUC is developing guidance for the next generation of efficiency programs, including Energy Upgrade California. But a ruling currently under consideration by the CPUC threatens to derail progress. The proposal would set visionary long-term goals that would take California to the next level of efficiency achievements (great!), but would adopt rules that are unworkable and would prevent the state from actually meeting those goals. It’s like the Doctor Dolittle “Pushmi-pullyu” character with two heads pulling in opposite directions so it can’t go anywhere.

The biggest issue is how significantly the rules would undervalue energy efficiency. The utilities would not be able to help customers get all available energy savings while still meeting the Commission’s cost-benefit requirements, since they are required to count all the costs but can only count a portion of the energy savings and other benefits.  For example, the proposed ruling would require program implementers to count energy savings based on extremely conservative numbers that are lower than estimates for comparable programs across the country and which will very likely result in missed energy saving opportunities.

If the Commission were to adopt the current proposed ruling without making changes to better value efficiency or to create a clear path for the utilities to address these critical issues before the end of the year, the result would be dramatically scaled back efficiency programs, missed opportunities to save energy and the need for more dirty power plants. For consumers this means higher energy bills and more pollution. 

It would also threaten California’s leadership on energy efficiency. For many years, other states have looked to California to set the pace on efficiency and have often later adopted similar policies and programs. But leaders in other states recently took the very unusual step of writing to the CPUC to express their concerns that California is about to veer off track. Now is the time for the Commission to put California back on track to advance efficiency and maintain our leadership.

The CPUC has committed to make energy efficiency its top priority energy resource. It is time to step it up. The Commission should adopt program rules that will help accelerate the state’s leading efforts and enable all Californians to upgrade their homes and business while lowering their utility bills and reducing pollution.

 This blog is co-authored with my colleague Devra Wang and first appeared in SF Gate City Brights on May 7, 2012.