Wisconsin focuses on engaging utilities in energy efficiency

Focus on Energy, Wisconsin utilities' statewide energy efficiency and renewable resource program, recently celebrated a huge milestone -- the 10,000th participant in the state's Small Business Program. Launched in July 2012, the Small Business Program has since served about 4,000 customers per year, with more than 150 trade allies delivering the program statewide.

Focus on Energy boasts the participation of some 108 utilities from A (Adams-Columbia Electric Cooperative) to X (Xcel Energy). For a full list of participants, click here.

FierceEnergy Editor-in-Chief Barbara Vergetis Lundin, caught up with Focus on Energy Director of Operations Tamara Sondgeroth to talk about how the overall program got to where it is today.

FierceEnergy: In what capacity do you work with utilities?

Tamara Sondgeroth: Part of our job as Program Administrator for Focus on Energy is to encourage energy efficiency throughout the state in a way that's predictable and manageable across the state for our utility partners.

Focus on Energy is Wisconsin utilities' statewide energy efficiency and renewable resource program funded by the state's investor-owned energy utilities and participating municipal and electric cooperative utilities. Focus on Energy works with eligible Wisconsin residents and businesses to install cost-effective energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. Focus on Energy information, resources and financial incentives help to implement projects that otherwise would not be completed. Its efforts help Wisconsin residents and businesses manage rising energy costs, promote in-state economic development, protect our environment and control Wisconsin's growing demand for electricity and natural gas.

FE: How does Focus on Energy work with utilities to promote energy efficiency?

TS: Focus on Energy started in 1999, when the Wisconsin State Legislature passed Act 9, creating a statewide public benefits program. The original Focus on Energy programs were introduced in 2001. In 2005, the Wisconsin State Legislature passed Act 141, mandating that Wisconsin's utilities fund the program.

Focus on Energy promotes its energy efficiency programs by co-branding on bill inserts and mailers with utility partners across Wisconsin. Utilities also display Focus on Energy's website logo and links on their websites, to inform their ratepayers about programs that they are eligible for. Focus on Energy also holds memberships and sponsorships across the state, aligning itself with organizations that promote energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.

FE: What are some specific programs that utilities have developed and what are the benefits they are producing?

TS: Focus on Energy has programs designed to serve every participating utility customer across Wisconsin, from the smallest residential customer to the largest industrial/commercial customer.

Residential programs include appliance recycling; home performance with Energy Star; express energy efficiency; new homes; lighting and appliance; residential rewards; and renewable rewards.

Business programs, both custom and prescriptive incentives include agriculture, schools and government; business incentive; chain stores and franchises; design assistance; large energy users; multifamily energy savings; small business; and renewable energy competitive incentive.

FE: From the data that has come out of these programs, what is the most surprising statistic you have found?

TS: According to the 2013 Focus on Energy Evaluation Report, for $1.00 invested in the Focus on Energy program, $3.41 goes back in benefits to Wisconsin ratepayers.

FE: What are some of the next-gen technologies being implemented for energy efficiency and why are they cutting edge?

TS: LED lighting is one of the most well-known 'next-gen' technologies that comes to mind. LED technology has come a long way, but it's still expensive compared to florescent light bulbs. However, LEDs have advantages, such as a longer life in cold weather.

FE: Tell me about the some of the more significant energy-efficiency project Focus on Energy has seen.

TS: Focus on Energy has many significant energy-efficiency projects. Some of the larger projects have been biodigesters that are put on farms -- they have advantages for the larger farms and some have received up to $500,000 in incentives.

We've also had some really unique energy-efficiency projects in larger industrial plants in Wisconsin, where we take waste heat and use it for something useful in another location in the plant. That way, we're using the energy created, rather than being wasteful and letting it evaporate.

FE: What is your perspective on picking the "low-hanging fruit" of energy efficiency?

TS: We have picked most of the low-hanging fruit, but we are probably going to see energy-efficiency programs going towards more of the behavioral-based models.

FE: What trends in energy efficiency do you see emerging in 2015?

TS: We are starting to see more ideas coming out about how to effect change with technologies that are currently in place (i.e., Strategic Energy Management (SEM), helping train staff in businesses to help them run their processes more effectively and save energy at the same time).

FE: What is your five to 10 year outlook for the future of energy efficiency both in Wisconsin and nationally?

TS: Energy efficiency will continue to be a key ingredient in our energy future. As we look at possible changes to the industry by 111 D from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), that could further encourage energy efficiency to be in the forefront here in Wisconsin and across the country.

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