Energy Efficiency: How NOT To Do It

by Richard T. Stuebi

On October 5, First Energy (NYSE: FE) announced a planned energy efficiency program, involving the delivery of two compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) to each of its residential and small commercial customers in Ohio. This was to be a part of First Energy’s revived energy efficiency programs, stimulated in large part by the 2008 passage of Ohio SB 221, which stipulates that utilities must reduce their customers’ energy consumption by 22.5% by 2025.

Approved in a case by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) without comment on September 23, the plan would have had each customer pay $21.60 on bill surcharges over 36 months for this package of two CFLs – whether they were used or not, or even wanted or not.

The story accompanying the roll-out of this program in the Plain-Dealer went into considerable detail about its economics. The $21.60 in extra charges not only covered the cost to First Energy of acquiring and delivering the two CFLs, but also would reimburse First Energy for the reduction in revenue associated with the use of these more efficient CFLs in lieu of traditional incandescent bulbs.

Although seemingly shocking to Ohio readers, the provisions of SB 221 do in fact allow for utilities to recover lost revenues associated with energy efficiency implementation, in recognition of some basic utility economic realities.

In traditional regulatory approaches, utilities earn more profits by selling more electricity. As is the case with most businesses, the company succeeds by selling higher volumes of its product. Thus, if we agree that we want to encourage less electricity consumption, we have to eliminate the financial motivations that utilities have against that desirable goal. In other words, we have to make it equally attractive for utilities to promote saving energy instead of consuming energy; we have to “decouple” electricity volumes from utility profitability.

Recovery of lost revenues from energy efficiency is by no means a novel concept. Indeed, California pioneered such “decoupling” ratemaking treatment all the way back in 1982 with the adoption of its Electric Revenue Adjustment Mechanism. But, in Ohio, it is very new – only now being adopted in the wake of SB 221. And, neither First Energy nor the PUCO made significant effort to educate the public that ratemaking practices of this type have been employed for decades, and are being increasingly employed around the country, for very sensible reasons.

At least equally concerning, First Energy claimed that each bulb was costing the company $3.50, for a total of $7.00 for the package of two. However, a little snooping around area stores revealed that a five-pack of CFLs could be bought at Ace Hardware (hardly the lowest-cost source) for $13.99, or about 20% lower on a per-bulb basis than what First Energy was proposing to charge customers for similar products sourced elsewhere – at presumably higher volumes and more favorable pricing.

In the wake of the initial article, reader reaction was overwhelmingly negative. People didn’t want to pay for light bulbs they didn’t request, and may not use. They didn’t want to get gouged on the cost of the bulbs. And, they didn’t want to pay First Energy for kilowatt-hours that weren’t being sold.

Not only did readers call the Plain-Dealer in complaint, they called their elected officials as well – including all the way to Governor Ted Strickland, who asked the PUCO to stop the program. Within a couple of days, the resulting political pressure prompted the PUCO Chairman Alan Schriber to ask First Energy to withdraw this proposed energy efficiency program. And so, in compliance with the PUCO order, First Energy postponed the program.

As reported in a follow-up Plain-Dealer article, John Paganie of First Energy admitted that “we didn’t do a good enough job in helping customers understand the purpose, the reason for [the program] and the impact.” Yep: First Energy didn’t sufficiently communicate to customers – or engage with trusted advocates such as the Ohio Consumers Counsel in working out the details of the program so they could offer their support – before the program roll-out appeared in newspaper ink.

In the same article, PUCO Chairman Alan Schriber noted that “although the PUCO allowed FirstEnergy to implement its program, we did not approve the charge that will appear on monthly bills as a result.” In other words, PUCO gave First Energy the go-ahead to do the program, but PUCO didn’t consent to how First Energy would be compensated. Huh?

So, the net result of this program announcement was a lose-lose-lose: First Energy came off as being greedy, the PUCO came off as being inattentive to program details, and promoters of energy efficiency came off as imposing unwanted economic burdens on customers. Certainly, Thomas Suddes’ editorial in the Plain-Dealer makes everyone look bad.

I thus submit this little vignette as a classic case study of how NOT to implement energy efficiency.

In my humble opinion, this would not have been such a public relations debacle if First Energy and the PUCO had both accumulated a greater store of citizen goodwill over the preceding decades. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case. And, resulting from this bungling by distrusted players, the generally-favorable cause of energy efficiency gets a public black eye in Ohio.

As the Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at the Cleveland Foundation, Richard T. Stuebi is on loan to NorTech as a founding Principal in its advanced energy initiative. He is also a Managing Director at Early Stage Partners, and is the founder of NextWave Energy.

LED There Be Light

by Richard T. Stuebi

As some of my long-time readers may know, I have never been a truly ardent fan of compact fluorescent lighting (CFL). Why?

1. Probably most importantly to me, in my experience with CFLs, I haven’t been satisfied with their start-up characteristics. They take a little while to “warm up” to full luminescence, and until then, the light seems very sickly to me. It actually makes me a bit nauseous. I know that better quality (i.e., more costly) CFLs perform better than cheaper generics, but even CFLs from General Electric (NYSE: GE) that I’ve bought still don’t turn on as well as I have come to expect from four decades of living with incandescents.

2. Except for some new (and considerably more expensive) products, CFLs generally don’t work with dimmers. I once found this out the hard way — snap, crackle, pop. I don’t know about you, but a lot of the light circuits in my house are on dimmers, and as a result I continue to run incandescents on them.

3. It is becoming more well-known that CFLs contain mercury, and hence their disposal is a real issue. Even worse, if one were to break, the release of mercury represents a significant risk — at best a big clean-up nuisance.

