Utilities use incentives to urge electricity customers to conserve

| Sunday, March 20, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

It might seem like an odd request coming from a company in the business of delivering your electricity. Pennsylvania's electric utilities need you to use less power over the next five years, and are willing to show you how.

Prepare to hear more of the message over coming months.

The utilities that cover the Pittsburgh region — Duquesne Light, West Penn Power and Penn Power — are preparing to launch a new round of energy reduction programs that range from providing rebates for switching to more efficient lightbulbs and discounted home and business energy audits to incentives for cutting use on high-demand days and training projects for students.

“We call it using electricity smartly or wisely,” said Dave Defide, manager of customer programs at Downtown-based Duquesne Light Co. “We want to see the region grow, and we know that takes energy use.”

The state's energy efficiency and conservation law — Act 129 of 2008 — set in motion a series of electricity-reducing requirements leading up to the five-year phase that begins June 1, during which each utility needs to reduce overall use by about 3 percent and peak demand on the hottest days by nearly 2 percent. The Public Utility Commission this month approved the three local utilities' plans to meet and exceed those targets.

Seven years after the law started requiring reductions, utilities have gotten a chance to see what works. The latest plans continue to avoid any strict mandates on customers, relying instead on offers of incentives and rebates to replace lightbulbs or older appliances, and working with contractors to encourage more energy-efficient installations.

“Our focus is to educate the customers on what's there, so they can make better informed decisions about their use,” said Aaron Ruegg, a spokesman for Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp., parent company of West Penn, Penn Power and other utilities.

All the plans continue to push customers — in homes and small businesses — to have energy audits performed. A professional checks the house and suggests ways to reduce usage, from switching bulbs and thermostats to replacing furnaces and other major appliances.

“It's a great deal for the consumer,” said Rhett Major, owner of the North Huntingdon-based firm The Energy Doctor. As a contractor for Duquesne Light, he will conduct a home audit for customers for $149, instead of his usual charge of $400.

“That bit of incentive gets me in the door. And once I'm there, there's not a single house I haven't been able to help. Everybody has something hidden.”

The audits have become popular since utilities started encouraging them, said Major, who started doing the jobs in 1988 but didn't find enough demand to concentrate his business on them until 2007.

Another key component of the plans are programs that help pay the cost of removing an older, working refrigerator and a rebate to buy a more efficient model.

“If I would have bet six years ago, I'd say after five or six years we'd have all the old refrigerators out. But customers still have a lot in their basements,” Defide said.

Duquesne Light hopes to offer customers an online tool to search for new appliances that integrates information about available rebates.

Another program Duquesne Light will start seeks to train high school students in 12 area districts in the basics of energy auditing so they can find ways for their schools to reduce use.

“It's something we haven't tried before, using high school kids as a conduit,” Defide said, noting it might also inspire some to seek careers in energy-related fields. “The hope is that these kids can also go out and do basic-level audits in small businesses.”

West Penn and Penn Power plan to expand a program known as demand response from commercial and industrial customers to homes. Such programs pay customers to cut back on usage during particularly high-demand hours to reduce strain on the grid.

All of the utilities' programs try to get more rebates for efficient LED bulbs and new appliances in the hands of customers or contractors so they're more likely to find them.

“They're shopping for these,” Ruegg said.

Whether or not they switch bulbs or get an audit, all customers will help pay for the programs. The PUC approved annual budget amounts that utilities can recover through fees and rates — $19.5 million for Duquesne Light, $23.6 million for West Penn and $6.7 million for Penn Power.

The commission has yet to approve fee schedules for divvying those costs up among residential, commercial and industrial customers.

David Conti is the assistant business editor at the Tribune-Review. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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