Efficiency gets lift from political efforts in Oregon

When you get right down to it, light bulbs just aren’t as inspiring as solar panels. And while stapling up insulation has its charms, that puffy pink just doesn’t provoke the same awe as a shiny new windmill.

So it’s somewhat a surprise that the once droll topic of energy efficiency is suddenly among the hottest in Salem. In recent years, it’s businesses that have seen efficiency as the smart-money investment. Only now are politicians and environmental groups also lauding efficiency-friendly policies and seizing on their suddenly broad political appeal.

Currently, a four-pronged efficiency package is making its way to policy in the Legislature:

• House Bill 2960 aims to cut energy costs at public schools,

• House Bill 3535 would boost energy efficiency of new construction, create an efficiency rating system for buildings and homes, and require utilities to prioritize energy conservation over power generation.

As all this activity around efficiency advances in Salem, those who have watched efficiency policy inch forward for years say it is finally enjoying the most favorable political climate it’s ever seen.

“I think it’s now at a time where there’s no where else to turn,” said Sergio Dias, a consultant who helps industrial facilities strategize energy use. Dias said as climate changes and a growing sustainability ethic reduce the national appetite for coal and nuclear power, renewable energy is more clearly viewed as a necessity, and reducing energy consumption is viewed a key component in a clean energy strategy. “In the past it was that utilities did it because it was a nice thing to do and was good public relations. Now it’s like we have to do it or else we can’t provide electricity to all our customers,” he said.

Rep. Jules Bailey is leading efficiency policy efforts in Salem. Bailey

Added urgency comes in part from national leadership, according to Rep. Jules Bailey, D-Portland.

“I think one of the reasons, frankly, its become kind of sexy now is you’re really seeing the results of the power of the bully pulpit. And like you had Kennedy say he was going to put a man on the moon, you had Obama come out during the stimulus, and he and Joe Biden announced this idea,” he said. “Even though this was about an initial stimulus jolt, that’s the great thing about energy efficiency, is it’s demonstrating … you can have a very good return on investment.”

There’s no question energy efficiency policy has created jobs. Ryan Clemmer, a home performance manager for Imagine Energy, is also president of the Home Performance Contractors Guild of Oregon. He says all of the guild’s 30 to 40 member companies have added jobs while energy efficiency programs have ramped up.

That efficiency is also the cheapest way to reduce costs at utilities is no secret. More than 100 Northwest utilities have pooled resources through the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance to drive down energy use, reducing power saving 600 average megawatts since 1997 – enough energy to power 450,000 homes, according to NEEA spokesman Aaron Cohen.

Adding fuel to that fire in 2011, said Rachel Shimshak, director of the Renewable Northwest Project, is that, “We have a lousy budget situation, and we want to be able to keep our clean energy edge. And it turns out that energy efficiency is the cheapest, quickest, cleanest form of energy we have. Rigorous implementation helps reduce bills and our need for any kind of new generation,” and also grows jobs.

Jon Isaacs said efficiency is good for consensus buildingIsaacs

Those outcomes easily appeal to unions, who have shown enthusiastic support for efficiency policy. But they also appeal to conservation voters, according to Jon Isaacs, executive director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters. In a legislative session that holds the most promise for big coalitions that can agree, Isaacs said environmental groups are interested in consensus-building toward environmental goals.

“Here’s a place were we can work with the private sector and solve a major environmental problem — climate change — and do it in a way that’s not combative, it’s collaborative,” said Isaacs.

As federal money begins to land in local economies, like the $20 million grant being used to expand Clean Energy Works from a Portland trial to a statewide program, Bailey adds that local communities are also catching on, particularly as they see jobs added. While applicants from as far away as Klamath Falls are now applying to help expand Clean Energy Works, it creates a favorable climate for politicians to support efficiency ideas.

Energy efficiency efforts are on the rise in Oregon.

Clemmer also offers this notion: “It’s people being more comfortable in their homes that’s the underlying root of it.”

In a more robust real estate market, he said, homeowners changed homes faster. They looked for good buys, better loans and changed property much more readily. As buyers hunker down, said Clemmer, “The natural progression is to make a place more comfortable.”

While all those factors combine to broaden the appeal of energy efficiency, it hasn’t always been this way. Robert Grott has been executive director of the Northwest Environmental Business Council for five years and previously worked with utilities on energy efficiency programs.

“It’s always had a couple of things going against it. One is that it’s just not sexy … And while the savings are obvious, there’s always been competition on the business side for whether the dollars are invested in efficiency or equipment,” he said. “What has shifted I think is the addition of the sustainability, climate change, carbon dynamic in the conversation.”

For now, it’s a win.

Lee van der Voo, lvdvoo*at*gmail.com, is a freelance writer for Sustainable Business Oregon.