BPA: Conservation Saved
by Michael Jamison
So just how many compact fluorescent light bulbs does it take to change the future?
KALISPELL - Imagine, for a moment, pulling the plug on 50,000 well-lit homes. Imagine the power plants slowing a bit, the air clearing a bit, the gas fields lasting a bit longer.
That's exactly what happened throughout the Northwest during the past 12 months, a year in which energy conservation saved enough power to drive a small city.
The achievement was a surprise to all involved, a savings of nearly 60 average megawatts, coming in large part from new energy-efficient household appliances and light bulbs.
"Energy efficiency is an important resource," said Mike Weedall, vice president at Bonneville Power Administration. "Saving electricity provides the same benefit as gaining a new, carbon-free and inexpensive source of environmentally friendly power."
BPA is a quasi-governmental agency marketing power produced at 31 federal dams in the region, some 40 percent of all the electricity used in the Pacific Northwest.
For years, the agency has been subsidizing regional efficiencies - rebates for Energy Star appliances, for instance - because it's cheaper than subsidizing construction of new power plants.
So just how many compact fluorescent light bulbs does it take to change the future? Just one, analysts say, one per house per year for 20 years. That equals 9 million bulbs in the Pacific Northwest, which in turn equals one big power plant that doesn't have to be built and paid for.
In 2007, BPA hoped to achieve 52 megawatts in energy savings through its investment in conservation programs. Instead, the agency surpassed that mark with 58.5 average megawatts, enough to power every house in Missoula County and most of those in Ravalli County, too.
The savings were possible, Weedall said, because of "beefed-up" conservation goals, as well as help from local utilities that buy BPA power.
Surprisingly, about one-third of the energy savings came from homeowners switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs.
Hospitals, grocery stores and business offices also contributed, with help not just from BPA but also its partner, the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance. And construction companies received incentives to install energy-efficient heating and cooling systems in new buildings, better ventilation and more efficient appliances.
BPA also helped insulate homes for low-income residents in Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon, investing $15 million in that program alone.
Next year, the agency hopes to gain another 60 megawatts through conservation, and new programs such as BPA's Energy Smart Design - aimed at new building construction - should help toward that goal, Weedall said.
The Northwest Power and Planning Council has even loftier goals, some 2,500 megawatts saved through efficiencies in the coming 20 years, a full half of those through homeowners. New washers, dryers, water heaters, refrigerators, heaters, air conditioners and light bulbs, in addition to better insulation, are expected to save homeowners money on monthly bills, and save ratepayers the cost of new power plants.
The savings could be substantial, analysts said. New Energy Star washing machines use 40 percent less energy and 50 percent less hot water, for an annual savings of about $70 on the average Montana power bill. (The machines also save about 6,000 gallons of water each year, which is more than a person will drink in a lifetime.)
On the other side of the equation, the cost of building a new gas-fired power plant is approximately $550,000 per megawatt. Then comes the cost of gas, operations, power transmission, delivery and local billing.
Making the conservation deal even sweeter is the fact that prices are plummeting on energy-efficient household items, including those new bulbs - which, although slightly more expensive than traditional bulbs, last more than 10 times longer.
Currently, the conservation subsidy provided by BPA and local utilities runs about $200 million per year, which is a fairly modest investment considering their $9 billion or so in annual revenues.
In the past 25 years, the agency's conservation efforts have trimmed 1,000 megawatts from the region's power diet, the energy equivalent of the largest federal dams in the Columbia River Basin.
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