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Originally published January 21, 2009 at 4:15 PM | Page modified January 21, 2009 at 5:11 PM


Guest columnist

Focus on energy efficiency to reduce emissions

Improving energy efficiency is the best way to combat global warming, argues Claire Fulenwider, executive director of the Portland-based Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance. About 60 Northwest utilities are participating in an alliance pilot program to test the effectiveness and consumer acceptance of ductless heat pumps in replacing inefficient electric baseboard and wall heaters.

Special to The Times

OVER the past several weeks, editorial pages across the country have been filled with opinions on President Obama's energy plan and his vision of a new "green economy." If his proposed stimulus package (which includes more than $25 billion for energy-efficiency projects) and his energy and environmental advisers are any indication, it's clear this administration has the resolve and determination to mobilize the nation around energy efficiency.

The president's goal is to improve U.S. energy efficiency by 50 percent by 2030, and create millions of green jobs. With this healthy infusion of capital and forward-thinking leadership, we have an unprecedented opportunity to increase the nations' energy efficiency and improve the environmental impact of our homes and offices.

Let's make sure we get it right. Faulty products and services are the biggest threat to a successful green energy movement.

State and local governments, utilities and other energy-efficiency advocates are poised to take action with energy-saving policies, plans and emerging technologies, yet we must do so mindfully. When energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) first entered the marketplace in the late '90s, buyers experienced some fear of change and a bit of heartache with the new technology. Consumers looking to do the right thing experienced bulbs that were high priced and poor-performing. CFL performance, size and price have since improved, but there is still an ongoing challenge to address these negative perceptions.

A new approach to promoting CFLs began in 2000, but this time it was done with the customer in mind. To drive sales and satisfaction with these twisty bulbs, it took the collective and coordinated commitment of utilities, research facilities, retailers like Costco and Wal-Mart, and lighting manufacturers. It took further development and enforcement of national standards. And finally, it took incentives to get us all to try them again. This serves as a model for encouraging widespread adoption of energy-efficient technologies and practices.

Today, we must get this right from the get-go. This means coming together — public and private sector — to help ensure the new products are safe and sound before being pushed into the market. First, we must embrace existing technologies that have been waiting in the wings for the funding and support to make a difference. The Northwest is a hotbed for these technologies and can be a leading example for other parts of the country.

Take the ductless heat pump. This efficient home heating and cooling technology has been available for many years, yet only 5 percent of homeowners know it exists. The ductless heat pump is an easy-to-install system for homes that currently use inefficient electric baseboard and wall heaters. They have the potential to save a homeowner 20 to 50 percent on their utility bill and make one's home more comfortable.

Currently, more than 60 Northwest utilities are participating in a pilot study where ductless heat pumps are being installed in select homes across the region. The pilot is to ensure they perform and to identify potential barriers to customer acceptance and purchase. Upon successful completion of this pilot, the hope is that they will become the energy-efficient solution for retrofitting homes with electric heat. It is this kind of calculated approach to introducing technologies to the market that is needed nationally.

But it goes beyond technology. We must also train and certify the "green professionals" that will upgrade our homes and offices to be more energy-efficient. As part of the ductless heat pump pilot, for example, the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance and its utility partners have trained more than 500 HVAC contractors across the region. These same contractors will undergo ductless heat pump manufacturer training in the Northwest on how to properly install and maintain the units. Before the pilot, a contractor would have to travel to Nashville or Florida to get trained. Without good installation and maintenance comes customer dissatisfaction. Once a customer has a bad experience with a new product or service, it is much harder to get them to try again the second time around.

Finally, we must continue to educate and provide incentives to consumers. Our behaviors and societal support is as important as the latest technology.

According to a recent McKinsey and Company study, nearly 40 percent of the country's emissions-reduction potential by 2030 is from improving energy efficiency. We owe it to ourselves to embrace energy efficiency as the most cost-effective solution for mitigating global warming and energy price volatility. Let's do our very best to make mindful choices in order to give Americans a positive experience with energy efficiency.

Claire Fulenwider is executive director of the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, based in Portland, Ore.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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