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The Forgotten Clean Energy Source That Helps Power The Northwest

America’s energy future is often cast as a battle that pits fossil fuels such as coal and gas against wind, solar and other renewable energy sources. But in the Pacific Northwest, we've already slashed greenhouse gas emissions -- and saved big bucks -- with a clean energy source that often doesn't even get mentioned in policy debates.

Dan Cunningham is installing an adjustable metal frame, covered in red fabric, in the open front door at a house in Ashland, Oregon.

“What I’m gonna do is I’m gonna install a blower door,” Cunningham says. “And the blower door is going to measure air changes per hour and the hidden leaks in the house.”

Once the red-covered frame blocks the front door, Cunningham attaches a powerful fan to a round opening in the fabric, and aims it toward the outside. With rest of the house’s doors and windows closed, the fan forces air out of the house, and outside air gets pulled in to replace it.

“It’s showing leaks that you normally don’t really see or thing about,” Cunningham says. “In a sense, it tells us where all of our heated or cooled dollars are disappearing to.”

Cunningham works for the energy conservation program for the City of Ashland. He’s performing an energy audit on this house at the request of owner Carolyn Brown. From the attic to the crawl space, Cunningham evaluates where the house is wasting energy and develops suggestions for Brown to plug the leaks, upgrade old appliances and add insulation to reduce her heating and cooling bills.

Brown bought the house as a fixer-upper, and says she’s glad for the advice – and for the financial incentives the city offers to make her new place more economical.

“I don’t want to waste energy,” Brown says, standing in the kitchen of the house. “If I could afford it, I’d go solar. Maybe that’s the next step. But I absolutely want the tightest, most energy-efficient home for myself.”

Energy audits like this have been around for a long time. Dan Cunningham has been doing them for more than 20 years, and the City of Ashland – which operates its own municipal electric utility – was an early adopter of energy conservation programs that help homeowners identify waste – and help them pay to upgrade. 

Now, a political tug-of-war is being waged over whether the US should double down on fossil fuels or invest in wind, solar and other renewable energy sources. But energy manager Adam Hanks says there’s an often-overlooked third way.

“Renewables are excellent and there’s a place for renewables and they’re growing more and more affordable, but the most cost-effective kilowatt-hour generation is really efficiency and conservation,” he says.

Hanks heads energy efficiency and renewable energy programs for the City of Ashland. He notes that the cheapest power is the power you don’t have to produce in the first place. And that focusing on squeezing more use out of each watt has not only allowed Ashland’s utility customers to save on their monthly bills, it’s also meant the city utility hasn’t had to build expensive infrastructure to handle new load demand.

And, Hanks says, since the federal Bonneville Power Administration charges higher rates to utilities that use more juice …

“If we didn’t have all of our energy efficiency we would likely have a higher kilowatt cost per hour and be in a different contract arrangement with Bonneville that probably isn’t as advantageous to us.”

In fact, the Northwest as a region has been at the forefront of treating efficiency as a power source. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Northwest Power Act. The Act required utilities in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana to prioritize the lowest-cost energy resources available. As Tom Eckman explains, that was a turning point.

“It allowed them to select from energy efficiency for the first time, in addition to looking at new power plants. And energy efficiency carried the day because it was cheaper,” he says.

Eckman retired last year as director of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s power division. The Council is in charge of setting energy and environmental policy for the federal Columbia Basin hydropower system.  Eckman says putting efficiency first has allowed the region to reduce the cost of major new generating capacity.

“Utilities, rather than buying new gas-fired, coal or nuclear projects, could invest in your house and your business to improve its efficiency,” he says. “In lieu of spending ten times that amount of money on a generator, they could spend one-tenth of it on better light bulbs, insulation and motors.”

Efficiency is now the Northwest’s second largest power source. The Council says that saves consumers about than $3.7 billion each year and cuts carbon emissions by more than 22 million tons annually.

And Tom Eckman says emerging “smart grid” technologies for connecting appliances via the internet promise even more savings in the future.

“Because we can turn things off when they don’t need to run or turn them down when they need less. And we’re not even opening the door yet. We’re sort of peeking through the window about what those potentials are.”

The American Public Power Association estimates that from 2008 to 2015, aging power plants that produced enough electricity for more than six million homes were retired. And that by 2020, another three million homes worth of power generation will be shut down.

How will that generating capacity be replaced? Energy planners might look to the Northwest for cues on using energy efficiency to reduce the need to build expensive new power plants.

Energy Auditor Dan Cunningham explains to homeowner Carolyn Brown an air leak he's found near a heating duct in the fixer-upper home she's remodeling.
Liam Moriarty/JPR News /
Energy Auditor Dan Cunningham explains to homeowner Carolyn Brown an air leak he's found near a heating duct in the fixer-upper home she's remodeling.
The "blower door" set up Dan Cunningham uses to reveal hidden air leaks in a house.
Liam Moriarty/JPR News /
The "blower door" set up Dan Cunningham uses to reveal hidden air leaks in a house.
Dan Cunningham uses a thermal imaging scanner to detect gaps in wall and ceiling insulation.
Liam Moriarty/JPR News /
Dan Cunningham uses a thermal imaging scanner to detect gaps in wall and ceiling insulation.

Copyright 2017 Jefferson Public Radio