New Decision Sets California on Another Bold Path Toward Increased Energy Savings

The California Public Utilities Commission yesterday approved new energy-saving goals for the investor-owned utilities serving most of the state and established an innovative and collaborative way to continuously plan for energy efficiency programs over the coming decade. This is great news for customers who will benefit from even more opportunities to cut energy waste and lower their energy bills.

Although California has a great story when it comes to saving customers money while cleaning the air by using energy smarter, it still has a long way to go to meet the state's ambitious energy and climate goals. Today's action is another step forward, addressing a number of process matters that are critical to set us all on the right path toward ramping up energy savings in California. And the more energy these programs save, such as through better insulation or rebates for high efficiency appliances, the easier it is to avoid generating electricity from fossil fuels -- and the associated pollution.

However, this decision was also delayed for more than a month due to disputes over which numbers to use in estimating energy savings as part of planning for customer efficiency programs. While this particular matter was resolved, the delay illustrates the importance of moving to a more transparent, effective, and collaborative process to estimate energy savings.

Fortunately, California already has a mechanism in place to solve this problem. The California Technical Forum - a group of more than 30 experts from across the country - transparently vets and determines the most robust and reliable values to use for planning. Using this forum to come up with energy saving estimates will not only avoid future delays but will also ensure the $1 billion of customer-funded programs are relying on the most robust data possible so efficiency savings can replace the need for polluting energy options.

What's in the decision?

  • Using energy smarter: The investor-owned utilities, in partnership with local governments and relying on third-party implementers, are required to meet energy-saving goals determined by the commission and based on an independent study that identifies how much cost-effective efficiency is available to be captured through existing and new efficiency programs. If achieved, the goals set today (that start in 2016 and extend through 2024, to be updated every few years) would avoid enough power needed from more than seven large power plants, reduce as much pollution as emitted by more than 2 million cars in one year, and save enough electricity to meet the need of nearly 3 million California households.
  • Ongoing planning: The commission previously approved 10 years of funding to kick off the "rolling portfolio" approach to program planning, whereby administrators and implementers can design and adjust programs more easily in response to new data or customer needs without the worry of a funding cliff when waiting for regulators approve the efficiency program budgets. (Previously, programs were approved on a two to three-year basis.) Today's decision takes this rolling approach to new heights by:
    • Outlining how program administrators should propose updated or new plans in line with the California Long-term Energy Efficiency Strategic Plan;
    • Setting up a process to more regularly review programs and budgets, which should better balance workloads and lead to more timely decisions so the process doesn't get in the way by slowing down progress; and
    • Moving toward a more predictable way to update savings assumptions (like how much a smart thermostat or a lightbulb is expected to save) for planners to use when designing programs to meet customer needs.
  • Working together to serve customers better: The commission also authorized a revamped and expanded collaborative process to help ensure key stakeholders are at the table to advise program administrators on refining existing and/or developing new programs to best meet customer needs. The collaborative proposal (initially recommended by 20 diverse groups, including NRDC) provides a structure based on best practices from across the country and is intended to improve how we all work together, increase transparency into decision making, and build trust among everyone involved.

This new approach will require a fresh look at how programs are planned and implemented in the state, challenging all involved to work together to resolve critical issues and push the state beyond status quo to capture more energy savings.

What's next?

Today's vote sets in motion an important new process that will help California achieve even more energy savings. Now is the time to rely on experts from across the country who have done similar work in other states and learn from their experiences to ensure California's vision is successfully realized.

This effort will require a shift from the way the state has been doing efficiency for the past decade. Naturally, there will be growing pains and everyone involved in the transition to this new approach will need to be patient as we collectively figure out how this will all work. But once the structure is developed, the commission, staff, and stakeholders will be in an even better position to tackle the tough policy issues that are slated for the next phase of topics to be reviewed by the commission (like how do we better value efficiency? or improve how we measure whether or not a program was successful?). This will make sure customers are saving even more money, cutting energy waste, and helping California meet its climate goals.