Last month, I joined the Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin in a virtual discussion about energy costs in the state. I discussed strategies to address rising energy costs during the panel, including energy efficiency and beneficial electrification. The panel focused on real-world actions residents can take to reduce their energy burden. You can watch the webinar replay by clicking on this link. Now, I want to talk about the resources we have to support individual efforts to fight soaring energy costs through energy efficiency. In particular, I want to talk about the Focus on Energy® Program. (Focus).
What do I mean by energy efficiency, and why should you care? Energy efficiency is the use of less energy to produce the same result. For example, a light-emitting diode (LED) lightbulb produces the same amount of light as an incandescent lightbulb using only 15 percent of the energy needed for the incandescent light because LED lights waste less energy in the form of heat. Energy efficiency is important because less energy saves you money on utility bills.
Most homeowners, renters, and businesses in Wisconsin can access resources – such as free Energy Saving Packs – and financial incentives to improve the energy efficiency of their homes and businesses through the Focus program. Focus is Wisconsin’s energy efficiency and renewable resource program that operates on behalf of 107 utilities. Since 2001 the program has saved Wisconsin residents over $1 billion.
Last spring, the Public Service Commission (PSC) made decisions regarding the overall policies and priorities for the next phase of the Focus program. Wisconsin law requires the PSC to review energy efficiency and renewable energy programs every four years. You can read the minutes of the PSC meeting here.
In summary, the PSC provided the following directions for the next four years (period from 2023 to 2026):
- Focus should play a more significant role in cost-effectively reducing carbon emissions. The next four years should serve as a transitional period during which the program continues emphasizing energy savings while progressing toward a transition to a greater emphasis on reducing carbon emissions.
- Focus shall not claim savings from fuel switching from unregulated fuels to electricity.
- Focus shall use the next four years as a transitional period to position the program to take on a more significant role in promoting beneficial electrification statewide.
- Focus shall develop and maintain a menu of options for voluntary utility programs to be shared with participating utilities.
- Focus shall maintain its current level of support for utility demand response programs.
- The Focus program should continue to offer income-qualified programs and coordinate with the Department of Energy weatherization program to further fill potential gaps in its low-income offerings, including community-based pilot(s) in targeted communities. The Focus Program Administrator shall convene a stakeholder group that includes community-based organizations that work with marginalized communities to address barriers to outreach and participation.
RENEW submitted comments to the PSC supporting the alignment of Focus with emissions reduction goals to lower the state’s dependence on imported fuels and support renewable energy development. You can read RENEWS’s comments on the Focus Quadrennial Planning Process here.
I will write in the future about resources to help you save money through beneficial electrification. Stay tuned!
Co-author: Jenna Greene
Early April 2022, two people were seriously injured in an explosion caused by attempting to light a propane furnace in their Marinette County home. Approximately 253,000 (primarily rural) households in Wisconsin use propane to heat their homes, putting public safety at risk and creating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that negatively impact human health. In addition, propane is currently the most expensive fuel type for Wisconsin residents. Air-source heat pumps can be a safe, efficient, and affordable alternative to propane heat. Wisconsin needs policies, programs, and incentives that accelerate this transition for rural customers.
An air-source heat pump (ASHP) is an electrically powered heating and cooling device that moves heat, rather than generating it, to provide comfortable building temperatures. ASHPs operate “in reverse” in the summer to provide cooling (similar to a refrigerator). Cold-climate air source heat pumps have made significant technological advances in recent years; today, ASHPs can operate in temperatures as low as -22 degrees Fahrenheit. Some local Wisconsin residents and nonprofit organizations are already switching to ASHPs for heating and cooling.
Heating homes with fossil fuels create emissions that impact human health and contribute to climate change – 8% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Wisconsin come from the residential sector. Climate change threatens the economy in many ways, including increased flooding and storm damage, altered crop yields, lost labor productivity, and strained energy systems. Wisconsin’s electric grid is increasingly powered by renewable energy sources like solar and wind. Transitioning away from propane heat will increasingly reduce GHG emissions.
In 2021, Wisconsin imported 41,000 barrels of propane – valued at more than four million dollars. Spending money on imported energy resources weakens local economies and burdens household budgets. Many Wisconsin residents feel the effects of rising fossil fuel costs, with propane projected to be the most expensive fuel source in 2021-2022. Transitioning to air-source heat pumps can lower annual heating and cooling costs and free Wisconsinites from the volatility of imported fossil fuels.
