Saving the Planet Sometime Soon After Never

$20 a pop to give our neighbors one of these, buried on our electric bill.

What feeds persistent skepticism about those highly touted energy efficiency programs that we utility ratepayers get billed for? The actual reports on their costs and outcomes do not help.

Case in point: A quarterly report from Dominion Energy Virginia about its on-going efforts to reduce energy usage for low income or elderly residential customers. The utility spent more than $450 per household, a total of more than $713,000 to go into 1,568 homes, mostly apartments. 

What did they do in those lower-income households, according to the report? Install 8,700 LED light bulbs mainly, but at $20 a bulb, probably a markup near 1,000 percent over the bulk contractor price. In fact, comparing the “cost” of the other energy efficiency items on the report with their prices on the Lowe’s website should raise eyebrows and hackles.

Pipe insulation at $3 per linear foot? The retail (not wholesale) price at Lowe’s is 12 to 13 cents per foot. A price of $30 for each of the 411 new shower heads, or $12.50 for each of the 734 faucet aerators? That has to be five to ten times the actual cost of the items. Only the price for attic insulation, about $1.50 per square foot for R-30, doesn’t scream rip off.  Even if those prices include the installation somebody is doing well, especially if working their way through a compact apartment building.

There is zero information in the report about any actual or expected energy savings at the properties. At an average of $450 per unit for each job, how can this effort pass any reasonable cost-benefit analysis? There were only five things the contractors can do: LED bulbs, water-saver shower heads, water-saver faucet aerators, hot water pipe insulation and attic insulation. Not all were done in all places.

Why not reveals an interesting quirk: If the tenant (and it was almost entirely apartments now) has gas heat or hot water, then pipe insulation, shower heads, aerators and ceiling insulation are not offered. The goal is saving electricity, not energy and certainly not water. In many of the units, a few installed LED light bulbs is the only outcome of the visit.

As a utility customer already forced to pay the contractor to be there, I’d rather they install the water saver doohickeys even for the gas customers (preferably at the real cost, not the inflated price). Or is the same contractor also charging me for those through my gas bill?

This is all fully approved and deemed “in the public interest” by our General Assembly. The report itself notes: “This program has been successful by utilizing the state’s weatherization providers to implement widespread weatherization improvements to qualifying customers with a heavy emphasis on multifamily properties. Prior to the implementation of this program, customers in multifamily housing, needing weatherization improvements, were underserved.”

Well, they are getting served now, and we are getting billed. It’s a tiny amount, but still worth less than we are paying. Walk through Best Buy’s television or appliance department and compare the energy consumption stickers. There is more to conservation than just putting in a few LED light bulbs. Ceiling insulation can make a major difference but was only done in about a third of the units (presumably top floor apartments).

Yeah, this will bend the energy demand curve and save the planet. Somewhere soon after never. And when it is obviously failing, the advocates will move on to something else we all get to pay for. In fact, here may be a sign of The Next Big Thing:  They will want us to pay for energy efficient roofing. Hot roofs also make people sick, you understand.