Energy Efficiency Victories in 2020 (AKA Don’t Fall Victim to Doomscrolling)

Dec 7, 2020

2020 has been a rough year—a year that seems to be trying hard to push me toward pessimism. But it’s a tendency that I will continue to fight. Recently, while listening to one of my favorite podcasts, The Hidden Brain (a podcast that uses science and storytelling to reveal the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior), I learned a term that has given me a new tool in my fight to remain optimistic. The term is “doomscrolling”.

energy efficiency wins in 2020

Doomscrolling (or doomsurfing) is the uncontrollable urge to go down a rabbit hole on the internet, jumping from one bad news article to the next. Easy enough to do, right? Even the world of energy efficiency has not escaped from 2020 unscathed. Businesses who operate in the energy efficiency space are feeling the impacts of the pandemic, folks have lost jobs, the current presidential administration has rolled back numerous policies that promoted energy efficient technologies, etc, etc.

So why then, in the face of all of this bad news, did I say that learning the term doomscrolling has given me a new tool in my fight to remain optimistic? Because awareness of any behavior is the first step to change. The fact that I now have this rather ominous sounding label in my head will help me catch myself when I am falling victim to the behavior of doomscrolling.

Of course, some negative news is very necessary and I appreciate the journalists and EE advocacy organizations that sound the alarms when new policies and legislation adversely impact our efforts. But, in the spirit of optimism, I want instead to create a good news post by highlighting some of the energy efficiency wins that occurred this year. And to do that, I spoke with Steve Nadel, the Executive Director of the The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). The ACEEE is a nonprofit organization that acts as a catalyst to advance energy efficiency policies, programs, technologies, investments, and behaviors. 

Jim Giordano: Steve, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today. When I reached out to you about this interview, I told you that my plan was to incorporate this discussion into a blog post that I'm writing that will be titled “Energy Efficiency Victories in 2020, AKA Don't Fall Victim to Doomscrolling”. So I wanted to start by asking you—prior to my reaching out, had you heard the term doomscrolling?

Steve Nadel: No, I had not.

JG: Yeah. It hadn't come across my radar until I learned about it from a podcast that I listen to. It's one of those words that, even if you don't know the definition, you could probably make a good guess that it's a reference to scrolling around on the internet consuming bad news after bad news, right? News of doom.

So it got me thinking about how easy it has been in 2020 to get caught in that doom scrolling trap. Then I began thinking about this in the context of energy efficiency—the world that both you and I work in. And it occurred to me that there have been some very highly publicized setbacks to energy efficiency in 2020, such as the Trump administration's rollbacks to energy efficiency standards for dishwashers and shower heads.

SN: Those rollbacks are not long for the world (the courts or Biden will change them), but yes, they did attempt to do that.

JG: Yeah. So rather than get caught in the trap of focusing on the setbacks and providing one more article that is fodder for doomscrolling, I want to take a different tact; my goal is to talk with you about some of the positive outcomes that occurred in 2020 in the world of energy efficiency. The things we can feel good about.

SN: That sounds good. And do you want to get into the prognosis for 2021, given that we are having a change in White House occupant?

JG: Absolutely. And I think a good place to start is to talk about policy. I know there certainly are things to feel good about at the state level, but before we get to the States, I want to start by asking you—are there any energy efficiency efforts that occurred at the Federal level in 2020 that we can feel good about?

SN: Yes; some of the agencies continue to do good work below the radar screen. DOE has its work on grid interactive efficient buildings, and they've been doing a lot of good work in this area including work on how you do things efficiently, how you control efficient buildings through demand response and integrating efficiency and demand response. I think this work will be very helpful in the long term. EPA continues to do all its ENERGY STAR stuff, revising some specs and helping to support lots of programs, so that's another good thing that just keeps going on under the radar.

JG: Thank goodness for those agencies and the long-term work they're doing. 

Let's switch gears and talk about States. I do pay attention to your organization's really wonderful tool, the state energy efficiency scorecard, so I'm confident that despite some of the setbacks we've been having at the Federal level under the current administration, we've got a lot to feel good about at the state level.

In the Southwest, for example, where I focus a lot of my attention, there's some good stuff starting to happen in Arizona, and New Mexico has passed legislation that's raising the goals in terms of both decarbonization and energy efficiency.

So what else happened at the State level in 2020 that we can feel good about?

SN: There are a number of States that have made significant progress. Arizona is definitely on my watch list, although we are waiting for the Public Service Commission to finalize things; but those new targets are very good, particularly since some of the utilities had been backing down their efficiency work before, but now they are re-engaging and that's great.

