Michael Cummings

Why Your Utility Bill Is So High (And What to Do About It)

It’s wintertime, and let’s face it: Your utility bill is going to be high this time of year. Even so, you might still be frustrated with your utility company when you get a bill that’s three or four times higher than normal. But before you call up your provider and give them a piece of your mind, see if this scenario sounds familiar.

OK, so you just checked the thermostat. It’s 12 degrees outside. Twelve! Meanwhile, you’re freezing inside your house because you’ve lowered your thermostat all the way to 66. You’re covered with blankets. You’re doing your best to save energy and… your bill is still crazy high.

Right, we get it. Us too. First things first: No, your utility company hasn’t raised their rates very suddenly. But yes, you should still call them and raise some hell.

We’ll get to why later. In the meantime, let’s go over a few of the many reasons your bill is so insane right now.

Related: How to Read Your Utility Bill.

 

Baby It’s Cold Outside!

Duh. It’s cold. Very cold, even here in Alabama. But what does that mean for you?

All houses have leakage points. Some houses are worse than others. Some, especially older homes, leak LOTS of that precious warm air during the wintertime. That’s a bad thing.

If possible, try to add some insulation to your house. Here’s a handy guide from Energy.gov. While you’re at it, seal off any leaky ductwork. (Yeah, that will involve venturing into the crawl space. Yeah, it’s a bit creepy down there. The good news is, you can hire someone to do it!)

Anywhere you’re losing heated air to the outside, it’s costing you a lot of money. And the colder it is outside, the problem gets exponentially worse. So get it fixed. Fortunately, these are pretty cheap and easy jobs. You’ll make your money back quickly. (When we say quickly, we mean within 2 years.)

 

Auxiliary Heat Mode and Your Utility Bill

Pop quiz time. Do you know how your heating system works? Do you know what a heat pump is? Is it running on auxiliary mode?

If you said ‘no’ to any of those questions, we have good news and bad news. The good news is that you don’t have to know exactly how your system works. If you’re curious, there are loads of YouTube videos that can give you a crash course. The bad news is that, if your heat pump is running on auxiliary mode (or aux heat), that’s gonna cost you some serious dough.

When the temperature outside reaches a certain point (around the freezing point), your thermostat will automatically turn on auxiliary mode. This turns on electric heat strips for additional heat. It’s kinda like blasting your oven on high. All through your house.

That’s understandable when it’s really, really cold outside. You gotta stay warm. Just make sure the auxiliary heat (or emergency heat) setting isn’t always on. You also want your heat pump to keep working even while the auxiliary heat is on. To do this, have a professional come out twice a year to check that your HVAC is in working order.

If you’re not having regular maintenance completed by a certified technician, chances are your equipment may not be working as designed. And here’s the problem: You may not even know! Just because it’s warm inside your house doesn’t mean the system is really working the right way. Remember that high bill?

Unfortunately, this might be a somewhat pricey fix if something is wrong. But in the long run, fixing the problem is better than overpaying every single month.

So Can I Still Give Someone a Piece of My Mind?

Yes! It’s true that your utility company didn’t suddenly change your rates. However, their rate structure is set up in a way that penalizes you when things get rough.

Wouldn’t it be nice if your utility company offered a slightly lower rate at times when it’s especially hot or cold outside? That would obviously help lots of customers who feel the pinch this time of year. Then, when the temperature is milder, they could charge a higher rate to make up for it. We think everybody would benefit in this scenario. Your utility MAY offer budget billing and if so, you should check out that option.

Another option would be for utility companies to invest in energy efficiency programs that help real people. Wouldn’t it be nice if your provider offered a program to make your home more energy efficient so you could fix all the problems we listed above? We think so, too. Then you wouldn’t need special rates and billing processes.

They know these problems are out there. But these types of programs are few and far between in Alabama. So call your utility company, city council, the board of directors, and/or the Alabama Public Service Commission. Let them know how you feel. You might just make a difference for yourself and your community. 

So Who Exactly Do I Call?

That depends on where you live in Alabama.

North Alabama (serviced by TVA)

  • Call your local utility, who buys from TVA. This is usually a municipal utility, like Huntsville Utilities, or an electric cooperative, like Joe Wheeler EMC
  • If you have a municipal utility, call your city council and mayor. They ultimately control the utility.
  • If you have an electric cooperative, call your board of directors. This information can be found on their website.

