Our Top Energy Efficiency Stories of 2020

Photo: Evie S.

2020 was a year of firsts and hopefully some never-agains. We experienced the first global pandemic in over a century, grieved over the tragic consequences of systemic racism, and felt the uncertainty of a growing economic recession. The energy sector and the Southeast did not go unscathed. In this time of loss, we found resilience and a renewed purpose to bring our values into our work every day. These are the stories that kept us up at night, gave us hope, and reminded us that there is still work to be done.

Energy-Efficient Transportation

Photo: Andrew Roberts

Electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure expanded throughout the Southeast in 2020. In North and South Carolina, Duke Energy Progress and Duke Energy Carolinas were approved to implement electric vehicle pilot programs that include the installation and operation of EV charging stations in public places and multifamily communities as well as publicly accessible fast-charging stations. The Florida legislature passed Senate Bill 7018, which paved the way for the development of a statewide electric vehicle infrastructure master plan. In December 2020, the Florida Department of Transportation submitted its draft of policy recommendations and is expected to complete the master plan by July 1, 2021.

EV manufacturing boomed throughout the region. Mercedes-Benz U.S. International has planned a new EV parts facility near Tuscaloosa, AL. GM announced plans to transition its existing assembly plant in Spring Hill, TN, to its third electric vehicle manufacturing plant in North America. Arrival, the U.K. electric vehicle startup, has chosen Charlotte, NC for its headquarters after announcing plans to build a microfactory in nearby Rock Hill, SC. These developments keep or create over 4,000 jobs in the Southeast and represent a $3 billion investment in local economies.

Energy Efficiency Policy

Photo: Pieter van de Sande

In spring 2020, the Virginia General Assembly passed and approved the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), requiring state utilities to produce 30% of their energy from renewables by 2030, close all carbon-emitting power plants by 2050, and attain mandatory energy efficiency savings targets. Additionally, the General Assembly made the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice a permanent advisory body to the executive branch, after operating on a temporary basis for nearly two years. The council will provide recommendations to protect vulnerable communities and integrate environmental justice into the state’s daily operations.

In 2019, four of the seven utilities subject to the Florida Energy Efficiency Conservation Act (FEECA) proposed reducing their energy efficiency goals to zero, or nearly zero, for the next decade. The Florida Public Service Commission (FPSC) rejected those goals and began to assess with state legislators how they might reform or reinterpret FEECA to improve energy savings. In early 2020, the FPSC opened docket 20200181 and requested commission staff to propose changes to the processes of setting goals and approving programs for energy efficiency. On January 14, 2021, policy director Cyrus Bhedwar participated in a workshop held by the FPSC on the FEECA revision process. The FPSC is accepting written public comments until February 15.

Both of these acts set the stage for decades of improved energy efficiency goals and clean energy standards, providing a healthier, more just future across the Southeast.

Built Environment

Photo: Katie Harp

The onset of the economic recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic revealed and made worse existing inequities in housing and energy for millions of Americans. In September 2020, research from Indiana University confirmed that energy insecurity, the inability to pay utility bills, is higher in households of color than their white counterparts. The American Council for an Energy Efficiency Economy (ACEEE) listed Birmingham, AL as the city with the highest energy burden and Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee the most energy burdened states in the country.

Because of this existing economic inequity, Black and Latino communities are most at risk for utility shut-offs. Access to electricity, gas, water, and broadband are all crucial to remaining healthy during a pandemic and sheltering at home.

2020 also affirmed that energy efficiency regulation works. An April FEMA study found that strong building codes, including energy codes, in Florida and California will save the country’s most disaster-prone states $1 billion annually. In its annual progress report, Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Initiative reported nearly $11 billion in savings since its inception a decade ago.