Virginia passed legislation establishing energy saving targets for the utilities in Virginia. So I think Virginia becomes the 27th state that has an energy efficiency resource standard. This year the utilities will start planning and introducing programs to start hitting those targets. Likewise, New Jersey had passed legislation the year before, but they've done a rulemaking now and come out with some final rules, really putting meat on the bone about how they're going to be meeting their targets. And they made a lot of good decisions; this is becoming very real in New Jersey.

North Carolina has a relatively new Governor. He just got reelected, but he's had an influence on the Public Service Commission. We look to North Carolina as a state that is starting to figure out some things. In this next four year term, we think there'll be a lot more coming there. Massachusetts is getting pretty close to a new climate legislation that would establish climate goals and a process to help meet those goals. Details are still being negotiated, but that's something that will likely be finalized before the end of this year.

New York State set good goals previously and they are fleshing things out in terms of actual policies, programs and budgets. So yeah, the States are stepping up. I'm sure I'm forgetting a couple, but that gives you a flavor.

JG: It’s wonderful that the States are taking the initiative to keep moving forward, despite some of the setbacks at the Federal level. One of the trends that I see amongst the utility clients that I work with on demand-side management programs, is a shift from the traditional focus of energy efficiency and demand response to broader goals that are focused on carbon reduction. That's allowing them to expand their focus to include beneficial electrification programs, for example, and even demand management as opposed to just peak-demand response.

You can't talk about energy efficiency these days without talking about carbon reduction. The two are very closely related since energy efficiency is one of the main tools that we have to reduce carbon. I'd like to get your thoughts on this trend, and if you see this as positive.

SN: I would probably call it an emerging trend because there's only a few states that are actually focusing utility programs on carbon reduction. There's a lot of discussion, and I expect more states and utilities to be making decisions in the next year or two. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) has certainly changed all their programs to focus on carbon. NYSERDA is emphasizing carbon much more. I suspect, while the formal change hasn't happened yet in California, their primary goals for utilities will start changing to focus on carbon in the not too distant future. And there are a number of others. I mentioned the Massachusetts legislation before. We do anticipate there'll be more of a focus on carbon going forward.

In terms of the impact on energy efficiency, we agree with you that efficiency is going to have to be a very important part of carbon goals. Our own research indicates that energy efficiency can get us halfway to long-term decarbonization goals. We can use efficiency to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half, which is an enormous chunk of what we have to do. We can't do it all, but to say we can do half is pretty good, so we hope that as people move forward with decarbonization goals, they will remember that energy efficiency is a key strategy and often the lowest cost strategy.

That said, we sometimes worry that people are just so focused on using solar and switching to heat pumps that they forget efficiency, and if that happens, decarbonization is going to be more expensive. It's more expensive to buy a seven kW home solar system than four or a five KW system. Likewise, it's more expensive to have a five ton heat pump instead of a three ton heat pump. But also, in terms of the grid, if you have lower demand, there's going to have to be less grid investment too. Less storage for when the sun goes down to prepare for extreme cold events when suddenly peak demand spikes. By using efficiency, and we've done some analysis on that, we can reduce the grid investment costs that are needed.

We still need grid investments to help buttress solar, wind, heat pumps, and EVs, but the needed investments can be a lot less if we do things efficiently. Some of the efficiency savings help consumers save in their direct consumption. Some of the savings will reduce rate increases because utilities have to do less to backstop a renewable grid.

JG: That all makes a lot of sense. Well, while we're on the topic of decarbonization, with the recent Presidential election outcome, how do you think the new administration will influence policy on decarbonization, and how do you think that will affect utilities specifically?

SN: I think, in a number of ways. Certainly the Biden Administration will do executive orders and rulemakings that will favor decarbonization and energy efficiency. For example, the Trump administration has said that California can't enforce its vehicle standards and the current Administration also rolled back the national light duty vehicle standards. I would expect the Biden administration to very quickly grant California the ability to continue to enforce its standards and to institute rulemakings to restore, if not do even better on some of the vehicle standards, whether it's cars or trucks.

I think electrification will play into these new vehicle standards, because electric vehicles tend to be more efficient than fuel vehicles. So as they ramp up fuel economy standards, that will tend to encourage more electrification, which obviously has a big impact on utilities. The new administration will also work on appliance standards, a program that has been particularly comatose of late, except for a few small rollbacks. The rollbacks will be ended. I know one of the things we would expect in the first year of the Biden Administration is to finalize a new rule dealing with light bulbs and effectively requiring either LED or a compact fluorescent or equivalent performance out of light bulbs. The underlying law that if new standards were delayed, such a standard would automatically take effect. The Trump Administration had a weak case to override this legal provision, so we anticipate that the new administration will institute that backstop standard sometime fairly soon.

