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Clean energy? The best is what you don’t use

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SALT LAKE CITY — Check your wallet.

It's probably packing quite a few more dollars these days thanks to significant energy efficiency gains that are cutting costs not only for consumers but utility companies tasked with keeping the lights on.

A new report by the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project details that customers of utility companies in Utah and four other states in the region logged net savings of $5.5 billion from 2008 to 2015.

In Utah alone, Rocky Mountain Power customers saved nearly $1 billion during that time period because of energy efficiency programs, the report said.

"Rocky Mountain Power has provided their customers about $900 million in net economic benefits through energy efficiency programs they have implemented over the last eight years," said Howard Geller, the project's executive director.


Geller added that if the major electrical utility providers in Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada had not implemented those programs, total electricity use would have been about 8 percent higher in 2015 than it was.

The electricity saved, the report notes, would be enough to power 1.2 million households.

Those savings come about from much more than simply turning off the lights or the television when you're not in the room, Geller added.

"It is much broader and more sophisticated than that these days," he said, pointing to LED lamps that use 80 percent less energy than lamps with incandescent bulbs, and new appliances that use three-quarters less energy than their older counterparts.

Overall, utility companies in the five-state region spent $2.3 billion on energy efficiency, or what's called "demand side" management programs, over the past eight years — an investment Geller said is significant.

"We thought it would be helpful to take a look at what has been accomplished through these programs," he said, "and it is quite impressive."

As utility companies ramp up financial incentives for energy savings with partners that include big companies, higher education institutions, manufacturers, small-business owners and residents, the effects are notable.

In the 2015 fiscal year alone, Weber State University shaved $1.6 million off its utility bill by reducing energy consumption. In June, it broke ground on a 2-megawatt solar installation at its Davis County campus with a goal of providing nearly 100 percent of the facilities' electricity needs.

"We consider ourselves fiscal environmentalists," said Jacob Cain, Weber State's director of operations. "We don't just throw money at green. We look carefully at what will have long-term impacts on the university's financial performance."

Cain said each project is evaluated for the savings it will produce. As those savings come in, the dollars are reinvested in another project. The campus has a goal to be carbon neutral by 2050, but Cain said it is on track to meet that goal about 10 years ahead of schedule.

It's been widely said that the cleanest, cheapest kilowatt-hour is the one that is never used.

"The investment on these programs are reducing the need for new, very expensive power plants; new, expensive transmission lines; and reducing the coal and natural gas needed for energy consumption," Geller said.

Such reductions in energy use cut pollution emissions and water consumption needed for cooling the power plants.

The project estimates that utility companies reduced water use over that eight-year time frame by 6 billion gallons, or 18,400 acre-feet, and the reductions in energy consumption curtailed pollution that equaled taking 1.7 million passenger cars off the road.

In a report released Friday, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy estimates energy efficiency as a source for new consumption has moved into third place — behind natural gas and coal — surpassing even nuclear power by a slight margin due to programs instituted since 1990.

The council said without those savings, the country would need 313 more power plants. It also estimated that those savings have cut 490 tons of carbon emissions and are saving customers $90 billion a year. In household terms, those savings come in at $840 a year, the council noted.

In Geller's report, Arizona is a standout in the region, with a trio of utility companies there saving customers $2.5 billion since 2008 as a result of energy efficiency programs.

"They are the leaders in our region," he said, noting the utility companies are governed by mandates put in place by a separate, elected body of representatives.

"Utah is doing well, but they could do more," Geller said.

Since 2008, Rocky Mountain Power has invested $400 million in Utah in energy efficiency programs, and company officials expect that the savings in energy will meet the needs for 87 percent of the growth in customer demand.

Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Dave Eskelsen said it may seem counterintuitive for a utility company to help customers curtail their energy use, but it is vital to keep the transmission system running.

"To the extent that we can help customers use their electrical service more efficiently, we can take that resource and use it somewhere else," Eskelsen said.

"We have to balance the amount of energy customers are using with the amount of energy we producing, and we have to maintain that balance every minute of every day," he said. "Energy efficiency helps us to do that."

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

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Amy Joi ODonoghue Amy Joi is the environmental reporter for the Deseret News. @amyjoi16amyjoi@deseretnews.com