Bacon's Rebellion

Pay a Man’s Electric Bill, and You Keep Him Warm for a Month. Weatherstrip His Home, and…

Governor Terry McAuliffe earned his pay Thursday the old-fashioned way, doing weatherization work in Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and Central Virginia. Here, he applies plaster to an uninsulated vent at the home of Diane Hunter in Petersburg. (Sorry, folks, I couldn’t get a better shot because there was a mob all around him — and the state police blocked my best camera angle!)

Dominion Virginia Power is expanding its Energy Share program from the poor and elderly to veterans and the disabled.

by James A. Bacon

Mary Jones has lived in her house on Petersburg’s Warren Street for 36 years. Since the death of her husband three years, she’s lived there alone — “just me and the lord,” she says.

She worked most of her life, first at Central State in food service and later as home care worker, but the 85-year-old is retired now. Although she owns her house, she hasn’t paid off the mortgage, and she counts every penny. She doesn’t run the air-conditioning when she’s alone, and she doesn’t leave a lot of lights on. Still, her electric bill runs about $70 per month on average — and that doesn’t include the gas bill for her stove and hot water heater.

Working through the Crater District Agency on the Aging, Jones qualified for an energy-efficiency makeover from Dominion Virginia Power’s Energy Share program. A team of volunteers swooped in to insulate her attic and hot water pump, install LED light bulbs, and apply caulking and weatherstripping. According to Dominion’s estimates, she should save about $20 monthly on her electricity bill. That’s enough to make a difference in her life, she says.

Jones told her story Thursday as part of an annual P.R. blitz Dominion puts on to promote the program. This year, the power company received a big hand from Governor Terry McAuliffe, who spent the better part of his day visiting homes in Northern Virginia, Norfolk and Petersburg, making a show of doing weatherization work, and touting the program. Dominion used the excitement generated by the governor’s visit to hand out energy-efficiency kits (retail value $12) and pass out literature to curious neighbors.

Energy Share started in 1982 as a program in which Dominion employees, customers and friends donated money to help the poor and elderly who had trouble paying their gas and electricity bills. Last year, Dominion expanded the program to include weatherization, committing $57 million to the effort over five years.

“It’s one thing to help people pay their bills,” said Ed Baine, senior vice president-distribution. “It’s another to help them reduce their bills over time.”

Terrence Moore, a customer project designer for Dominion, was one of a half dozen volunteers who worked Thursday to weatherize Mary Jones’s House. Here, he installs a carbon-monoxide monitor.

Last year Dominion employees donated 100,000 hours of time doing home weatherization, attended 200 events and talked to 120,000 people. This year McAuliffe, who has emphasized energy efficiency in his energy plan for Virginia, challenged the company to extend the program to veterans and people with disabilities, which the company has agreed to do.

The program helps the needy and protects the environment, McAuliffe said in Petersburg. Energy consumption releases C02 emissions into the atmosphere, which warms the climate, which causes icecaps to melt, which causes the sea level to rise. “Sea level rise is real. It’s happening,” said McAuliffe. After New Orleans, Norfolk is more vulnerable to sea level rise than any other U.S. city, and it’s a concern of the U.S. Navy, which bases the world’s largest naval base there. “The Secretary of the Navy wants to know that we’re taking these issues seriously,” he said. Fighting global warming is an environmental issue and a pocketbook issue.

It’s obvious why McAuliffe promotes energy efficiency. But why would Dominion? After all, the utility makes money by selling electricity. Isn’t it undercutting its own business by investing in programs like Energy Share that reduce consumption?

Here’s how spokesman Bob Richardson responded: “The purpose is to encourage customers to reduce their energy consumption which reduces stress on the electrical grid at specific times when demand on the system is high. Dominion uses financial incentives (typically rebates) to customers to reduce consumption or make it financially easier to install measures to save energy.”

Besides Energy Share, Dominion has six energy-efficiency programs aimed at residential customers, including a $40 rebate for cycling air-conditioning on high-use days, energy audits, heat pump tune-ups, heat pump upgrades, duct sealing, and replacement of old, inefficient appliances with energy-efficient ones. The company offers comparable programs for non-residentual customers, as well as incentives for users to shed load during peak demand by operating customer-owned backup generators.

Dominion has proposed other energy conservation programs but they have not passed muster with the State Corporation Commission. One program would have installed WiFi-connected, programmable thermostats in houses and tracked how customers used them so Dominion could design future programs around the technology. The SCC disagreed with assumptions in Dominion’s cost-benefit analysis and said the cost of the program was too high, says Richardson.

The SCC has rejected other programs, but later approved them after Dominion went back to the drawing boards. For example, says Richardson, the SCC denied a small business improvement program due to concerns about eligibility; Dominion revised the program design, and the SCC accepted it. Another program encouraged non-residential customers to upgrade to higher-efficiency lighting. In rejecting that program, the commission indicated that additional cost-benefit justification was needed. Dominion addressed the concerns, says Richardson, and the commission gave its OK.

Ultimately, the decision for funding utility-sponsored energy-efficiency programs is up to the SCC, which is charged with balancing cost, reliability and environmental considerations. Critics say Virginia lags other states in embracing energy efficiency, bu it harder to justify charging energy-efficiency programs to ratepayers in Virginia than in many other states because rates are lower than the national average, which offers a lower payback for the same investment. However, environmentalists argue that well-executed investments are cheaper than building new gas-fired gas plants, while programs that shift electricity demand would make it easier to integrate carbon-free solar and wind electricity into the electric grid.

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