Putting greenbacks behind green energy | SierraSun.com

Putting greenbacks behind green energy

Jenny Goldsmith
Sierra Sun

Jenny Goldsmith/Sierra SunSteven Poncelet, public information and conservation manager for the Truckee Donner Public Utility District, holds a compact fluorescent light bulb, which the district distributes as part of its conservation efforts. To date, the utility district has given away more than 32,000 bulbs, helping customers save a collective $320,000 annually.

Green seems to be the hype these days in all things political, but the Truckee Donner Public Utility District is doing more than just talking, it’s making a commitment to lower the district’s energy costs, put money back in ratepayer’s pockets and move Truckee toward a sustainable energy future.

With more than 10 new conservation programs in place, additional personnel to supplement the conservation department and an unprecedented marketing campaign, the utility district board and staff are making strides to establish Truckee as the smallest green town in the nation.

“The most cost-effective energy you can buy is often the one that you do not use,” said Steven Poncelet, the district’s recently-hired public information and conservation manager. “The cost of implementing conservation programs per kilo-watt hour is often lower than the cost of purchasing the kilo-watt hour. This is why utilities can invest in conservation programs and why they are mandated by the state.”

In 2005, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill requiring all publicly-owned utility districts to report annually to its customers and to the State Energy Resources Conservation and Development Commission with a description of the conservation programs, expenditures and expected and actual energy savings results, according to a report from the California Municipal Utilities Association.

To comply with the legislation, the Truckee utility district reviewed over 500 potential programs before selecting the most appropriate and cost-effective for the region, said General Manager Michael Holley.

“There’s a huge amount of potential savings out there,” Holley said during an interview Thursday. “We’d rather do 10 projects really well than 100 poorly.”

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The most significant program to date for the local utility district and its over-12,000 customers has been the compact fluorescent bulb replacement program, Poncelet said.

To date, the district has given away over 32,000 energy-efficient bulbs at the utility district office and at events like Truckee Thursdays, providing customers the potential to save over $320,000 per year collectively, Poncelet said.

“If installed in higher-use fixtures, each box has the potential to save the user an average of $10 per month on their electricity bill,” Poncelet said. “It’s great for the environment, but it also puts money back in to people’s pockets, which I think is something people need to understand about green energy.”

Suspicions have surfaced over the safety of the compact fluorescent bulbs and the potential harm from mercury, but Poncelet said while the bulbs do contain trace amounts of the chemical, they pose no danger to one’s health when handled and disposed of properly.

In addition to the mandated programs, the board recently approved a new conservation customer service position to free up other conservation personnel and provide more communication with the community.

“It makes sense,” said board director Ron Hemig at the July meeting. “I always thought we had an aggressive program that we just couldn’t fulfill with the number of people we had.”

With the new staff position in place, the district’s conservation specialist ” Scott Terrell ” will be available for more residential and commercial energy-savings evaluations and more customer contact, Holley said.

“We wanted to build a department around conservation instead of having just one head,” Holley said.

Thanks to the new position, Terrell has been able to focus efforts on the Green Partners Program where the district invests in green technology for local businesses to delivery sustainable lighting services more efficiently, Holley said.

Community outreach doesn’t stop at district staff, either, Poncelet said.

A recent partnership with Switchback Public Relations and Marketing Inc. will provide another extension for the utility district to promote its expanding conservation services through bilingual press releases, pamphlets and other outreach strategies, Poncelet said.

“You can have the greatest conservation programs in the world, but if people don’t use them, they don’t work,” Poncelet said.

Although the district is tackling the electric conservation side of things, attention will shift toward water conservation once water meters are installed, Holley said.

“Water savings have the additional benefit of reduced energy costs for the district since water pumping is 10 percent of our energy demand,” Holley said.

The Truckee Green Challenge is also currently being developed and will be unveiled in the fall.

The challenge will entail a Web site-driven competition on energy efficiency to drive more people to implement the programs, Poncelet said.

“The Truckee Green Challenge is a new vehicle to reach out to the schools and the community,” Poncelet said.

The cost to implement the new conservation programs, marketing measures and staffing positions is being subsidized through a public benefits and energy efficiency fund, Poncelet said.

“There is a cost to deliver conservation benefits,” Poncelet said. “We’re in the start-up mode right now, but if you don’t invest, you won’t see the payback.”