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Episode #85: 'Elevating Utility Energy Efficiency Programs To The Next Level' With Larry Rush of AVANGRID [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast]

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The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ features conversations with thought leaders in the utility sector. At least twice monthly, we connect with an Energy Central Power Industry...

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  • Jun 28, 2022
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Energy efficiency has been a part of the utility toolbox for many years, providing support to customers in finding ways to reduce power bills through the basics like upgrading their appliances, turning off or swapping out their light bulbs, and the other basics. Today's power customer, though, tends to be smarter about these energy efficiency basics, and at the same time improving efficiency across a service area is even more important to utilities seeking to meet decarbonization goals and managing an evergrowing load profile with limited capacity to generate and deliver power. Luckily, these trends are happening at the same time that technological advances are enabling energy efficiency 2.0 that can unlock new potential.

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The evolution of this energy efficiency space is the passion of the guest to this week's episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast, Lary Rush. Larry is the Manager of Residential Conservation and Load Management at AVANGRID, and he's regularly seeking out new ways to assist AVANGRID's customers to tap into the latest efficiency opportunities. Accomplishing utility bill savings is even more important amid rising inflation and economic uncertainty, and as the unparalleled trusted source of energy information, the utility role for customers is as critical as ever. Larry joins podcast host Jason Price and producer Matt Chester to share his insights in this hot topic area.

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Thanks to the sponsor of this episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast: West Monroe

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TRANSCRIPT

Jason Price: 

Hello, and welcome to the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast. This is the show where we're bringing thought leaders across the utility space, to learn more about the latest challenges and trends defined in the energy system, across the country and shaping our future. And a quick thank you to West Monroe, our sponsor of today's show. Now, let's talk energy.

Jason Price: 
I'm Jason Price, Energy Central Podcast host and director with West Monroe, coming to you from New York City. And once again, from Orlando, Florida, I'm joined by Matt Chester, podcast producer and Energy Central Community Manager. Matt, the reach for energy efficiency is nothing new. And for many years, energy efficiency 1.0, addressed the low hanging fruit. Turn off lights, switch to LED, upgrade appliances and HVAC systems, introduce weatherization programs and home energy solutions and more. But, in today's utility landscape, it sure seems like energy efficiency programs are aiming bigger, asking for more notable actions for customers, business and residential. Be it, what we call, say, energy efficiency 2.0, to cover more customers and introduce new programs and solutions at the utility level. Matt, you have a good pulse of the Energy Central community. So, tell us what conversations are you hearing from them?

Matt Chester: 
Sure, Jason. So, there's definitely a lot of questions and discussion going on, on Energy Central, around how to get customers to participate in energy efficiency programs and how to elevate to the energy efficiency 2.0 that you're talking about. And largely, the technology is there, the know-how is there, and the utility leaders are looking to find ways to get the buy-in from the customer side, whether that's residential, business, or otherwise. But, that said, there's always new technology as well, that make the opportunities even greater, from the push to whole building electrification, integration of EVs and the use of digital and smart technologies to have it all run more seamlessly. It's an actively evolving and fruitful area of discussion, that I know our listeners are quite tuned in and on and eager to hear the latest and greatest about.

Jason Price: 
That's right. Energy efficiency has indeed elevated from a simple way to empower customers, to take control. And now, these programs are highlighted for the critical role they can play in solving some systematic challenges for utilities, like reducing the stress of peak load, assisting the clean energy transition and reducing the undue energy burden felt by some homes and businesses. So, the energy efficiency best practices have evolved over the last decade. And as new technologies have come to market and the priorities of utilities have elevated, their customers are more modernized and better armed. To get a snapshot of what energy efficiency programs can and should be, we're fortunate today, to be joined by someone at the leading edge of crafting important energy efficiency programs, that are expanding the reach of these benefits to more people who can use them and do so in a way that's embracing the cutting edge technologies and most current knowledge.

Jason Price: 
So, today's guest is Larry Rush, the Manager of Residential Conservation and Load Management at AVANGRID. Larry manages these teams for AVANGRID, covering Connecticut and Massachusetts. And previously at AVANGRID, he was the program manager for the market-based, Home Energy Solutions Program in Connecticut, which was an in-home weatherization service. Today, Larry oversees all programs for Connecticut, Massachusetts, including low income and market-rate weatherization, HVAC water systems, heat pump programs, retail products behavior, and online marketplaces. Across the two states, Larry's programs operate on a $30 million incentive budget. We're excited to learn about how he's bringing energy efficiency to all, using the latest and greatest the industry has to offer. So, let's not wait any longer to bring him into the podcast booth. Larry Rush, welcome to the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast.