4. CFLs aren’t cheap. True, CFL prices are coming down to become closer to the levels of old/inefficient incandescents, but they are still substantially more costly. For lights that are rarely used, the extra investment doesn’t make much sense to me, as the energy actually saved is small.

So, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the emergence of LED (light-emitting-diode) products for consumer application. I like the quality of LED light, and LEDs don’t have the mercury issue, so it seems like the superior long-term lighting solution.

I’ve been told that household LED lighting is still many years away, but at least some products are trickling into the marketplace. For instance, see EarthLED Lightbulbs, which are available at Think Geek. Clearly, they are still a niche item for the early adopters, as they cost $60-100 per unit, but at least their emergence into the market now puts consumer LED lighting on the gameboard, hopefully on a quicker path of cost reduction as learning curve and scale production effects are achieved.

Since LEDs have virtually infinite lifetimes, in the future, there will no longer be a need to make lamps with removable bulbs in sockets. Savvy marketers out there should begin working to overturn the old paradigm of reusable lamp/disposable bulb, making way for LED lamp fixtures that are inherently designed to capitalize on the unique and compelling advantages offered by LED lighting.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.

Reflections on Illumination

by Richard T. Stuebi

While grocery shopping yesterday, I found that our local store has finally started stocking GE (NYSE: GE) compact flourescent lightbulbs (CFLs).

Candidly, my experience to date with CFLs has not been positive. Last year, I went to Home Depot (NYSE: HD), where I tend to buy household gadgets, thinking they would have the best selection of CFLs. At least back then, Home Depot didn’t carry GE CFLs (some say this was because of ex-CEO Bob Nardelli’s lingering resentment of having been passed over for Jeff Immelt when Jack Welch stepped down as CEO of GE), so I bought what Home Depot had in stock: a carton of private-label CFLs, for about $10 for a 5-pack.

I wish I could say that I was blown away by the CFLs, but regrettably, I wasn’t. In my assessment, the light quality provided by the CFLs was too pale, and it took far too long (10-20 seconds) to reach even a minimally acceptable “warm” color. Furthermore, the CFLs were not usable in many of the applications in my home: they don’t fit into lamps with tight covers/shades, and when installed to a fixture with dimmers, they emit an annoying loud buzzing sound — and an awful Snap-Crackle-Pop (and I don’t mean Rice Krispies) when the dimmer is turned down.

My initial foray into CFLs thus resulted in considerable disappointment. Although I don’t feel good about it at all, so far I’ve generally stuck with the old horribly inefficient incandescents — they at least produce a quality of light that I’ve come to expect.

I’ve been told that CFL quality varies, and that GE’s CFL products are quite a bit better — albeit more expensive — than the generic brands of the kind I had bought. I didn’t search all over town for GE CFLs, but I never saw them anywhere I happened to be shopping. Until this weekend.

Now, here in front of me finally were individually-packaged GE CFLs, the 15 watt (60 watt incandescent equivalent) priced at $4.49. Two shelves below were the standard GE incandescent 60 watt soft white lightbulbs, priced at $1.59 for a 4-pack, or about $0.40 per bulb. The CFL is thus 11 times more expensive, on a first-cost basis, than the incandescent. For the average customer, who is typically very conscious of the initial cost and pretty clueless about life-cycle economics, this is a really big spread.

In small print on the CFL packaging, GE claims that the 15 watt CFL bulb will save over its 3000-hour lifetime $13 worth of electricity (at $0.10/kwh) relative to 60 watt incandescents offering the same lumination.

$13 worth of electricity savings for an extra $4 up-front sounds like a pretty good deal. However, of course, it all depends on how many years it will take the user to generate the $13 of electricity savings — which in turn depends on how much the user uses the lightbulb.

A year is comprised of 8760 hours, so if the CFL operates 24/7, it will only take a few months to generate $13 in savings. Perhaps more importantly, it will only take a few weeks to pay back the extra $4 for the CFL instead of the incandescent. But, few of us use any lights anywhere near that much.

For a lamp used an hour a day, or about 300 hours a year, it will take 10 years to achieve the $13 in savings — or about 3 years to recover the $4 extra premium for buying the CFL instead of incandescents. A 3-year payback represents a good internal rate of return, on the order of 20%, which is far better than the long-term returns historically offered by the stock market.

So why don’t I pursue a 20% financial return? On further consideration, I am put off for two reasons.

First, I can see for sure the $4 extra leaving my hands today to buy the CFL — but I don’t have anywhere near the same degree of confidence that I’ll actually generate the economic savings at the desired pace. Will I really use the CFL about an hour a day? It might be more like 15 minutes a day, leading instead to a 12 year payback period — an outright unattractive financial return.

Second, I am strongly influenced my past negative experience with CFLs. If I buy this expensive lightbulb today, will I like its light? Will I be annoyed every time I turn it on and wait for it to have a color I can barely tolerate? Will I swap it out for a regular incandescent after a few weeks?

When I reflect upon it further, it’s the second set of considerations that put me off from buying that GE CFL. I bought CFLs in the past that I disliked, and don’t use. They were a bad investment. Even though it’s relatively small dollars involved, I don’t like making mistakes — and I really hate making the same mistake twice.

I speculate that I might not be alone in having a poor first impression of CFLs. Such a bias will probably need to be overcome by a no-cost favorable experience with a good CFL. If they really want to build the market, players like GE might consider an investment in a mass-scale public free trial — a mailbox stuffer? — of CFLs. I know that if I got a GE CFL for free, I’d give it a go — and assuming I liked the product, maybe then I’d consider buying some at $4.49 per.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.