These are examples of some of the things a new administration can do immediately with their existing power. We'd also expect them to much more proactively use the funding that they have in the budget to help States and localities, something that the Trump administration hasn't been doing much of. Then there's always legislation, and is it possible to develop some bipartisan approaches to help reduce energy use, improve health, help the economy and reduce greenhouse gases. The new Congress won't do any radical things. The Senate is going to be roughly 50/50, we'll see what Georgia does, but hopefully there's some bipartisan things that can get enacted that will compliment all the things a Biden administration can do under existing law.

JG: One last question related to decarbonization and then I want to focus on energy efficiency again. What can we tell people who think it's going to be impossible to meet any of the decarbonization goals needed to curb climate change and stop the rising temperatures? Do you have an opinion on that?

SN: Temperatures are going up. They will go up some. We're not going to stop it. The question is, can we keep it to 1.5 or 2 degrees, or will it be even higher? I think there's a lot of steps that the States and cities are doing, that other countries are doing, and that we will increasingly do at all levels to slow down the rate of temperature increase.

I think limiting the warming to two degrees is certainly in sight. To keep the warming to 1.5 degrees we would definitely have to double down and do more than the incoming Congress is likely to agree to. But I think there's a lot the Biden Administration can do administratively to meet the two degree goal. Furthermore, there is also a lot that companies can do to help this effort. Many companies are paying a lot more attention to sustainability goals, driven by their investors and their customers, not to mention all the State and local programs and policies. So I do think keeping the warming to no more than two degrees is quite doable as long as we really concentrate on it. And hopefully at some point we'll get a Congress that will allow us to even take steps that will allow a 1.5 degree strategy.

JG: Yeah. It's really going to take efforts on all fronts in my mind – on both the federal and state levels. And as you mentioned, there's even what individual companies and businesses are willing to do, right? To the extent that we can make headway on all of these fronts, that's the best case scenario.

SN: Yes. Don't forget the local governments too. A lot of cities are stepping up. Just to mention one area where we've done some work, building performance standards that require buildings over a series of years to meet certain performance requirements. They've been adopted in New York City, Washington DC, Washington state and just this year St. Louis adopted such standards. Quite a few others are pending, and details are starting to be worked out.

I think tomorrow, the State of Washington is having a press conference where they're announcing a lot of the details about how their rules will be implemented. That's the first state with such a policy. New York City, Washington DC, and St. Louis are local leaders. We're seeing a lot of cities stepping up and getting ahead of their state, either because the state is slow or because they think they can go that much farther. I mean, New York City's going beyond New York State, even though New York State has been good on these issues. Seattle is going beyond Washington State, even though Washington State is good on issues. So it's that combination of the local, the State and what the utilities, the companies and the Federal government can all do.

JG: That's right. I just recently learned about an organization in the Southeast that's composed of cities that have Sustainability Managers. There are more and more cities that actually have these offices that are responsible for setting sustainability goals and programs at the city level. That's exciting to know.

SN: Yes, the Southern Sustainability Directors Network(SSDN). We do quite a bit of work with them. We also do a lot of work with the U.S. sustainability directors, but continue to work with the Southern ones because there's less happening in the South on climate policy, and in the South the cities are that much more important, and the opportunities are greater because the states have not done a lot. We are happy with all the things that California and Massachusetts are doing. We're happy to help them, but we tend to concentrate a little bit more on those that need our help more.

JG: Makes sense. I’d like to change gears and have our first bit of COVID-related discussion. One of the things that we do a lot at Nexant is small business programs. With COVID-19, many small businesses are really struggling. I wonder if there's anything that you can think of on the EE front that we can feel good about for this challenged customer segment?

SN: I'm struggling to remember names of particular programs, and maybe you know, but I know a couple of utilities have increased their activity with small businesses, certainly have increased the amount of incentives, but I think a few have even said, "If you are closed, let's target some retrofits now, because we can do that safely."

JG: Yeah. There've been a lot of things that the utilities and their implementers have been trying to do to pivot. Some small business programs have been temporarily closed down, but there have also been others that have looked for creative ways to stay open or serve the customers in a way that is safe, and as you mention, takes advantage of the fact that many small businesses are empty or have reduced traffic.

A little bit of a silver lining is that this COVID thing has forced both utilities and their program implementers to be creative, to put on their thinking caps and figure out how to continue serving customers with things like virtual assessments and no touch activities. And you're right. There've been utilities that have ponied up some additional funds and brought some new offerings. If anything, this pandemic has taught us that there's more than one way to skin a cat and still serve customers.

