The 21st century has redefined a lot of things, the meaning of utility is one of them. The D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility, known as the DC SEU, represents a new breed of utility, one that focuses on reducing energy consumption rather than selling natural gas or electricity.
“[W]ith the term utility in our name, sometimes people confuse us with the mission of a PEPCO or a Washington Gas,” said Ted Trabue, Managing Director of the DC SEU.
Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave the DC SEU an Energy Star Sustained Excellence Award for its part in a coordinated effort with other northeastern entities to protect the environment through energy efficiency. Yet, in its second full year, the DC SEU is still trying to establish its identity.
Trabue, a former Executive Director of the Green Builders Council of D.C. and past President of the D.C. State Board of Education, speaks energetically about the DC SEU’s core mission: reducing energy use in the city, reducing peak energy demands, increasing renewable energy capacity, adding jobs for D.C. residents, creating opportunities for certified D.C. business enterprises, and spending 30 percent of the SEU’s budget on low-income populations.
D.C. does not have the first sustainable energy utility entity. Vermont, Oregon, Ohio, Delaware, Wisconsin, New York, Maine and New Jersey also have created similar versions. According to Trabue, almost all 50 states have adopted to varying degrees programs to increase energy efficiency. But the sustainable energy utility is different than traditional programs.
Traditional energy efficiency programs are often operated by utilities, such as PEPCO and Washington Gas. Utilities sell electricity or natural gas bundled with the local delivery of that energy to homes and businesses that use it. In contrast, a sustainable energy utility offers energy efficiency services.
“Gas and electric utilities don’t necessarily have the interest or focus on energy efficiency,” said George Twigg, a representative of the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, which pioneered the sustainable energy utility model. This new model places an independent third party in charge of encouraging energy efficiency, he explained.
The Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to reduce energy consumption through efficiency and renewable technologies, created the first sustainable energy utility for Vermont in 2000. It serves as lead partner in the group that implemented the DC SEU and participates in its operation, and it also operates the Vermont and Ohio third-party efficiency programs.
The D.C. entity is unique, Trabue said. Unlike other sustainable energy utilities, its mandate to reduce energy consumption is combined with social equity goals.
The DC SEU must spend at least 30 percent of its annual budget on the low-income community. This fiscal year, its budget is about $17.5 million, Trabue said.
Each CFL can save a household about $42 in electricity costs over its lifespan as compared with a regular incandescent bulb, according to the DC SEU. With distribution of up to 12 CFLs per family under the food bank program, that means a $504 savings or more for these families over the course of the life of all 12 bulbs.
In addition to the food bank program, the DC SEU provides financial incentives and technical assistance to low-income housing operators.
Other successful low-income programs have included solar panel installation and multifamily retrofits. Last year, DC SEU contractors installed solar panels on single family homes in Wards 7 and 8. According to its 2012 annual report, the DC SEU also made $4.7 million of energy efficiency improvements in low-income communities. Under this retrofit program, DC SEU contractors installed low-flow showerheads and faucets. They wrapped electric hot water heaters. They replaced old light bulbs with CFLs.
In addition to low-income programs, the DC SEU oversees other programs for homeowners, buildings, and small and large businesses. For example, the DC SEU provides training, technical assistance, lighting upgrades and rebate programs for D.C. businesses. The business rebate program has been “wildly more successful than we had ever anticipated,” Trabue said.
The DC SEU also is aggressively trying to encourage homeowners to participate in two programs that provide rebates of up to $500 for energy efficient improvements – things such as air and duct sealing, adding installation and upgrading heating systems.
As a result of another ongoing program, D.C. residents can buy discounted CFLs for as little as $1 from 40 participating D.C. retailers. The DC SEU has expanded this program during the 2013 fiscal year to include rebates on light-emitting diode, known as LED, light bulbs, and high-efficiency refrigerators and clothes washers.
“[T]he challenges of energy efficiency combined with what I call our social equity goals create kind of a little bit of a tug of war,” Trabue said.
Aside from getting people accustomed to the fact that the DC SEU provides a main contact point for questions and programs about energy efficiency, its success requires people and businesses to see the cost savings they can achieve through energy efficiency. Making this task even tougher is the fact that seeing the real savings from energy efficiency often involves looking long-term.
The DC SEU is funded by D.C. residents through a surcharge on their natural gas and electricity rates. The D.C. city council created the DC SEU as part of the Clean and Affordable Energy Act of 2008. The DC SEU operates under a contract with the D.C. Department of Environment.