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A Cross Section of how Utility Energy Efficiency Programs are managing COVID-19's Disruption

Wednesday, May 13, 2020   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Anastasia Claxon
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This article is republished from the May 2020 issue of Strategies, AESP’s exclusive magazine for members. To receive Strategies, please consider joining AESP.

Special from AESP

Unprecedented is an adjective used to describe the COVID-19 pandemic. In a turn of a dime, utilities were forced to reroute employees from their daily commutes to a new route going from the bedroom to the home office/dining room. Energy efficiency programs needed to be re-evaluated and in many cases, were put on hold. A playbook for navigating this unique environment was largely non-existent because managers did not spent their days anticipating for worst case scenarios such as this. So what have energy efficiency professionals learned since, as unfortunately, such a day did arrive and dramatically changed how their work gets done?

The health risks to utility employees are tangible, not hypothetical. In early April, Consolidated Edison had 170 employees who tested positive for COVID-19, 11 recovered and returned to work, but sadly three employees succumbed and died.

Working in a Battlefield

In response, the government enacted various laws limiting personal interactions, some of which had a dramatic impact on energy efficiency programs. Many utilities shut down customer site visits completely. "We made a critical decision to suspend our programs because they typically require on-site visits to ensure that we understand the customers' needs," said William R. Ellis, Manager Energy Efficiency Portfolio at Potomac Electric Power Company (PECO).

Other utilities sent workers to businesses and residences but had them take precautions, such as wearing protective clothing and maintaining social distances. In this case, consumers moved weatherization projects forward. There was more limited activity with windows projects, lighting replacements, and the installation of power strips. In some cases, commercial buildings were lacking occupants, so the time was right to complete projects avoided during busy seasons.

Workarounds also emerged, with virtual site inspections gaining traction. Utilities used new software applications, and homeowners transmitted site data via cameras on their smartphones. Utility employees determined if there was a possibility of these customers taking part in an energy efficiency program.

Virtual Home Inspections Emerge

In some cases, the utility shipped items, such as energy efficient shower heads, to customers who installed the devices themselves. "Our field technicians do not go into any homes," explained PECO's Ellis. Instead, they leave energy efficiency goodie bags on consumers' doorsteps. When needed, contractors walk consumers through installations via video conferencing apps such as Facetime.

The initial results from such initiatives are promising. About three out of five consumers were willing to conduct virtual rather than manual home inspections, according to Marie Abdou, Manager Customer Energy Management, Massachusetts at National Grid. Once pandemic restrictions are lifted, such programs may remain because they reduce the time that field service technicians spend on installations.

In addition, utilities turned to technology to streamline other business processes. "We rely more and more on automation to conduct our business," explained Bill Clemens, Manager Energy Efficiency & Business Energy Services at DTE Energy. "One year ago, we installed PowerBI dashboards. They automatically collect information and allow us to easily display all elements of our programs: spending, savings, cycle times, events and how many attendees came, counter measures and safety improvements."

Let It Ride

Increasing energy efficiency awareness has been another area of emphasis. "We are doubling down on energy efficiency," said Ellis. During the pandemic, consumers are spending more hours at home, so their energy usage and bills increased. Given the fact that more than 25 million Americans lost their jobs, many households are searching for ways to save money.

Utilities worked to spread their message. National Grid worked with other Massachusetts utilities to develop an Energy Efficiency Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) web page specially in response to the pandemic. Other utilities increased their marketing efforts. "We are relying on blogs and targeted mailings to help consumers reduce their energy consumption," said DTE's Clemens. Some of the videos focus on simple steps, such as reducing thermostats at night and cleaning grease traps. Others were designed to prime the pump and get consumers to sign up for programs that would be completed once social distancing restrictions are lifted.

Home Becomes the Office

Working at home was another challenge that energy efficiency managers needed to address during the shutdown. Before the shutdowns started, none of PECO's 40 energy efficiency employees worked remotely. In early March, the department began to prepare for moving off site and conducted tests to ensure that employees' remote networks functioned properly. "All of the team members have laptops in the office, so they brought them home," explained Ellis.

The new working conditions requires adjustments. "What I found is that employees need to communicate frequently, openly, and honestly," stated National Grid's Abdou. "When I am on a call, my young children are running around. The new normal is one where we cannot expect perfect working conditions 100 percent of the time."

Employees also face uncertainty: How long will the shutdown last and what impact will it have on their professional and personal lives. "Life is busier than before," says Ellis. "A lot of people are fatigued. They are in front of a computer so much that they forget to take a shower, eat lunch, or relax." Ellis advises setting aside personal time for oneself. He sets up virtual coffee breaks where he and a few coworkers talk about what's going on in their lives rather than business. Such exchanges are opportunities for fun to be injected into long, dreary days. Some managers set up trivia contests, others exercise classes, and one executive created silly photos that were Instagram-filtered to add ears and noses to individuals.

The Economic Impact

Moving forward, utilities need to prepare for the time when shutdowns and the program pauses are finally lifted. Initially, the pandemic did not appear to have any impact on energy efficiency program funding because these budgets are different from typical business expenses. "My budget is set and approved by the local utility commission," explained Sherry McCormack, Manager, Energy Efficiency & Consumer Programs at Southwestern Electric Power Company (SWEPCO).

Utilities petition their commissions for funding for new projects and the commissions then roll those costs into customer bills. But the path from approval to deployment can encounter bumps. In 2019, the California Public Utilities Commission authorized $1 billion in energy efficiency spending  but only $600 million (a $400 million shortfall) was spent on such projects, according to Greg Wikler,  Executive Director at California Efficiency + Demand Management Council (CEDMC). Public agencies often add stipulations to ensure that such programs fulfill their promises and reduce consumer energy use. That process is negotiated and takes time. In California, the approval process took so long that utilities did not have enough time to enact their programs.

Budget uncertainty casts a dark cloud over energy efficiency departments. While utilities generally do not expect changes in their current budgets, the grim national economic news are certain to create a ripple effect that leads to cuts in the future. "We understand that it will be a struggle to get the economy back to where it was again," noted DTE's Clemens. How much of an impact the pandemic will have on future spending is uncertain, like almost all business plans in all other industries as well.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a first ever event in this century that has wreaked global havoc (and hopefully the only one ever). In response, the energy efficiency industry developed new safety procedures, created virtual evaluations, increased program marketing efforts, and changed how they collaborate. The slim silver lining encircling the catastrophe is that many of these improvements will continue after the pandemic crests, and a new normal takes shape.

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