SN: And just to mention one type of small/medium customer—schools. There's a number of places where they're starting special programs to upgrade schools, because there are many kids there, not to mention teachers. We want them to be healthy. Schools are also important because in order for our economy to fully reopen, the schools have to be open. In Vermont the legislature allocated some money for school upgrades, so did the state of California. I know the US House of Representatives passed a COVID bill that among other things would allocate more funding for school upgrades. Negotiations are now going on with the Senate. We'll see whether a package emerges from these discussions and if schools are part of a final package, but I think helping schools can be something where there's broad support. Yes, schools need to open. Schools need to be healthy. And there's a lot of that we can do with HVAC systems and energy to help both reduce school energy use and make schools healthier.

JG: Agreed. Another thing that's really come to the forefront in 2020 is issues of equity and inclusion, and some of the civil unrest that's been happening has been a big part of what's marked this year. It's going to be in the history books, right? Utility energy efficiency programs have for some years been focused on serving low income customers via things like low income home weatherization programs, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see even greater efforts in this area. Are there things that you can think of in that regard that have happened in 2020 — positive outcomes?

SN: Definitely. ACEEE has been working on equity issues for a decade or more. When we first started it, we did some baseline studies and the vast majority of utilities, for example, weren't doing that much with low income households and communities. These communities were effectively underrepresented in programs and low income customers were subsidizing—which is crazy—higher income people. More and more utilities are recognizing that this is a problem. They're gearing up more and more low income programs. We've documented in a series of reports how many more are doing things.

Furthermore, More States are setting absolute set asides. New York state, for example, they increased their efficiency budgets. I'm doing this from memory, but if I recall correctly, 35% of that increased funding is for low and moderate income households and communities. So we're seeing a lot of increased interest in how do you target those households, but also how do you target those communities and not just the households, including the small businesses and others that serve the community so that the whole community is more vibrant.

JG: That's good to hear.

SN: Just to give one example, the city of Minneapolis has a targeted program to work in specific communities and the utility is providing extra incentives and extra targeted marketing in that area to compliment some city resources. They are really trying to bring more services to these communities, communities that most need these services and that have often been underserved.

JG: Well, we've talked about policy, and we talked about building code a bit, but the last broad bucket that we haven’t touched on is technology. One of the technologies that a lot of people have their eyes on is battery technology because of the role that it plays in electrification and therefore decarbonization—but aside from batteries, are there other EE technology innovations that you can think of that may have come to the forefront in 2020, or things that we should keep an eye on for the future?

SN: Yes. We're making a lot of progress on heat pumps and heat pump water heaters, improved efficiencies and models that can address more applications. For example, with heat pump water heaters, efficiency is measured with Uniform Energy Factor (UEF). The best heat pump water heaters used to have a UEF of 2 but now the best have a UEF of 3. And more models are being introduced, including some that run on 115 volt electric power and can often be installed without needing to upgrade electric service.

Another area with recent progress is providing efficiency as a service. These service providers may monitor energy management systems, identify problems and help to work with building maintenance staff to implement improvements in real- or near-real-time.

We talked about grid interactive efficient buildings work, and there's a bunch of technologies coming out of that as well. There are developments in industrial processes. People continue to develop green cements and greener steel and processes that cut industrial emissions. So yes, there is a lot of technology development, and that will continue.

Getting back briefly to Federal policy, I expect more investment in R&D going forward, including a focus on decarbonization and not just efficiency. Such a direction might be something that both political parties can agree to support, Republicans are increasingly talking about promoting innovation as a key strategy to address climate change.

JG: Yeah, that'd be great. You need both the technology and the investment to promote and support the adoption of the new technology. And as you mentioned, the controls piece is a really important part of that. So you've got passive technologies that, just by nature of being more efficient, save energy. But then the controls piece is such an important piece—that's where we really get the savings from operating efficiently.

SN: Utilities and efficiency contractors need new measures to program. The efficiency business has been working on lighting for the last decade or more. While we have pursued many sources of savings, lighting has been the mother lode of savings. As more and more people and businesses switch to LEDs, the lighting efficiency opportunity will start declining. But I do believe that controls and information technology, what we at ACEEE call intelligent efficiency, will be the next big thing. It's not the only thing, but it'll be the next big thing that will help fill some of this gap as our lighting systems become efficient and there's less additional lighting savings to harvest.

JG: Well, Steve. I think this is a good place to wrap it up. Thanks for taking the time to talk today, and for all of the good work that the ACEEE does to advance the energy efficiency cause!


Hopefully, my conversation with Steve Nadel has convinced you that, despite some setbacks to the energy efficiency cause in 2020, there are many things to feel good about. A huge thanks to Steve for helping me to point that out. 

Oh, I almost forgot to mention—in case you were looking for a term that is the antonym to doomscrolling, there isn’t one yet (at least not a well-accepted one). So I say we should start a movement. After a quick visit to dictionary.com, my vote is for ‘boonscrolling’. Who’s with me?!  

good news for energy efficiency in 2020