The Early Years of Energy Efficiency
2014 marks CEE's 35th year promoting energy efficiency and clean energy. In this interview, President Sheldon Strom describes how our earliest programs and research projects set the stage for our roles as public stewards, pragmatic pioneers, community resources, and expert implementers.
Anna: How would you describe public perception of energy efficiency in the late 70's?
People started to pay attention to energy because of the crisis in Iran and high oil prices, but no one was sure where to start. The City of Minneapolis created the Minneapolis Energy Office (MEO) in 1979, and I was given the job of Energy Coordinator. That interest in energy carried over to our legislature in 1980 when John Armstrong from the state energy agency suggested that our utilities should invest in energy efficiency the way Oregon had done. He introduced the concept of conservation improvement, which has remained the main concept in Minnesota ever since. Despite the learning curve for Minnesota policymakers and stakeholders, a bill passed to test out a few energy efficiency strategies. So we brainstormed and suggested a few to Minnegasco (which became CenterPoint Energy in 2004).
Anna: Where did you get those first ideas? Did you look to other sectors or cities?
There were very few efficiency experts. So when I came across an article about the research Guttam Dutt was leading at Princeton University, I flew out and learned about their projects and came back to Minnesota with blower door diagnostic technology. MEO was the first to use the blower door in a non-research setting. That put us on the right track using the proper technology in our programs and research (e.g. tracer-gas systems for air sealing, infrared photography, data visualization).
Anna: What were some of your early interactions with the mayor and city council?
The city council created an energy committee under Mayor Don Fraser, who supported the Energy Office. He was essential in brokering the deals with the utilities to work cooperatively with us. At that time, a few Minnegasco employees saw themselves as civic leaders and wanted to act in the public interest. Before that, the utilities just sold power and didn't see themselves as part of the solution to saving energy.
Anna: Could you tell me a bit about the Energy Futures Committee you sat on in the early 80's?
It was committee of about 20 citizens appointed by the city council and the mayor: some represented utilities, others were just citizens. We were grappling with the question: what should the city do about energy? In this context, people didn’t know too much about it. Some people on the committee claimed we’d run out of natural gas by 1985. We muddled through the misinformation to create, if not the most sophisticated plan, a reasonable Energy Futures Report that emphasized energy efficiency and partnerships with utilities .
Anna: Did all of your funding come directly from the City and utilities?
In the beginning yes, but we also looked for additional funding opportunities. I wrote a proposal to the Department of Housing and Urban Development for an innovative grant . In the application, I described all the new technologies, based on Princeton’s research, and highlighted how innovative it all was. So time passes, and one day my boss called me to ask, “do you know anything about this $900,000 grant award?”
“Oh yeah! I wrote a proposal for that.”
That grant allowed us to experiment, so when we asked for utility support we could demonstrate that our programs were effective. Once again, I think our early success was because we were tied to Princeton, implementing their great ideas. So that was genius, luck, or something!
Anna: Why did MEO decide to use a community-organizing model for its Neighborhood Energy Workshops when they launched in 1981?
We wanted to implement Princeton’s technologies - blower doors, sealing bypasses, and air sealing - but didn’t have the budget to pay professionals to install them on a large scale. A community organizing strategy was effective in my early job running a crime prevention program. So I thought, why don’t we use it to deliver energy efficiency? Why don’t we teach people to improve their own homes, without a blower door?
We made a deal with the utilities: give us the money you currently spend on an energy audit, and our program will perform an audit, provide free materials, and run low-cost workshops for the same cost. Our volume was so high and our volunteers were so successful that we actually ran a little surplus to invest in other programs. A few exceptional employees did that community organizing.
When other groups running efficiency programs asked us to teach them how to implement the community strategy, our organizers would try, but wasn’t a thing that was easy to translate. Neighborhood-based programs rely on people with community organizing skills. It was remarkably successful strategy, but for a while, its time passed because people didn’t believe much in energy, and they didn’t believe much in community. Now people believe in both again.
Anna: How was NEW connected to the Energy Bank?
Most everyone originally thought that the reason that people don’t implement energy efficiency measures is that they don’t have the money. That inspired our Energy Bank. The City of Minneapolis sold low-interest bonds to provide the loan capital, and the utility offered loans that their customers paid back on utility bills.
NEW helped people take low-cost action in their own homes, and also gave them a low-cost energy audit, helping which helped them determine whether they needed insulation. We built on that to create Operation Insulation, a quality control program. People could be assured: if they hired a contractor to insulate their home, we inspected it to ensure it was a good job. Once we had that going, the Energy Bank helped people to make the investment. Some needed the financing, but financing alone doesn’t motivate people.
We learned fairly quickly that the key to an efficiency program is to make it simple and fun. It’s not so much about economics as it is about people, motivation, and convenience. Our programs still take this approach. For example, the our lighting program uses a “one-stop” model to provide audits and rebates to small commercial customers who don’t have much time to think about energy efficiency.. The field had assumed that human beings were rational and needed more money to make energy improvements. We were one of the first organizations to understand that you don’t bribe people to invest in efficiency, you facilitate. You engage them and help them feel ownership over the process.
Anna: CEE’s research has a long history of informing program design and finding questions. How did that all get started?
Our first research question was: what could we do to improve efficiency in multifamily buildings? We tried applying outdoor resets for hot water buildings and balancing old steam systems. Once we’d demonstrated that these strategies saved energy, we recommended that the utility develop a program to provide incentives for those improvements. We went into the field to determine which technologies were effective. Then we designed a program to implement them. What counts is how it performs in the real world, not what the lab tests or manufacturers predict. Getting our hands dirty set the tone for our research.
Anna: What about after the “Energy Crisis”? How did you promote efficiency when the public was less concerned?
When public interest in energy waned, we were able to leave the city. Early on, we realized we needed to implement programs quickly and refine them constantly. A city’s systems aren’t designed for that. We knew we should become a non-profit before the energy crisis, but the city didn’t want to lose the connection to programs that were so popular. When the public started to lose interest in energy in the late 80s, our fifteen person staff all resigned and we created the Center for Energy and the Urban Environment.
After a relatively slow start, things really took off when we focused on the non-energy benefits of efficiency. When the Federal Aviation Administration passed the Airport Noise and Capacity Act in 1990, we suggested to the airport commission that they could use our insulation strategies to reduce noise in homes. They agreed to a five house pilot, which launched into the sound insulation program in 1992. We eventually worked on 13,000 buildings. At various times two thirds of our staff worked on that project, and only a third worked formally on energy. This way we were able to thrive through the 90's and into the early 2000's when energy was less of a priority.
Anna: Looking back on these 35 years of experience, what are some of the most important lessons for CEE going forward?
Years ago, the conventional wisdom said there wasn't too much we could do to save energy. Through our programs and research, we learned that innovation through trial and error pays off. While today's conventional wisdom is based on knowledge, we have to remember that we don't know everything. We've come a long way, but there's still potential to save energy. So we need to keep testing new approaches and technologies. We can't let our assumptions keep us from seeing new opportunties.