ASHPs provide safe, efficient, and affordable home heating and cooling. Electricity is generated off-site and delivered to homes, which dramatically lowers the safety risk to families from on-site propane combustion. High-efficiency heat pumps can convert one British Thermal Unit (BTU) of electricity into three BTUs of heating or cooling – significantly more efficient than gas furnaces at most temperatures. ASHPs are also cost-effective compared with propane use. ASHP adopters can save up to $750 per year on heating and cooling costs. We need financing mechanisms to allow households and businesses to finance energy efficiency retrofits and ASHP installations with affordable upfront payments.
Many rural Wisconsin households use propane or heating oil to heat their homes which is expensive, puts people at risk, and sends millions of dollars out of state each year. Wisconsin utilities, policymakers, and Focus on Energy should expand programs to transition households from propane heating to efficient electric heating, saving people money, reducing hazards, and improving health outcomes in rural communities.
Digestion of manure is, on paper, a relatively simple process. Similar to how a cow digests food, digesters further break down manure, capture methane, purify the gas and then convert it to pipeline-grade renewable natural gas (RNG).
Investors of all backgrounds have been touring dairy farms in the U.S. about RNG projects. I’ve heard stories with comments being made such as, “all your nutrient challenges will be gone,” to “we’ll pay you big money for your manure,” to “let’s be in partnership in this project.”
As a former owner of digester facilities, I can tell you that each project is a unicorn. How you bed your cows, frequency, method of manure spreading, and other aspects are just the tip of the iceberg of how farm practices impact the financial outcome of RNG projects.
Incorrect assumptions of owners/investors:
- The stuff coming out the back end is worth money
- Operations and management can be done with a few people
- It’s predictable
- This is a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow
Let’s dig a little deeper into each of these points.
The stuff coming out the back end is worth money.
The effluent does have nutrient value, and it is carbon-based. If separated, the liquid is easy enough to apply. The solids are commonly used as animal bedding, the base for compost, or spread on fields. Additional cost factors come in with the solid not being an easy form to spread on fields. Also, a watershed may require the removal of solids, which can be an added cost for transportation and negatively impact the project’s carbon intensity (CI) score.
Operations and management can be done with a few people
These facilities require people with specific knowledge. At first glance, the facilities are comprised of pipes, pumps, and poop. But there are by-products generated from manure –hydrogen sulfide and ammonia. Those two gasses deliver quite a punch to the equipment.
It is predictable
The aforementioned hydrogen sulfide and ammonia will humble even the best maintenance plan. Additionally, if manure is piped underground, it will require regular jetting due to buildup.
This is a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.
RNG projects can be attractive financially, thanks to the Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) in California and Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs) at the federal level. Many factors can influence the actual income, primarily based on the CI score of a project, as mentioned earlier with farming practices and trucking costs. Historically, costs for maintenance have been underestimated. Equipment will break, and spare parts will be needed to keep projects running smoothly. Remember, if you’re not producing gas, you’re not making money.
Most large farming operations have already or are actively considering a biogas facility. The larger the number of cows, the better a project will pencil out. There are still plenty of opportunities for medium to smaller size farms to create a cluster project. These will depend on proximity to a pipeline.
Being mindful of these common misconceptions will put your team on the right track to a successful project. A legislative effort is underway for Wisconsin farm operations to increase access to the pipeline, therefore making projects more accessible. Click here to learn more about this.
Clean Fuel Connects
Email Jessica Niekrasz
Beneficial electrification discussions often revolve around transportation electrification, specifically how electrifying vehicles can reduce emissions and offer cost savings for consumers. However, an under-discussed and equally important part of beneficial electrification is the building sector. At 24% direct emissions, the building sector comprises the largest end-use emissions in Wisconsin. Read further to learn about Susan Millar’s journey towards electrifying her home, including her installation of an air-source heat pump for greater heating and cooling energy efficiency.
The companies, technologies, and programs endorsed in this blog are not necessarily recommended or endorsed by RENEW Wisconsin. The following information and personal experience is illustrative of the process to electrify a residential property in Wisconsin.
Are you wondering how to convert an older single-family home with a forced hot-air heating system, a gas water heater, and a gas stovetop from gas and electric to electric-only? I have done that with a 90-year old house on the near west side of Madison. And because it took a fair amount of time, I am sharing the process I used. Before describing this process, I provide important context.
Context for Transitioning to All-Electric
- “Natural” gas is fossil gas. It must, and will, be phased out over time as our society gets more serious about reducing climate-warming emissions. In some municipalities, bans on gas in new construction are already in place.
- Air source heat pumps (ASHPs) are the energy-efficient electric-powered alternative to gas heating systems. ASHPs both heat and cool your house (no separate AC device needed). They have a high coefficient of performance, so while they use electricity, the amount is much less than, say, what an electric space heater or traditional AC unit uses. See, for example, this video description of ASHPs.
