Energy efficiency program explored

Fri, 08/17/2018 - 8:45am

“When I first came here, one of my first questions was ‘what are you doing about efficiency programs?’” said Block Island Power Company President and Board Member Jeffery Wright at a meeting of the Board on Aug. 9.

The primary focus of the meeting was to hear a presentation from Carrie Gill, Ph.D., of the R.I. Office of Energy Resources. The OER conducted a pilot energy efficiency program for Block Island which began in 2015 and ended in 2017. Gill was there not only to present the results of the program, but to offer to reboot it over the next few years. The OER has $180,000 that it is willing to commit over the course of three years, but those funds must be matched by BIPCo.

The initial program cost the OER $285,000 and did not involve matching funds. Instead individual residences and businesses participating were required to make co-pays for some of the energy upgrades they had implemented. Gill said that there were 79 residential participants and 31 businesses.

Initial energy assessments for participants were free, as were lighting upgrades to replace less-efficient incandescent light bulbs, up to two “smart strips,” and low-flow/aerator faucets and showerheads. Weatherization and appliance upgrades were offered with rebates and/or incentives.

All but two of the residential participants took advantage of the lighting upgrades, as did all of the business participants. All 79 residents took advantage of the smart strips, which are surge protectors that “reduce phantom plug loads” from devices and applicances not in use, according to Gill. Air sealing, duct sealing, insulation and ventilation upgrades were made by 11 residents.

Sara McGinnes said that she had participated in the program and that the people who conducted the assessment “gave us a lot of extra tips” to save energy, such as unplugging phone chargers when not in use. 

As far as the program is concerned, Board Member Ken Lacoste asked if the demand would still be there.

Gill said there could be other opportunities that people might want to take advantage of, such as assistance with heat pumps. “With changing technology, I would see a need for years to come.”

There is also the matter of homes that are occupied only in the summer, versus those that are occupied year-round, since many of the efficiency measures involve saving on heating costs. Complicating things further is the fact that many summer homes are not owner-occupied, and tenants who don’t pay the bills have no reason to conserve. Gill said that with landlord/tenant situations “they could figure out the the right balance of incentives.”

Wright said that “Our summer rates are an incentive – some households’ power bills are over $1000 per month.” 

How to provide matching funds for the program drew some discussion. Wright thought that funds could come from the engine maintenance reserve fund, with permission from the R.I. Division of Public Utilities and Carriers.

“There are two engines out there that need a complete overhaul,” said Cliff McGinnes. “I hate to see that money taken away,” although he did also say he was in favor of the program.

Wright felt that there was sufficient money in the fund to cover both the engine maintenance and the energy efficiency program.

The discussion did come just a day or two after the discovery that the National Grid sea2shore transmission cable from the mainland was exposed on the floor of the ocean just off Fred Benson Town Beach. 

Lacoste said “If you need to run those engines…you don’t want to short-change yourself.”

Another way to fund the program could be through upcoming changes to the overall rate structure. BIPCo is due to file for a rate case with the Division by Oct. 1. 

The BIPCo Board decided to hold off on voting on the matter until the Division was consulted.

In Wright’s president’s report, he said the “most exciting thing” was the coming roll-out of the smart Hub app and the ability for customers to pay via credit and debit cards, and “e-checks,” which will be unveiled in September. Just that morning, the Division had held a meeting at which they approved BIPCo’s tariff proposal for accepting credit and debit card payments.   

Customers who choose to take advantage of these payment methods will not be charged a “customer” or “convenience fee.” In the past, the Division had ruled that those costs should not be absorbed by all ratepayers but only by those taking advantage of them. 

In the Division’s memo, rate analyst Albert De Miranda wrote: “With the repeal of the Commission’s Credit Card Rules, there is no longer a requirement that credit card vendor fees be paid by the credit card user. Therefore, the company’s proposal not to charge the vendor fees to credit card users is acceptable.”

Based on estimates made by Wright, the expected cost to the company is approximately $13,200 annually. The move is also expected to “improve customer convenience and satisfaction, and also improve the Company’s cash flow and reduce past due account balances.”

As far as the Smart Hub app, board members were encouraged to test it out. “You guys are going to be my guinea pigs,” said Wright. 

A “bill stuffer” will be included in September bills introducing the app for smart phones. Access for those using computers will not be available until the new BIPCo website is completed.