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Declining Energy Use—blip Or Trend?

A chart on the Web site of the Energy Information Administration, run by the United States Department of Energy, says that for the first four months of 2009, Kentucky’s electricity use declined 5.76 percent from the same period in 2008.

If you want details, you can look at other columns to see that during those four months Kentuckians used 1,865,000 fewer megawatt-hours—that’s a very big drop in electricity use.

Is this the beginning of a trend?

Energy and the economy
Three major influences affect how much electricity Kentuckians use—the weather, the economy, and public attitudes about energy efficiency.

Winter weather conditions and electricity use are closely linked for many Kentuckians. About 40 percent of Kentucky households use electricity as their primary energy source for heat during the winter.

Kentucky temperatures during January, February, and March were high, low, and everything in between in different parts of the state this year, well within typical winter averages. Disruptions caused by the 2009 ice storm did affect the amount of power that could be sent through transmission lines for several days at the end of January and into the first part of February. But that alone cannot account for the large drop in electricity use. Electricity use was also down in March and April, long after the grid returned to normal operations.

Events in the business world, however, have been anything but average.

National economic problems on Wall Street have spread into the state, affecting small businesses on Main Street and the state’s major manufacturing industries. As Kentucky’s auto makers and their suppliers have shortened work hours or shut down for weeks at a time, their energy consumption has, as a result, fallen by big amounts.

Many retailers have gone out of business during this period, leaving vacant spots in shopping malls and in central business districts. Those dark stores don’t need electricity for cash registers, heating and air conditioning, or outdoor signs. As service businesses close, empty spaces in office buildings mean no electricity is needed for computers and light fixtures.

The slump in the national economy is affecting electricity use in a big way in Kentucky. But these changes are widely considered to be temporary. As industries recover and production levels rise again, electricity use in the manufacturing sector will gradually increase. As other business sectors recover, demand for electricity in retail stores and office buildings will rise, too.

If recent weather variations are only part of the difference in Kentucky, and if business slowdowns are only temporary, then what’s the long-term outlook for energy use? Will electricity use soon return to previous high levels? Then will electricity use keep increasing year after year, as it always has in the past?

Co-op efficiency at Fort Knox
Future electricity use is not easy to predict because energy-efficiency efforts are beginning to play a significant role in overall electricity consumption patterns.

At the national level, a push toward improving energy efficiency on all U.S. military bases is responsible for major changes at Kentucky’s Fort Knox. The national initiative, which began in the early 1990s, requires military bases to make major efforts to use energy more wisely. A Kentucky electric cooperative is playing a key role in meeting new standards to permanently reduce electricity consumption at Fort Knox.

Nolin Rural Electric Co-op Vice President of System Operations Vince Heuser says, “This major base-wide program involves heating and air conditioning, window replacements, lighting upgrades, insulated roofing systems, and domestic hot water improvements.”

Each energy savings proposal is examined beforehand to see how money invested now can be recovered through lower energy expenses in the future.

“Each project within this initiative has a payback time of 10 years or less,” Heuser explains. Since 1996, the base has invested more than $150 million in energy savings programs. That means that energy expenses have been reduced by that much money or more. Fort Knox is already using much less electricity than before.

Converting from traditional heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems that use a lot of electricity to the latest in geothermal technology is a major part of the program. So far, 4 million square feet of interior building spaces have been changed over to geothermal systems, reducing electricity consumption. An additional 2.5 million square feet of building space will be converted to geothermal systems over the next two years, so energy consumption at Fort Knox should continue to decline.

At the state level, other kinds of energy-efficiency programs are under way. Recent changes in state law mean that public schools must begin energy saving programs and report on their progress (see the May issue of Kentucky Living for details).

At the local level, other kinds of energy-efficiency programs are inspiring changes in electricity use.

In Jefferson County, Louisville’s “Kilowatt Crackdown Challenge” promotes better energy use in commercial buildings. This 16-month program, begun in July 2008 and continuing through late fall this year, is sponsored by the nonprofit Louisville Energy Alliance. Members include Louisville-Jefferson County government and three major business groups, the Building Owners and Managers Association, the International Facility Management Association, and the International Council of Shopping Centers.

In this friendly competition among all sizes and shapes of buildings, the winners are the biggest losers—that is, the buildings that reduce energy consumption the most get the prizes. Contest entrants are using tools and tips from the federal Energy Star program to reduce energy consumption, and reporting their successes at regular intervals. The program is off to such a good start that it’s receiving national recognition. The Kilowatt Crackdown program was recently selected as a finalist in the large-city category for the 2009 Mayors’ Climate Protection Awards, sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and Walmart Stores Inc.

Saving money and energy at home
While businesses, schools, and government programs make the headlines with their large-scale energy-efficiency programs, individual homeowners are joining in the hunt for ways to cut down on electricity use.

For the state’s electric co-ops, offering energy saving advice is nothing new. Nolin Rural Electric Co-op’s home energy audits are a good example. Since the mid-1980s, specially trained staff members at Nolin have been performing energy audits for co-op members.

This year the program is more popular than ever. During the first six months of this year, Energy Management coordinator Todd Drake and electrical advisor Jason Mattingly performed 311 energy checkups. Nolin’s Drake says, “Times are tough and our members are trying to budget their money more closely.”

During an energy audit, Drake or Mattingly will examine each home for air leaks and proper insulation, then look at appliances and window coverings—it’s a complete evaluation that’s customized to that particular home. Drake says, “Jason or I can show the co-op member what portion of the bill is for day-to-day electricity use every month, compared to the part of the bill that’s for heating in winter or cooling in summer.”

Drake notes that typical mainstream media advice about changing thermostat settings often does not reduce energy consumption in homes with heat pump systems. Adding insulation and sealing up air leaks can be much more effective.

Drake says, “A lot of what we do is educating people about where they are spending their energy money—and it’s very eye-opening for our members. People are asking more questions these days, and they are more receptive to what we are telling them. We are seeing more follow-up with our recommendations than we ever have before.”

In addition to visiting homes and talking with members during energy audits, Kentucky’s electric co-ops also provide information about energy-saving actions through printed materials and at their Web sites.

The Home Energy Library section of Warren Rural Electric Co-op’s Web site offers simple, clear information about all kinds of ways to use less electricity—and many co-op members are putting these ideas into practice. Their energy conservation efforts are finally beginning to have an effect.

Rick Carroll, director of Programs and Communications at Warren, based in Bowling Green, says, “Although we added 726 new residential meters in 2008, the average electricity use per residential account decreased by 30 kilowatt-hours per month.”

Later this year, as millions of dollars of federal stimulus funds dedicated to energy-efficiency programs make their way into Kentucky communities, new programs could help a lot more Kentuckians use less electricity.


TAKE THE ENERGY-EFFICIENCY TEST

Test your knowledge of energy-saving ideas on the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives Web site. Go to www.kaec.org and click on “Save money on energy.” You’ll find a list of links of ways to increase efficiency. To take the test, click on “How Electrically Savvy Are You?”

Next month: Kentucky Energy Secretary Leonard Peters on the state’s energy future

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