As NH sets out to gauge energy efficiency awareness, some say education isn’t enough
|Published: 07-10-2023 11:19 AM
The latest triennial energy efficiency plan filed by New Hampshire’s utility companies could save consumers $675 million, prevent 2 million tons of greenhouse gases from going into the atmosphere, and support 1,718 full-time jobs.
But how much does the average Granite State consumer know about any of that, if at all?
The state’s Department of Energy will soon find out, through a benchmark survey that will assess the current state of awareness and understanding of the benefits of energy efficiency among New Hampshire consumers.
The survey will provide market research to help guide future education and outreach efforts, said Chris Ellms, deputy commissioner at the Department of Energy, and establish a baseline understanding of what exactly Granite Staters know about energy efficiency and the “programs, incentives, and techniques available to them.”
It will focus on key demographic groups, including low-, moderate-, and higher-income residential customers, small businesses, municipalities, and nonprofits.
Rep. Michael Vose, an Epping Republican who chairs the House Science, Energy, and Technology Committee, said public education around energy efficiency “constitutes a glaring hole in the state’s attempts to convince people to make investments.”
Vose was the sponsor of a bill last year that mandated the state use close to half a million dollars annually to educate on the benefits of energy efficiency.
Education is a good thing, most agree, but it’s more complicated than that, contends Chris Skoglund, director of energy transition for Clean Energy New Hampshire. The state also needs to devote resources to ushering people along in the process, he said. Most don’t even know where to begin.
“Awareness does not translate into action,” he said. “There are other barriers that get in the way.”
The Department of Energy’s survey comes on the heels of a tumultuous few years for energy efficiency in New Hampshire, what Consumer Advocate Donald Kreis calls “a newly asserted skepticism” coming from the Public Utilities Commission and state Legislature.
In April, Kreis formally requested all three public utilities commissioners be disqualified from upcoming proceedings for the state’s 2024-2026 Triennial Energy Efficiency Plan. His concern centered on a January report released by the commission that appeared to question the amount of money the state invests in energy efficiency, what advocates frequently call the most cost-effective form of energy procurement or the “first fuel” in the clean energy transition.
The report raised concerns that the commission could again be gearing up for cuts to the NHSaves program – a collaboration of the state’s four electric and natural gas utilities that provides consumers with information, incentives, and rebates to save energy and reduce spending.
In 2021, the PUC approved a plan to slash NHSaves’ funding down to 2017 levels. Following an outcry, the Legislature passed an emergency bill to override the decision and restore dollars to 2020 levels for the foreseeable future.
Ellms said the benchmark survey isn’t connected to January’s controversial PUC report, but rather it’s a way to “ensure that we can most effectively promote energy efficiency in New Hampshire with the resources allocated by the Legislature.”
“Cost-effective energy efficiency provides system-wide benefits even beyond an individual household or business,” Ellms said, adding that the market research will help the state ensure that future resources are “spent wisely.”
Nonetheless, Kreis views the survey as political, in that it’s part of a public education requirement passed by lawmakers last year when the state’s energy efficiency programs were under fire.
The U.S. Department of Energy says energy efficiency is one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to “combat climate change, reduce energy costs for consumers, and improve the competitiveness of U.S. businesses.”
Common examples include insulation, air sealing, LED light bulbs, smart thermostats, heat pumps, and energy-efficient home appliances. In the Granite State, consumers can access most of these things, as well as home energy audits and weatherization, through NHSaves.
A recent email blast from NHSaves, for example, alerted consumers to dehumidifier rebates, events across the state where people can turn in inefficient air conditioners and get money in return, and how to qualify for a whole home energy audit.
Between 2018 and 2020, the NHSaves program created $579,672,531 in benefits, according to a program highlights report, and for every $1 invested in energy efficiency, $3.37 in benefits was generated.
Certainly there are energy savvy residential consumers who take advantage of the NHSaves program, said Kreis, but they’re likely not the majority.
“I would tend to guess your typical human being in New Hampshire has a very dim understanding of (energy efficiency) or no understanding of it, and that’s one of the main reasons we have a NHSaves program,” he said.
When someone is deciding where to spend their next dollar, Kreis added, for most people, “it wouldn’t occur to them that retrofitting their house would be just about the most important thing that they can do.”
“There are a thousand things competing for our attention every day,” said Skoglund. “Energy is important, but it may not be one of those things that is top of mind. You literally need to set aside time to figure out how to do (energy efficiency).”
Cost savings in the long run can be significant. The U.S. DOE estimates that typical households can save anywhere from 5 to 30 percent on utility bills by installing energy efficient appliances and home upgrades.
And yet, Skoglund said, people are faced with more immediate decisions, such as buying groceries, while an energy efficiency investment is something that will “pay for itself two years down the line.”
In order to see an uptake in energy efficiency, it may be that New Hampshire needs dedicated technical assistance, Skoglund said, such as a call center that assists people from the first step. That is one of the many things he hopes the survey results will shed light on.
At his organization, Clean Energy New Hampshire, “energy circuit riders” work side by side with municipalities that need “hand holding” to get started on certain projects.
When the Legislature passed House Bill 549 in 2022 – the bill that restored some NHSaves funding cut by the PUC – it also allocated $400,000 annually to “promulgate the benefits of energy efficiency” using funds from the system benefits charge. A portion of a resident’s monthly electric bill, the system benefits charge is what funds the state’s energy efficiency programs.
This was the impetus for the benchmark survey, said Vose. HB 549 tasked the Department of Energy with administering public education, reducing the authority of the Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Energy Board that was created in 2008 “to promote and coordinate energy efficiency, demand response, and sustainable energy programs in the state.”
Because of the responsibility changes, the EESE board was expected to create educational content. Vose said the utility companies do some outreach via NHSaves, “but they frequently view those promotions as brand enhancement more than public education.”
Vose himself is an EESE board member, and he said the group ultimately decided it needed an understanding of what the public already knew before it could develop a strategy to increase awareness. Its education subcommittee developed a request for proposals to hire a consultant.
At the end of June, the Executive Council approved a contract between the Department of Energy and Portland, Maine-based firm Market Decisions to conduct the qualitative research for the benchmark survey.
The EESE Board may not be around for much longer if Gov. Chris Sununu decides to sign House Bill 281. This session, senators compiled an omnibus bill that featured five unrelated energy priorities, one being the dissolution of the EESE Board. Proponents argued that the board isn’t needed any longer because the Department of Energy has taken on most of its work or has the capacity to do so, while opponents felt the board was a valuable forum for energy efficiency discussion.
In final votes on June 29, HB 281 passed both the House and Senate and is now awaiting Sununu’s signature.
“Eliminating the EESE Board likely will make the process more efficient, which should reduce overhead and leave more money for public education about the benefits of energy efficiency,” Vose said.