A revolution is happening in the energy sector. From the new regulations pushed out earlier this summer by the EPA’s Clean Power Plan to the continued hype around renewables like solar and sophisticated technologies such as Tesla’s batteries, energy providers and consumers alike are facing the challenge of moving beyond what is “trendy” to actually identifying and implementing solutions that will have a long-term impact when it comes to reducing energy use and cost.
When making buying decisions, our society has always been obsessed with buying the latest and greatest solution, whatever is “new and shiny.” In the early 2000s this meant buying a newer, thinner, feature-packed laptop every six months; today people are eager to get their hands on the latest iPhone or new smartwatch. However, when it comes to investing in energy solutions, individuals and companies often need some help before hopping onto the latest trend, whether it be renewable, like solar and wind solutions, or advanced technology investments.
Renewable energy can be a powerful way for commercial and residential buildings to reduce energy bills and carbon footprints. However, when implementing solar or other renewable options, energy users should evaluate their energy efficiency options at the same time. Efficiency can help reduce the cost of renewable or storage investments and more cost-effectively reduce bills.
For instance, a commercial building manager looking to reduce bills should first evaluate energy usage to identify areas of waste, such as buildings running heating and cooling systems simultaneously; or leaving lights on during hours of inactivity. By addressing these simple operational changes ahead of investing in rooftop solar, the manager can maximize the impact of implementing solar while also reducing the price tag on the project.
With pressure mounting on utilities, commercial entities and residential consumers alike to lower energy costs and improve energy efficiency, the urge to jump on the latest trend might be tempting, but implementing renewable doesn’t always equal out to dollar savings.
One building we analyzed at FirstFuel, a Mid-Atlantic school with a recent PV installation, actually ended up seeing an increase in their energy spend year-over-year after implementing a renewable solution. While the school was able to avoid a total of $4,400 in electric charges by installing the solar panels, their bill jumped by $4,800 due to power factor penalties directly associated with the PV installation. Power factor penalties look at the amount of power being drawn from the energy supply to run machinery or systems, in this case to power the school, in comparison to what is actually being used. By not evaluating their existing usage and equipment ahead of the PV installation, the school ended up increasing costs, with its power penalty jumping more than 1000 percent from pre-installation to post because solar was installed without regard to several factors, including addressing load balancing and peak demand that occurred outside of daylight hours.
In another example, a newly built commercial building found it was wasting thousands of dollars in energy costs despite having many of the hottest new energy solutions, including solar and condensing boilers. Upon deeper investigation into their energy use, a number of energy drains were discovered that could ultimately be resolved through no or low-cost operational changes. In fact, the building would be able to save more than $6,500 by making changes as small as turning off lights and electronics during hours of inactivity and implementing timing and scheduling systems to better manage their heating and cooling systems.
Costly mistakes like those outlined above can be avoided by evaluating both existing energy usage and thoroughly investigating alternative energy solutions. While offsetting energy demand with solar has shown the ability to reduce monthly electricity bills up to 60 percent, it is crucial to first understand overall usage activity with that information.
Utilities are playing an increasingly larger role in helping their customers navigate such challenging issues associated with renewables. Not only are they more objective than renewable providers, but they can offer inexpensive efficiency solutions and most importantly, they have the data to understand each customer’s energy usage. Utilities are making investments to put this data to use in the service of their customers, and at the same time, creating stronger and better relationships with their customers. By providing insight around energy use and serving as an energy advisor, utilities can help customers identify the solutions that will best fit their needs, whether it be small operational changes or retrofit changes like implementing solar.