Central Alabama (serviced by Alabama Power)

  • Call Alabama Power
    • 1-800-245-2244
  • Call the Alabama Public Service Commission
    • 1-800-392-8050

South Alabama (serviced by PowerSouth)

  • Call PowerSouth
    • 334-427-3000
  • If you have a municipal utility, call your city council and mayor. They ultimately control the utility.
  • If you have an electric cooperative, call your board of directors. This information can be found on their website.

 

 

Energy Use Intensity

Here’s What Energy Use Intensity Means, And Why Should You Care

To calculate an Energy Use Intensity (EUI) score, all you really need is a few key pieces of information and some basic math skills. Sure, you’ll have to learn what a kBtu is, but it’s really not as complicated as you might think.

To understand what you EUI means—well, that’s what we’re here to discuss today. But first, let’s practice those basic math skills as we walk through a quick scenario.

So, you have a building and you may or may not want to know its EUI. You’re not really sure what an EUI is, but you’ve heard it can be a valuable metric. (This is true, by the way. More on that later.) Great. First order of business: Find out how much energy your building uses per year.

Got it? Now divide that number by your building’s total area. The resulting number is your EUI. That’s it.

 

So What Does My Energy Use Intensity Mean?

Unlike an ENERGY STAR score, which runs from 1-100, a lower EUI number generally represents better performance. Just like an ENERGY STAR score, however, you’ll be able to compare your building to others that are similar in age and size. It just won’t be in the form of a percentile ranking.

Energy Use Intensity Chart

Some types of buildings will always have a lower EUI than others, as this chart from Energy.gov illustrates.

Some good news: At Energy.gov, Portfolio Manager will do all the math for you. So no matter which units you use to input your energy consumption and building area, you’ll be fine. At the end, Portfolio Manager will spit out a number expressed in kBtu/square feet.

(In plain English, a “kBtu” is one thousand British thermal units. So now you know, and it’s up to you to decide whether you’ll ever use that information again.)

But here’s the kicker: It’s possible to calculate an EUI for virtually any building. (That’s not the case with an ENERGY STAR score.) So if you’re taking the North Alabama Buildings Performance Challenge, calculating your building’s EUI could generate some seriously valuable energy-efficiency information for yourself and your company.

Even if your building doesn’t produce enough data for an ENERGY STAR score.

So basically, when you calculate your EUI, you’ll know how exactly how well you’re doing with your efficiency efforts. What’s more, you’ll be able to identify areas for improvement.

And most importantly, you’ll continue to make progress toward your overall goal of improving your building’s energy efficiency.

Understanding Energy Performance Contracting

Understanding Energy Performance Contracting

An investment in sustainability can take many shapes, but one unavoidable fact about today’s high-performance technologies is that they usually cost money to implementand most of the time, it’s all up front. But if you’ve been ruling out a sustainable solution for purely financial reasons, we’d like to introduce you to a concept you really ought to know about: Energy Performance Contracting.

It might just change your mind about sustainability. And it might just save you a whole lot of money, too.

Energy Performance Contracting, to borrow the Energy.gov’s phrasing, is a “budget-neutral” method for reducing energy and water consumption while increasing efficiency in your building. In other words, Energy Performance Contracting helps your building use less energy while creating zero negative effects on your bottom line.Understanding Energy Performance Contracting

“Normally offered by Energy Service Companies (ESCOs), this innovative financing technique allows building users to achieve energy savings without up front capital expenses,” notes HUD.gov. “The costs of the energy improvements are borne by the performance contractor and paid back out of the energy savings.”

You get the benefits, while somebody else shoulders the financial burden. Not bad, huh?

“Energy performance contracting isn’t the best choice for everyone. But it can be a major tool for many budget constricted companies or governments,” says Daniel Tait, CEO of Energy Alabama. “At the end of the day, don’t let upfront cost stop a project when you have a tool like energy performance contracting.”

 

So, Where To Start?

The process is surprisingly simple, as outlined here at EnergyStar.gov. First, you competitively select an Energy Service Company (ESCO). This part is completely up to you. Of course, we’re happy to help!

Once you’ve selected your contractor, the ESCO will develop and then execute an all-inclusive energy-saving plan for your facility. The project should include an introductory energy audit as well as some kind of Monitoring and Verification (M&V) process that ensures continued savings. Besides energy efficiency, the ESCO might also focus on water conservation and distributed generation, among other components.