- Air source water heaters (also called “hybrid” water heaters) work the same way as ASHPs except they exchange air with your basement instead of the air outside. They are far more efficient than traditional electric water heaters.
- Our state’s Focus on Energy program provides rebates for air-source air and water handling systems. The installers handle this process. (I am not sure of the size of these rebates.)
- MG&E’s monthly (gas) service charge is $22. If you stop your gas service and start it again, they will bill you for monthly service charges for up to 12 months prior to the time you start again. That is, you cannot stop your gas service except for, say, the month of January without paying for up to 12 months of service.
- If you have not yet, or cannot install, solar panels on your roof, you can sign up for MGE’s shared solar program.
- If you have an EV and are willing to charge it and also run your dishwasher, etc during MG&E’s low-rate (off-peak) period (from 9 pm to 10 am on weekdays, and during weekends and holidays), you can substantially reduce your electricity bill. To do this, call MG&E and ask them to add you to their ‘Time Of Use’ program.
- Yes, you have to lay out money ahead of time to transition from gas, and I am aware that many people cannot do this. The financial payoff comes over time. For example, while paying both gas and electric service charges, and charging my EV at home, my MG&E bill this summer was between $20 -30 per month. This is largely due to having rooftop solar and Time Of Use electricity rates. While my utility bills will be higher this winter, they will be reduced by the $22 monthly gas service charge and will be substantially less than prior winters. For me, another major advantage is that I am emitting essentially no carbon dioxide to run my home and car.
Steps for Transitioning to All-Electric (used by an early adopter)
- Get an energy efficiency analysis. This is very important because if you switch from a furnace powered by an unlimited amount of gas to an ASHP, it’s important that your house holds its temperature (in winter or summer) as effectively as possible. I used a local energy efficiency consultant. He did a superb job.
- Improve your insulation. If your energy efficiency analysis indicates that your house needs insulation, then arrange to get it. I used a small local company that treated my home as if it was their own. I felt the difference immediately, even in summer.
- Replace your gas stovetop (both to get off of gas and because much new research indicates respiratory health problems are caused by gas stovetops). As I have a unit with an electric oven and gas stove, I purchased two Cuisinart’s Double Induction Cooktops (not expensive), which I placed over the gas burner area on my stove and just plugged in. (Induction stovetops work great, and are much easier to keep clean.)
- While doing steps 1 & 2, get contracts with the HVAC and plumbing company you will use. I started with the local HVAC company that I was used to. They proposed an ASHP system that would heat my house to +14F degrees and required that I retain my gas furnace for backup in the winter. As I want to eliminate the year-round monthly gas service charge, I turned them down. I tried 3 other local companies. Same response. I looked wider and found a company located near Milwaukee. In light of the energy efficiency and size of my house, they proposed to replace my gas furnace and AC units with a Mitsubishi P system that will efficiently heat my house to -14F, and then shift to an electric element (low efficiency) backup system for super cold snaps. Their price? Same as the local HVAC folks who proposed installing a +14F system with gas back-up. I accepted Midwest’s proposal. Moreover, they agreed to install my (still effective and efficient) gas and AC units in the home of a friend who has very inefficient HVAC systems – so the embedded carbon in those devices is not immediately trashed. (FYI, I informed the local HVAC companies of my decision – they lost my business to a more cutting-edge, non-local competitor.)
- Meanwhile, after checking different local plumbers, most of whom do not install hybrid water heaters, I found a small local plumbing company that proposed to install one of these at a very decent price. I happily accepted his bid.
- Both the HVAC and plumbing companies I signed with encountered installation delays because ASAP and hybrid water heater manufacturers are having sourcing issues. These problems are either due to Covid shipping issues or because the manufacturers are sending their stock to states that are ahead of us on installing these systems. Demand pushes the market.
- Both the hybrid water heater and the ASHP have easy controls and work superbly. For the mid-October to mid-November billing period, the first during which I used electricity to heat water, heat the house, and charge my EV, I used 664 kWh. My MG&E bill was $54. In round numbers, they charged me $42 for connection and distribution services, $15 for contributions to their Shared Solar, Green Power, and Low-Income Assistance programs, and $37 for electricity used at variable rates. (I have “Time of Use.” Most of my use was at the very lowest rate.) They credited me $39 for “net energy exported at variable rates” (kWhs from my solar panels), and $2 for “fuel cost.” All that suggests that I paid $-2 for electricity provided by MG&E.
- If you would like cost or contact information for the energy efficiency, insulation, HVAC, plumbing, and electrician contractors I used, just email me at email@example.com.
Susan Millar, September 2021