Conserve and you can save, PUD says

EVERETT — One day Washingtonians could see clean energy harnessed from the state’s tides and volcanos, supplementing already abundant hydroelectricity.

In the meantime, Snohomish County PUD and other electricity providers are expanding efforts to conserve existing power resources.

That’s because energy efficiency is cheaper than building new power generation systems to meet growing demand for electricity.

“For us, energy efficiency is our highest priority,” said Craig Smith, the PUD’s assistant general manager for corporate and customer services. Smith said the utility treats conservation as a renewable energy resource. “We’ve made a commitment as a utility to buy clean energy resources and energy efficiency is the lowest cost of all of those.”

The Everett-based utility has budgeted $17 million this year for conservation programs, which is part of the PUD’s overall electrical system budget of $666 million.

In recent months, the PUD has launched new energy-conservation projects for residents and businesses and revamped existing programs.

The efforts are paying off for customers who have reined in energy costs and collectively shaved millions of dollars from their power bills. Examples include:

Everett Mutual Tower switched to more efficient lighting, heating and air conditioning systems, resulting in savings of about $39,000 a year in energy costs.

Crown Distributing in Arlington installed a new lighting system that saves about $10,000 a year.

Edmonds School District expects to save more than $130,000 a year in gas and electricity costs at the new Lynnwood High School, thanks to efficient heating, cooling and lighting systems.

The PUD also has residential conservation programs. It offers rebates for energy-efficient appliances, low-interest loans for insulation, windows and heat pumps and it pays people to recycle inefficient refrigerators and freezers.

In light of spiking energy costs, interest in power conservation is picking up across the country.

While Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama have vastly different energy plans, both presidential candidates strongly encourage energy conservation.

In the Pacific Northwest, 2007 was a record year for energy conservation. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council says enough energy was saved in the region to power about 146,000 homes — more than enough electricity for half of the homes in Snohomish County.

“But we need to make sure that that’s not just a one-time event,” said Ken Canon, coordinator of the newly formed Northwest Energy Efficiency Taskforce.

The task force — which includes representatives from public and investor-owned utilities from Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Montana and British Columbia — met for the first time in June to chart out new energy efficiency strategies.

The group focuses on research and development needs, marketing, work force recruitment and public policy. It plans to release a report with specific recommendations in early December.

Snohomish County added more than 10,000 residents in 2007. Population growth increases power demands.

By 2020, the utility, which serves Snohomish County and Camano Island, predicts demand will grow by about 24 percent.

PUD officials expect the utility can meet the demand through a combination of conservation and renewable energy sources.

The utility, which has about 13,000 business customers, recently expanded its commercial energy efficiency program to its top 500 users, which account for about 80 percent of commercial energy use. It previously focused on the 100 largest customers.

Wally Thomas, owner of Artisan Finishing Systems, a small specialty metal painting company in Marysville, received technical and financial assistance from the PUD for a new $50,000 air compressor system and a $26,000 lighting project.

The new air compressor, which shuts off when it’s not needed, sliced hourly operating costs from about $12 to $6.

The lighting project involved replacing old sodium vapor lights with fluorescent fixtures that distribute light better and cost less to operate.

A PUD conservation specialist ran a free energy audit to help Thomas make his decision. The study looked at current energy use, the cost of new equipment, projected energy savings and the amount of time it would take to recoup his investment through lower energy bills.

PUD also paid about one-third of the cost for both projects, accelerating the payback time to three to four years. PUD pays up to 70 percent of energy efficiency project costs for commercial and industrial businesses, depending on project savings.

The PUD’s assistance made the project a good capital investment, said Thomas, who has a dozen employees

The utility also began working with customers to identify energy-saving opportunities during the early design phase of construction projects.

For example, the new Lynnwood High School, scheduled to open in fall 2009, is 50 percent more energy efficient than the Washington building code requires.

The high-efficiency building takes advantage of natural lighting and ventilation and is expected to save the school about $50,000 a year in electricity costs alone. Money for electricity comes from the same pot of tax money that pays for teachers and textbooks.

Edward Peters, capital projects director for the Edmonds School District, said identifying energy-saving strategies early made the project successful. PUD energy specialists met with engineers and architects to brainstorm what would work. For example, the school was able to use an exhaust stack for ventilation to also “harvest” daylight.

Dan Sloan, director of facilities for the QFC grocery store chain, used PUD incentives to help pay for new lighting and refrigeration systems at stores in Snohomish County.

By reducing sales floor lighting by 50 percent after 10 p.m., the chain’s 75 stores in the Northwest cut electrical consumption by as much as 10 percent, he said.

New walk-in refrigerators capture heat, a byproduct of refrigeration, and recycle it to heat water.

“All the utilities are really on board with energy reduction projects,” Sloan said. “And that’s a real good thing.”

Reporter David Chircop: 425-339-3429 or dchircop@heraldnet.com.

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