With the plan in place, you’ll work with the ESCO to set up long-term financing through a third party. This could be an operating lease, municipal lease or something else entirely. The idea is that the improvements cost you nothing in capital expenditures up front.

(Lease-purchase agreements are probably the most common method for financing an Energy Performance Contracting project. If you want to know more, that link has plenty more information.)

 

Reaping the Rewards

Finally, the ESCO should offer you a guarantee that your project will pay for itself through the savings generated by that all-inclusive energy-saving plan we mentioned above.

It’s as easy as that. Boost efficiency. Save money. Reap the rewards.

So, what kinds of buildings are ideal for Energy Performance Contracting? Government facilities ara a good choice, since governments generally own their buildings long-term. This makes a 10- to 20-year financing term attractive. But really, any large building could be a good candidate. Hospitals, schools, corporate headquartersthese are just a few of the facilities that could benefit from Energy Performance Contracting.

For more information, or to learn how to get started, contact Energy Alabama CEO Daniel Tait by email at dtait@alcse.org.

Energy Audit

Energy Audits: Is Your Building in Top Shape?

Cross-posted to NABPC.org

The North Alabama Buildings Performance Challenge is up and running, which means it’s time to start conserving energy. If you’ve signed up for the challenge, you’ve committed your company to attaining 20% energy savings in your building within 10 years.

Today, we’re continuing our three-part series about the primary steps that facility owners should take in order to achieve that target. By the time you finish all three posts, you should have learned a good bit of the info you’ll need to craft your energy-saving strategy.

Last time, we looked at energy benchmarking, and next time we’ll discuss commissioning. Today, though, the topic is energy audits.

An energy audit, to quote Energy.gov’s rather straightforward definition, is “a survey that shows how much energy you use in your house or apartment. It will help you find ways to use less energy.”

For our purposes, let’s just pretend they didn’t limit their explanation to houses and apartments. Whether the building is a home, business, factory, corporate headquarters or something else entirely, the concept remains the same. By giving your building an energy audit, you’ll be assessing how much energy it uses. And with that information in hand, you’ll know what measures you can take in order to use less energy and make your building more efficient.

Energy Audits vs. Benchmarking

Simple, right?Energy Audit

Now, at this point, you might be thinking that this sounds a whole lot like benchmarking, the topic of the previous entry in this series. The two concepts are indeed similar, but there’s a key difference.

Benchmarking compares your building to similar facilities in order to give you an idea of where it stands in relation to its peers. An energy audit goes one step further and sets out a plan for action.

Or, to use a fitness metaphor, benchmarking only tells you how overweight your building is. An energy audit analyzes your building’s energy usage and gives it a customized workout plan. By following the plan, you’ll whip your building into shape in no time.

Saving Money

And once your building’s energy consumption is on track, you’ll start saving money on your utility bill. How much money? According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Challenge, our national model, most companies can easily capture 20% energy savings. When we say easily, we mean that most businesses can see these kinds of savings with minimal effort and investment.

That kind of reduction to your energy bill would set you on course to conquer the Huntsville Better Buildings Challenge. Plus, it would pretty much make you a rockstar at your company.

So, then, what does an energy audit look like?

In residential settings, weatherproofing and insulation are generally two big areas of concern. For industrial or commercial buildings, audits would be more likely to focus on production equipment, lighting or climate control. In either case, you’ll want to find a professional to conduct the audit for you.

What Will This Cost?

Of course, some of this may come at a cost. Preliminary energy audits, or PEAs, and (usually) Level I audits can be done for free if you proceed with upgrade work–or at least at a very low cost. For more detailed audits the cost will be a little higher.

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory estimates that detailed energy audits generally run between $0.12 and $0.50 per square foot. We call these Level II or Level III audits. For a great rundown on the difference between the different types of audits, check out this article from Microgrid Energy.

Depending on the size of your facility, that can amount to a serious chunk of change. But it’s not all bad news, as PNNL notes:

A convention center in a major metropolitan city reduced energy costs by almost $80,000 annually by implementing energy efficient changes to equipment, controls and system. Payback for these changes was less than a year, and facility staff predict an additional savings of $174,000 annually if longer-term equipment replacements are installed.