Diversity, Inclusion, & Integration

Photo: Priscilla Du Preez

This summer there was a national calling to confront systemic racism and reform police practices. In the midst of this reckoning, private and public changes moved the region and the energy sector towards equity. In July 2020, Georgia Power’s Senior Vice President of Metro Atlanta & Corporate Relations Bentina Chisolm Terry took on an expanded role that includes Georgia Power’s work in underserved communities – people of color, the elderly, women, and LGBTQ+. In October 2020, Terry, and her colleague Latanza Adjei, Vice President of Corporate Services, were selected to the Atlanta Business League’s list of “Atlanta’s Top 100 Black Women of Influence.”

In August 2020, Department of Energy announced the first slate of Equity in Energy Ambassadors and Champions. The Ambassadors are responsible for leading efforts for ensuring diversity and equal access to energy. In Mississippi, residents overwhelmingly voted in the general election to remove Confederate imagery from the state flag. Similarly, Alabama voters approved an amendment that starts the process of deleting racist language from the state constitution inserted during the Jim Crow era.

While this work is not complete, these steps bend the arc of the universe just a bit more towards justice and equity.

How do listening and learning move us toward more equitable solutions?

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

“The utility sector needs more empathy!” Those were the words of one participant during a recent virtual SEEA member meeting hosted by our energy efficiency policy (EEP) team. The group was discussing future innovation in utility energy efficiency programs in response to COVID-19 safety precautions.

Since the onset of the pandemic, SEEA has been connecting with our members and partners to understand the impact of the immediate and long-term changes to the energy industry. Through this outreach the EEP team identified three key issues important to our network: energy efficiency workforce, energy insecurity, and utility energy efficiency programs. By this summer, we were starting to see and hear that utilities were likely to retain some of the changes they made to their utility energy efficiency programs including virtual audits, installation, and verification. Targeting and engaging customers remotely exposed existing challenges for historically underserved communities such as broadband access, lack of capital, and the need for innovative financing options.

On September 16, the EEP team brought together member utilities, service providers, and manufacturers to discuss industry innovations. The agenda included the design and delivery of energy efficiency programs, and how these changes might affect existing inequities.

What happened was far more interesting.

When policy manager Claudette Ayanaba introduced the equity discussion, the passionate response carried us in an entirely different direction than planned.

The route to equitably delivering the benefits of energy efficiency programs did not depend on innovation in technology, or insight drawn from the multiple crises we are currently facing. Instead, we heard a heartfelt urging for empathy and understanding.

Utility Energy Efficiency Programs Need Cultural Context

Most programs appear to be designed for “all” customers. However, when those doing the designing are predominately white and male, we cannot effectively capture or respond to the needs of historically underserved customers, which are most often minority communities. Enlisting a diverse workforce, particularly leadership, improves our ability to capture and integrate important factors into energy efficiency programs that equitably distribute their benefits. One member offered a specific and common example that a home with a hole in the wall won’t see meaningful results from a smart thermostat. While utilities can’t fix holes in the wall or other building conditions, designing programs that ignore these realities maintains a system of inequity.

Minority Communities Are Interested in the Environment and Conservation

Another member shared that Black, Hispanic, and other non-white communities have historically been perceived as less interested in energy and environmental issues, even though there is ample evidence to the contrary. If this belief is carried into the design of energy efficiency programs, even unconsciously, then those programs are less likely to benefit non-white customers.

Utilities Have Opportunities to More Holistically Engage Their Communities

One utility is helping Black families retain and manage their forest property, leveraging resources from the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities. While it may seem unusual for a utility to engage in forestry, the utility has worked with landowners to develop microgrids on their farms, which supports the utility’s grid, reduces line losses, increases reliability, and spurs economic development in one of the poorest counties in the United States. The program treats past injustices, present inequity, and future opportunities for the entire community.

The Energy Efficiency Workforce Needs Teachers

Change may come from the top, but the contractors interacting with customers on a regular basis play a critical role in implementing the environmental, financial, and health benefits of energy efficiency. However, not all contractors are trained or encouraged to help customers understand and capitalize on the energy efficiency opportunities available to them. Taking time to listen to the needs of customers, establish trust, and lead them through the process for making upgrades improves program success and sustainability.

