Energy Efficiency and PV: Together Forever

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We have seen a marriage of the energy efficiency and solar energy industries as the US has worked to green its buildings. In fact, some financing programs require that all cost-effective efficiency be pursued before solar panels are installed.

Here Elisa Wood interviews Liz Merry, owner of Verve Solar Consulting, about how the solar industry views energy efficiency and the outlook for companies that tackle both EE and PV.

What do solar installers think of the idea that a building should be made energy efficient before solar equipment is installed?

I’ve heard some solar leaders say “Energy efficiency eventually, sales first.” That makes complete sense in some cases, where the solar installer has recruited the customer and the customer already has an energy efficient home. If the customer has to call another contractor to come in and get the building 5 percent more efficient at a high cost before the solar project can go forward it is going to kill the solar project.

But, in the cases where the home is older and simply leaking energy out of its thin windows and walls, the solar company that recruits this customer has an opportunity to sell a bigger job by doing the energy retrofit project, or partnering with a building performance contractor. I picture the energy efficiency first requirements as a mandate for smart contractors to become energy service companies, not just solar, not just efficiency.

Energy retrofit work isn’t always easy, and sometimes it is hard to find energy contractors. Can solar installers always find contractors to the work if a home must be made efficient before solar is added?

It’s not easy, but it’s possible. And where there is challenge there is opportunity. The building performance contractor business is about to get very busy, and the entire trade will become more efficient and standardized with experience, just has it has developed in the PV and thermal businesses over time. We’re just in that rough spot between initial demand creation and plenty of supply available.

The EE industry seems more mature than solar in the United States. Will it create as many new job opportunities as solar?

You’re right about the energy efficiency industry being more mature than the solar PV industry. Efficiency technology and energy management controls has been a big business since the early 1990s, and in my state of California we’ve had ratepayer energy efficiency programs since the early 1980s.

But growth is continuing in EE. As utilities begin meeting mandates to change their energy mix the need to reduce and then control energy demand becomes highly profitable.

The new job opportunities are for engineers of every type as more engineering and construction firms begin to tackle retrofit services and energy management. But not just engineers. There are thousands of program managers, analysts, customer service representatives, and marketing-related positions behind the effort to get billions of dollars of energy efficiency rebates out the door. These jobs are usually with consulting and contracting firms that actually implement the efficiency programs on behalf of the utility.

We see a lot of discussion about smart grid and home energy use. But shouldn’t policy focus on the big energy users, commercial and industrial buildings?

You said the magic term: smart grid — the elusive king of all change agents in terms of merging megabytes (of data) and megawatts (of energy demand.) People focus on what they know best, and as we all live in homes, the residential market will get the most buzz on and off line. When smart energy management technology infiltrates our homes, it will be accelerated in our businesses and institutions.

The vision for a smart grid is to provide users the information they need to really manage their energy use, and enable grid operators to balance the grid when there are millions of energy producers, not just a hundred thousand. So, no, I don’t think it helps to focus on just the largest energy users. The energy grid will be the basis of a sustainable economy when both the largest users and the majority of users can intelligently manage their own usage.

Liz Merry will lead a half-day workshop, “Solar Industry Primer,” October 11, 2010 at Solar Power International in Anaheim, CA.

Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer whose work appears in many of the industry’s top magazines and newsletters. She is publisher of the Energy Efficiency Markets podcast and newsletter.

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Elisa Wood is an editor at EnergyEfficiencyMarkets.com. She has been writing about energy for more than two decades for top industry publications. Her work has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.

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