The Changing Metrics of Energy Efficiency in California
California’s state legislators have been busy and have somehow managed to keep their focus on the future, even with the distractions created by the global pandemic. Even with the challenges of the pandemic legislative changes are happening at an incredible pace.
Perhaps the single most important change related to energy efficiency this year has been the shift in focus from total energy saved to greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) reductions. This trend has gradually gained momentum over the past couple of years. The main driver is our state’s aggressive climate goals. One example is Senate Bill 100, which commits to having clean, carbon-free electricity by 2045.
The metrics used to define success have significant impacts on the approach taken to solve a problem. For decades the energy efficiency industry has used the total amount of energy saved as the primary indicator of success. In simple terms, this means you approach every project with the intent of saving as much energy as possible, which is a good thing. If the metric changes, in this case, reducing GHGs, the approach, solutions, and governing body change.
If you concentrate on total energy saved, you will likely reduce the building’s energy needs by implementing a whole-house approach to savings. This approach would likely include improvements to the building envelope, the heating and cooling system, and the domestic hot water system. Savings will occur across the board, and the fuel source is not critical. The home performance model has relied on this approach for decades.
When the metric for success is GHG reduction, the approach changes, overall energy savings are still significant, but the source of the energy and time when you use it must come into play. The first consideration is using the least impactful source of energy from an emissions perspective. Electric solutions are far cleaner as they do not rely on burning things to make heat. Fossil fuels are carbon-based and rely on combustion, which creates emissions. The time factor is essential, as the GHG impacts electrical generation change during the day. Electrons supplied by solar panels in the middle of the day are carbon-free. Electrons provided to the grid in the middle of the night from natural gas power plants are not.
We now have very advanced electric options that rely on refrigerants to generate heat, called heat pumps. Heat pumps move heat from one area to another. A typical application extracts heat from the air or ground and then transfers the heat to a building. This process can heat water too. The residential use of heat pump technology is a game-changer when GHG reductions are the metric.
Another change with this transition is the oversite authority. In a total energy saved mode, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) makes the rules, and the California Energy Commission (CEC) enforces them via building codes. When you shift to GHG reductions, the governing body is no longer the CPUC, as we are now concentrating on emissions, which is essentially air pollution. The role of governance shifts to the Air Quality Boards. Statewide this is the California Air Resources Board (CARB). There are regional air quality districts involved too.
You might be asking yourself, what does this have to do with advocacy? The short answer is everything. The rapid policy changes are a direct result of two things. 1. Meeting our aggressive climate goals, including 100% carbon-free electricity. 2. The focus on greenhouse gas emissions reductions. These two factors have been front and center in all energy-related conversations in California. This change is not a trend or a fad. It is where we are going in the future.
2020 presented more than its fair share of challenges. The good news is policymakers have kept things in motion, looking farther down the road to a cleaner future for all Californians. That is something we should all recognize and appreciate.