Building a more energy efficient, prosperous, and equitable Southeast requires all of us at times to be both teachers and students. We value and seek out your stories, your triumphs and challenges. We want to learn from our members, partners, and community-based experts on how we can work together to leverage energy efficiency for everyone.

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Cyrus Bhedwar
Director of Policy
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Claudette Ayanaba
Policy Manager
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Emme Luck
Policy Associate
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Shattering the stories we tell ourselves

Photo by Linus Nylund on Unsplash

As a white man who considers himself a Black Lives Matter ally, I find myself confronting hard truths this week. Too often my support has looked like, “But what can I do? What is the right action? What will be most helpful?” I used perfection as a defense against actually stepping forward.

I offer a story of my “whiteness” and privilege, what I learned from SEEA staff and board’s commitment to act, and some steps white men like me can take right now to start to fix the problem.

I currently have the honor of serving as chair of the SEEA Board of Directors. SEEA staff have been holding the space for diversity, inclusion, and integration work for more than four years now. Three years ago, following staff’s lead, the SEEA board took a hard look at our lack of diversity. We took stock of diversity metrics looking primarily at race and gender (geography is also a consideration given the mission of our organization).

We then set targets for improvement. We reported against them at every board meeting. We also established a Diversity, Inclusion, and Integration Plan overseen by a subcommittee of the board. In our most recent strategic plan we included a set of value statements that intentionally address diversity and we have a section in our strategic plan that details this area of our work. In short, we committed to becoming a board more representative of the Southeast.

This past year we had six open board seats and focused our search on female candidates and people of color.

John Silkey, Chair, SEEA Board of Directors

Here’s where my personal story kicks in. I applauded the intention and the goal, but inside I told myself a story, “Our industry is predominantly white and male. We’re not going to find enough candidates that fit our standard qualifications for board membership and who are people of color.”

It was an old story, one I had learned and internalized over my life as a white male living in a power structure that provides a tailwind for people like me; a story that I easily adapted and updated to fit my progressive life.

The board made a list of anyone we knew who we thought would be a good addition to our group. We then looked at that list and noted which potential candidates would add to our board diversity by gender and/or race. We contacted every individual on our list in addition to casting a wide call for applications.

At the end of the application period we were left with ten candidates, only one of whom looked like me.

My story was shattered. I had projected my limited and very white network onto an entire industry. I was unaware how thoroughly my limited worldview had become my story of the world writ large. My work with SEEA helped me to actually see my unconscious prejudice for the first time. Here’s what I learned and what other white men like me can do to move past questions and helplessness and use our privilege within the system to make lasting change:

1. Be willing to question your beliefs. Your story is not the story. Let go of it and invite the discomfort of the unknown. The National Museum of African American History and Culture has released a portal to help people explore issues of race, racism, and racial identity.

2. If you have decision making authority in your organization – measure your company’s or your board’s diversity metrics and update your recruiting and hiring policies. White men with decision making authority love to spout, “what gets measured gets managed.” Put that cliché to good use.

3. Recruit outside of your network. If you rely on your existing network you’ll get more of the same. Overqualified and diverse job candidates are everywhere, and they can use our help finding the opportunities that have always just been there for white men like me. One easy step to find great candidates is to recruit at historically black colleges and universities like Spelman College, Morehouse College, Howard University, and Florida A&M University.

Last Tuesday we took another bold step as a board. We decided to refocus the time we had held for another meeting to have a Caring Conversation to reflect upon and discuss the current state of civil unrest and structural racism. We all found it cathartic, trust building, and supportive. We are providing the template for this conversation if you would like to emulate it in your own organization.

I can, and must, do more. We all must. And I am starting today.

To begin, SEEA has compiled a list of resources to aid in the work of addressing racism.

I am proud to be a member of SEEA, and to have the opportunity to learn from staff, my fellow board members, and members across the Southeast like you. If you find yourself lost or questioning in these times as I did, know that SEEA staff is here to support with experience and guidance in how your organization can make a difference.