TCL&P and the Invasion of the Negawatts

April 8, 2010 | |

When we rolled out our new clean energy report for Traverse City Light & Power, we got lots of questions about our ambitious energy efficiency goals. The answers are all about negawatts.

We rolled out our new clean energy report for the good folks on Traverse City Light & Power’s board last week, and got a very nice reception.

And, as we hoped, we also got a lot of very good questions!

As they thumbed through their copies of our hot-off-the-press report, 20-20 by 2020: A Clear Vision for Clean-Energy Prosperity, board members asked us all sorts of things. From challenging the strategy of changing people’s behavior, to questioning the use of pricey solar power, to wondering about new utility lingo like“decoupling”-it was a fine discussion of our ideas for moving TCL&P beyond coal power even faster than thispioneering, municipally owned already proposes.

No doubt, the biggest energizer bunny in the room-and, really, the foundation of 20-20 by 2020-is the whole energy efficiency thing. Clean energy experts have long said cutting demand for electricity is, by far, the most important, necessary first step for a utility moving toward clean energy. So we got a lot of questions about “EE.”

One commissioner challenged the whole idea of treating energy efficiency as if it was continuous, or “base load,” power-the crucial juice that’s still got to be flowing when the sun goes down, the wind stops blowing, and those turbines and solar panels we’re pushing for go kaput.

Another commissioner worried that, while saving energy is great, counting on people to act to save electricity-thus reducing the need for new power sources-seems very risky. If people failed to do their part to meet a planned cut in power consumption, he said, it would leave TCL&P looking for more than it had planned to provide, forcing it to buy pricey “spot” power from elsewhere to avoid brownouts.

And two other commissioners-who, interestingly, differed on how well they thought TCL&P is doing on efficiency -wanted our suggestions for doing better.

If there’s one thing people need to understand about energy efficiency, it’s that there is no real difference—besides the amount of money involved—between making a watt of base load energy and saving a watt of base load energy, as long as either one still gets the job done.

Thank about it: If my old electric foot-warmer needs two watts to keep me cozy, then I buy a new one that toasts my toes just as effectively with just one watt, I’ve just reduced TCL&P’s need to send me some base load by one watt.

One of my favorite geniuses, Amory Lovins, would call that saved watt a negawatt. So either two regular watts for my old warmer or one regular watt and one negawatt for my new one can warm my toes, TCL&P can sell that other, unused, regular watt somewhere else, or eliminate it entirely by downsizing its generating capacity by one watt, and everybody’s still happy.

Now, here’s the true beauty of that negawatt: It lives inside my foot warmer, it’s there every time I turn the thing on, I only pay for it once, and compared to generating that now unneeded, new, regular watt every time I turn on my foot warmer, it’s cheap, cheap, cheap. A negawatt is a gift that keeps on giving long after it’s paid for.

A final thought for my fellow patriots: A negawatt is as All-American as Ben Franklin. After all, it was big Ben who said, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” That’s just as true for negawatts!

Next time, we’ll show why counting on people to change their behavior is really a very small part of an effective efficiency program. The big part? Smart, utility-based incentives and investments that produce millions of negawatts, lower utility bills, and generate something else Michigan really needs: not more watts, but jobs, jobs, jobs.

Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s managing editor. Reach him at [email protected].


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