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Webinar: New York State Looks to Energy Efficiency for Post-COVID Job Creation

With the COVID crisis shutting down the economy in one of the hardest-hit parts of the United States, New York state is in an all-out push to sustain its energy efficiency industry and the 120,000 jobs it creates, Janet Joseph, senior vice president with the state’s Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), told a webinar yesterday.

“The labour situation has sadly slipped as a result of the current crisis,” and “that situation will be quite different for the next year or two,” Joseph told the Earth Day session hosted by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). But with billions in energy efficiency funding in place through 2025, and commitments to a 40% greenhouse gas emission reduction by 2030 and 100% carbon-free electricity within two decades, the state can’t allow itself to lose momentum.

“We have to work toward making the energy efficiency industry stronger on the other side of the COVID crisis, because we need that industry to achieve our climate goals,” she said. “We cannot afford a dissolution of this market infrastructure, and quite frankly, we do not have time to rebuild it, so the stakes are really high.”

Joseph reviewed NYSERDA’s recent efforts to ramp up utility energy efficiency investments, deliver benefits to low- and moderate-income households, drive carbon-neutral construction, and maximize renewable energy as a flexible grid asset. She cited one study that pointed to an “astounding” US$10 billion that New York consumers could save through tougher appliance efficiency standards.

But then the pandemic hit, and “consumer-facing service industries like energy efficiency will be among the hardest hit,” she said. “So we’re doing everything in our power in the state to help our struggling clean energy industries,” with flexible programs, accelerated payment schedules, low-interest loans, more cooperative marketing, and more powerful “offers” to encourage consumers to agree to energy efficiency projects once it’s safe to restart field work.

While some energy efficiency companies won’t survive the COVID crash, Joseph pointed to solid evidence that an economic crash is the right time to launch or expand a home energy program: She cited a utility in the northwestern U.S. that launched a major heat pump program during the 2008 recession that kept the region’s HVAC contractors “humming” and accelerated a necessary market transformation.

“The right energy efficiency strategy can keep the economy moving,” Joseph told participants.

In New York, the statewide total of 120,000 efficiency jobs in 2018 might just be the start: with major climate legislation in place at the municipal level, “we could require another 100,0000 workers to handle the volume of retrofits each year,” she said. “Just a few months ago, we surveyed the clean energy industry in New York, and three-quarters of the companies said they were facing intense and looming labour shortages.”

But that scene has changed drastically since. Post-pandemic, “we need to figure out how we activate this labour force and get them into the energy efficiency business. We need to do what we can to ensure the industry comes out of this stronger, with a better business model, a better value proposition to consumers, with the customer in the centre of the initiatives, and with a new and expanded labour force. So there is a future where we can see a stronger energy efficiency industry,” and “where we build clean energy into our economic recovery plan “

After five or six weeks of sheltering at home, she added, the sector is beginning to see new practices emerge. NYSERDA is considering more virtual and remote services to reduce customer acquisition costs, combining an energy efficiency pitch with healthy home and wellness services that already matter to households, and using advanced data and analytics to target potential customers more effectively.

“We’ve been talking about that in energy efficiency for a number of years,” she said. “A year ago, it was a nice-to-have. In the future post-COVID, it’s a need-to-have. We have to do as much smart, virtual work as possible.”

Penni McLean-Conner, chief customer officer at New England utility Eversource Energy and chair of the ACEEE board, pointed to the energy savings that are accumulating with a big share of the work force located at home. For Eversource itself, it was a challenge to move 450 call centre agents to home offices within 10 days, while ensuring that incoming calls were routed and answered. “But the efficiencies are tremendous,” she said.

“Our agents really love it, and our customers like it, too.” When customers on a service call hear a dog barking in the background, the agents explain that they’re working from home, “and the feedback has been great.”

Another unexpected advantage showed up when an unexpected storm shut down power for 200,000 customers, and the company was able to reconnect them all within 30 hours. Normally, the emergency response plan for a blizzard would mobilizing employees to a central work space and keeping them housed and fed. But “working from home, all of those logistics are taken off the plate,” McLean-Conner said. “It really was a beautiful solution.”