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WV shows dim efforts in energy efficiency

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  • Many WV coal counties losing revenue

    Many WV coal counties losing revenue

    Monday, August 8 2016 10:15 AM EDT2016-08-08 14:15:05 GMT

    As Appalachian coal production continues its drastic decline, West Virginia’s coal-producing counties are  not only losing people as lifelong residents are forced to flee their homes in order to find work, but in many cases, they’re also relinquishing millions of dollars from their budgets.

    As Appalachian coal production continues its drastic decline, West Virginia’s coal-producing counties are  not only losing people as lifelong residents are forced to flee their homes in order to find work, but in many cases, they’re also relinquishing millions of dollars from their budgets.

West Virginia is a national leader in coal and energy production, but the state still falls short when comes to energy efficiency efforts, studies show.

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, or ACEEE, ranked West Virginia 46th among the 50 states and Washington, D.C. in its 2013 Energy Efficiency Scorecard, which scores the states based on categories from utilities to appliance standards to state government-led initiatives.

Although this is an improvement from its 49th place ranking in 2012, the Mountain State still earned only nine of 50 points last year — leaving exponential potential to make changes.

Room for improvement

WalletHub recently ranked West Virginia as the seventh-most energy expensive state, but — contrary to popular belief — those rankings aren’t necessarily linked to costs.

According to the Energy Information Administration, West Virginia tied with Wyoming for paying the ninth-lowest average for electricity in 2012, at 9.85 cents per kilowatt-hour. But in the same year, Mountain State residents were ranked the 14th-highest in average monthly energy consumption, consuming an average of 1,078 kilowatt-hours.

The result?

The 23rd-highest electric bills in the nation, with residents paying an average of $106.15 a month.

In other words, relatively speaking, West Virginia has low electricity costs but consumes a lot of electricity resulting in higher electric bills than residents need to pay.

Take Wyoming, for example, which paid the same price per kilowatt-hour as West Virginia but consumed an average of only 867 kilowatt-hours per month. The larger population allowed residents to pay only $85.35 a month on average.

“We have some of the lowest rates in the country for electricity but we have higher than average electric bills,” said Emmett Pepper, executive director of Energy Efficient West Virginia. “There’s a lot of room for improvement.

“I think a lot of the room can come from power companies doing a better job of having programs and implementing them.”

Lacking motivation

Appalachian Power offers several energy efficiency programs, including HomeSMART Energy Assessments, the Efficient Products Program, Online Energy Checkup, the Borrow a Kill-A-Watt Meter and a Low Income Weatherization Program. FirstEnergy subsidiaries Mon Power and Potomac Edison, too, offer programs to residential customers, including the Home Energy Analyzer and the Low Income Home Check-Up Program.

However, FirstEnergy offers far fewer energy efficiency programs in the Mountain State’s residential sector than it does in neighboring areas, including Maryland and Pennsylvania — which both ranked higher in energy efficiency, at ninth and 19th, respectively.

And while FirstEnergy has plans to implement more energy efficiency programs for West Virginia in the near future, spokesman Todd Meyers said, the difference comes from a lack of legal force behind energy efficiency in the state, as opposed to surrounding states that have energy efficiency portfolios in place to push these agendas.

“We’ve been taking modest steps in the absence of legislation,” Meyers said.

Legislation has been proposed in West Virginia’s House of Delegates, but the state has not adopted an Energy Efficiency Resource Standard, which has been implemented as a mandatory requirement in 18 states and a voluntary requirement in eight as a way to require utility companies to meet annual and cumulative energy-saving targets.

Several advocacy groups, including Energy Efficient West Virginia, have spoken in support of EERS legislation that would save 4.5 percent of electric sales by 2019, based on 2011 electricity sales. In addition, the NAACP said in its recently released Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Policy Profile that West Virginia should set a standard of a minimum 2 percent annual reduction of previous year electricity sales.

This year, however, the state Legislature passed an Integrated Resource Planning bill, which aims to ensure that power companies are investing in saving energy through energy efficiency.

But without a push from the government, energy efficiency advocates say that residents need to take it upon themselves to recognize the benefits of these programs.

“The No. 1 reason, of course, is saving money,” Pepper said. “That’s, I think, why people do it — it’s the biggest reason to do it.”

There are other benefits too, though, including a lower health impact from pollution and a better local economy, he said.

“You can’t outsource putting insulation in your homes.”

Randy Swartz, owner of Home Efficiency Solutions, a company that specializes in home efficiency audits and energy efficient homebuilding in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, Western Maryland, Northern Virginia and South Central Pennsylvania, attributes the Mountain State’s setback to, “A lack of education on the subject.”

“I think that most folks really believe that if they hire an energy auditor to come to their house they think they’ll hear something they already know,” Swartz said.

Pepper agreed, saying that the costs associated with quick fixes for energy efficient living are less burdensome than they seem.

“People have the perception that it’s expensive to make the changes, but the first steps are to close up the holes with caulk,” Pepper said. “A lot of homes are leakier than they need to be.

“The payback period is really quick on that.”

Balancing act

Some energy efficiency programs offered through utility companies are costly, but advocates of energy efficiency say those costs are worth the overall benefits.

“The costs pay for themselves and it is tough because they are upfront costs, but there are weatherization programs that are available for customers that are below a certain income level that are basically free,” Pepper said.

But according to the utility companies, it’s much more complicated than that.

“All the incentives need to be funded and they’re funded by ratepayers,” Meyers said. “None of these are free.”

Residential customers in West Virginia are paying about 12 to 13 cents a month on their bills for these programs in the state, whereas customers in Maryland — who have access to far more energy efficiency programs through FirstEnergy than West Virginia residents — are paying $3 a month now, and will likely pay around $5 a month in 2015, he added.

And the cost might be one West Virginia can’t afford.

Consumers in Maryland, which is one of 18 states with a mandatory EERS, consume less electricity per month on average than West Virginians, but Free State residents pay higher electricity prices and higher bills.

The major differing factor, however, is that West Virginia had a median household income of $43,553 in 2012, the ninth-lowest in the country, whereas Maryland had the highest annual median income in the nation, at $71,835, according to United States Census data.

“West Virginia has long enjoyed relatively inexpensive electric rates in comparison to many other states,” Meyers said. “There’s always a balancing act of how much you are going to force people to pay each month to save energy.

“You don’t want to put too much of a burden on residential customers, especially low-income residential customers.”

Jacqui Patterson, NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice director, however, asserted that there’s more to the matter than money.

“Those same communities who folks claim to be trying to protect in terms of their rate increases are the communities that are paying for asthma hospitalization, they’re paying by kids being out of school and therefore their educational potential being jeopardized, they’re paying by having to lose days of work by having to stay home with kids who have asthma attacks on poor air quality days,” she said. “So we really need to look at the big picture when we’re looking at costs.”

But, similar to Meyers, Appalachian Power President Charles Patton argued that a major challenge with energy efficiency programs in the state is that West Virginia houses a lot of impoverished residents whose priorities are simply somewhere else.

For example, Patton explained, if APCO does an energy audit on a low-income household and tells the homeowner that the company will give him $2,500 to replace a $5,000 heat pump, that resident still won’t be able to come up with it — “even if we’re going to give him half of it,” he said.

“It might as well be a million dollars.”

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