Those figures represent savings that virtually any company could appreciate. And it all came about because of energy auditing.

Naturally, no two auditing experiences will be exactly alike. But in almost every case, you should be able to find ways to increase efficiency–and save money.

With that, you’re ready to take the plunge with an energy audit. Up next, it’s time to talk about commission. See you then.

Energy Benchmarking

Energy Benchmarking: Does Your Building Match Up?

Cross posted from NABPC.org

The North Alabama Buildings Performance Challenge is up and running, which means it’s time to start conserving energy. If you’ve signed up for the challenge, you’ve committed your company to attaining 20% energy savings in your building within 10 years.

That’s fantastic. Hooray, you! But wait, now what?

We’re glad you asked.

Starting today, we’re running a three-part series about the primary steps that facility owners should take in order to achieve that target. By the time you finish all three posts, you should have learned all the info you’ll need to start crafting your energy-saving strategy.

Ready? Let’s get started. Our next two posts will cover energy audits and commissioning, but today, our topic is energy benchmarking.

Energy benchmarking, to give you a five-second definition, is the process of measuring how much energy a building consumes, and then comparing it to the same data from similar structures across the country. In other words, it’s a simple way for owners to see how efficiently–or inefficiently–their buildings are performing.

The process is part of the federal government’s ENERGY STAR program, and if you do well enough, your building will earn ENERGY STAR certification. But that’s for later. For now, you’ll need to figure out where to start.

Energy Benchmarking: First Steps

To do that, all you need is some basic information about your facility. Based on what type of building you have, you’ll use one of three specialized tools, all of which are available at EnergyStar.gov. Commercial buildings utilize the Portfolio Manager, while industrial plants need the Energy Tracking Tool. (There are actually 80 types of buildings in the Commercial category. You can see the full list, as well as the information needed for Portfolio Manager, here.) For new construction, there’s the Target Finder.

Once you’ve figured that out, you’ll be ready to benchmark. Based on how well your facility performs, you’ll receive a score anywhere between 1 and 100, with 100 being the best possible rating. A score of 50 is average, and anything over 75 will earn you ENERGY STAR certification.

Keep in mind, however, that not every building type is eligible for an ENERGY STAR score. (To find out what types are eligible, click here.) That said, the vast majority of property types do provide an Energy Use Index (EUI) reference.

What Next?

As you can see, there’s plenty of data out there, so benchmarking should give you a pretty good idea of where you stand in comparison to your peers. The news might be good or bad, but at least you’ll know. A wise man once said knowing is half the battle, and he was right. Once you’ve made that all-important discovery, you’ll be able to take action.

Oh, and another thing. Just because you’ve gone through the benchmarking process once, that doesn’t mean you’re finished forever. Actually, it’s the opposite. From EnergyStar.gov:

Benchmarking works best when it’s done consistently over time. Can you imagine a weight-loss plan in which you only weigh yourself once a year? Of course you can’t. That’s because you can’t manage what you’re not measuring.

In a recent study, EPA found that buildings that were benchmarked consistently reduced energy use by an average of 2.4 percent per year, for a total savings of 7 percent. And, buildings that started out as poor performers saved even more. See EPA’s Portfolio Manager DataTrends series for more information.

That’s why benchmarking is important, and why you should be doing it consistently. Once you have the information about your building, you should have some idea where to make improvements. And if you keep benchmarking year after year, you’ll continue to save money on energy costs.

Taking Action

Now that you know, it’s time to take action. If you’re interested, the process is as easy as it is accessible.

A couple months back, Energy Alabama and CEO Daniel Tait held a “benchmarking jam” session at a local brewery. Besides sampling some craft beer, energy experts and business leaders discussed ways to maximize energy and water efficiency throughout the community. To take part in the jam, the business reps only had to bring the following:

  • Laptop or tablet
  • The building street address, year built, and contact information.
  • Twelve consecutive months of utility bills for all fuel types used in the building.

That was enough to get the ball rolling. And from there, the path runs straight toward evaluating your building and saving money on your energy bill. More energy benchmarking events are in the pipeline, but you don’t even have to wait. If you’re ready to begin the process now, contact Energy Alabama CEO Daniel Tait for more information.

Easy as it is, energy benchmarking isn’t the only step toward conquering the Huntsville Better Buildings Challenge. Next time, we’ll look at implementing what an energy audit can do for you.