I was reading my local newspaper and a photo showing a man and his electric bill caught my attention. His electric bill was more than $7,000. Was this a case of a power company screwing over a customer, I wondered? Then I read the story. It got more interesting.
The more than $7, 228 bill was for a whole year. The man had recently had installed several kW worth of PV panels on his roof, and the utility was sending him a statement every month letting him know how much electricity he produced and how much he used. The yearly billing was a “true-up” and represented his net electricity use over the course of the year. Mystery partially solved, but still—$7,228 is a lot of money for a man on a fixed income, and especially when he has PV pumping juice into his house on sunny days in sunny California.
The man was getting a bill for about $35 every month, but that was for his gas use, not electricity. The monthly statement about his PV production and electricity use that he got had “Not a Bill” written on the top of it, and he ignored it, because he isn’t interested in the details.
The people who installed his PV system did a thorough study of the man’s electricity use and designed the system to offset about $200 per month of his electricity use—but that was before the man installed a 28-foot x 32-foot swimming pool in his backyard and heated it to 85°F, so he could do what his doctor ordered—soak in hot water every day. All the electricity produced by the PV panels, and more, was going to heating the water in his pool. The man thought that the PV was taking care of all his electrical needs, and all he saw when he opened his monthly electric bill was “Not a Bill” along the top.
I am not mentioning the man’s name or even the newspaper that carried his story. I’m sure the poor guy is plenty embarrassed. But that’s not the point. I once locked my keys in my car with the engine running and went to a 2-hour lecture. We all do dumb things that don’t get into the newspaper, thank goodness.
But I think the man’s story illustrates a problem we have as supporters of energy efficiency. Most people don’t think about their electricity use but once a month, if at all, when they get their bill. And lately many people think of PV power as the answer to all of our energy problems. PV is sexy right now. But despite what the President said a few years ago about insulation being sexy, energy efficiency, something invisible to most utility customers, just isn’t sexy.
Lots of people are working on the issue. A builder I talked with recently is using quick energy audits and education to get people to pay for retrofits, and is getting some good results. (You’ll read about it in Home Energy sometime next year.) Matt Golden with the Investor Confidence Project is trying to make financing for energy upgrades a routine matter for banks, investors, contractors, and homeowners. Debra Little, a home appraiser and sustainable design consultant, and others are working hard to see that energy efficiency is counted among the homes features when a home is listed for sale. People associated with the Behavior, Energy, and Climate Change conference are thinking a lot about it, and so are universities and National Labs. A college classmate, Cindy Ojczyk, is showing people how homes can be energy efficient and beautiful. And there is more being done.
How about you, reader? Do you know of ways to make energy efficiency sexy, or at least interesting? If so, please tell us.