Larry Rush: 
Hey, Jason and Matt. I'm glad to be here. Thanks for having me today. I'm really excited to have this conversation with you.

Jason Price: 
Yeah, we're excited to have you as well. So, let's jump right in. Getting customers to adopt energy efficiency measures put out by utilities has always been a challenge, but it seems like in today's environment, there're even more hurdles to overcome, like in trying to embrace efficiency, amid a push to decarbonize buildings, the inability of many customers to make capital expenditures and some upgrades that are required and the evolving regulatory landscape. So, tell us, what is your team at AVANGRID doing to make sure energy efficiency stays atop the list of priorities?

Larry Rush: 
There's a lot of talk about when it comes to that. I mean, we at AVANGRID put energy efficiency at the forefront, clean energy. Our team's always working on new and innovative ways to bring robust products to our customers. Whether, it's through our flagship programs, like our Home Energy Solutions, or Home Energy Solutions Income Eligible Programs. Or, our Online Marketplace and Behavior Programs, which are ways to cross-collaborate and create synergies to drive more customers, to participate. Or, working with our community partnerships. We have a fun, exciting community partnership program, where we're going out into the communities and actually, trying to teach people about these programs and what to do with them and how to be engaged. The work is challenging, really challenging.

Larry Rush: 
It's not easy to engage people and teach them the importance, but we've become experts in the industry. And we've succeeded quite a bit in doing that. Actually, this year, for the fifth time in a row, we were nominated for the Energy Star Partner of The Year in Sustained Excellence. So, not only are our programs performing on the local level, but we've been nationally recognized for the work that we've done and how comprehensive we've been able to do the work that we do.

Jason Price: 
As we've prepared for this podcast, you had mentioned that the way your team frames incentives and residential efficiency upgrades, is unique compared to what's typically done across the industry, share with us what that looks like.

Larry Rush: 
Yeah. I mean, so one of the things that we do in Connecticut, that's unique amongst a lot of the other programs, is in-home weatherization program, we actually are able to achieve a ton of savings on our first visit. So, in our Home Energy Solutions Income Eligible Program, unique to a lot, we don't just do our basic audits and screw in some light bulbs in Connecticut. We actually will go out there. We'll air seal the unit that day, with blower door guided air sealing. We're doing duct blasting as well, that same visit. We're fully evaluating the heating and cooling systems, and also trying to bring resources to our customers. One of the more unique programs that we're starting up in Connecticut and the Massachusetts, actually is the heat pump installer network, to try to better help our customers make the proper selection of heat pumps and HVAC systems.

Larry Rush: 
We're also looking forward to starting up an insulation boot camp in Connecticut. So, as you know, there's a lot of insulation installers, but we want our customers to ensure that they're getting the proper insulation installed, at the right levels and that it's done correctly to read those continuous barriers. There's so many things that we do unique, in the home. Just back to our Home Energy Solutions Program in Connecticut, as the average customer sees about $200 annually in saving, from that initial visit. And we spend about $1,000 in the home, in that initial visit. That's something unique in Connecticut, versus some other programs, where it might be just a basic audit. And then, you're trying to engage the customer to move forward with air sealing and potentially some insulation. We hit that air sealing the first shot. So, we get those instant savings, pretty much right away.

Jason Price: 
Sure. Larry, we had recently on Power Perspectives, representatives from both TVA and the Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative, they published a study on the unique challenge, just facing the rental market, the rental landlord relationship. In a renter's market, what are you doing to break through the split incentives issue, between landlords and tenants? And what more can be done, to avoid missing key energy efficiency opportunities?

Larry Rush: 
Yeah. The landlord, rental market, it's an extremely hard market to break into. And we've done a lot in Connecticut and trying to break the barriers. We have a pretty robust multi-family initiative in Connecticut. One of the things that we recently did and we're going to continue to do this, is we actually have been hosting landlord round tables. Where we're engaging different landlords in Connecticut and trying to figure out how we can make these programs work better for them. We get lessons learned from that. I mean... And we're able to try to craft incentives, so that we can move the mark. It could be extremely challenging when you have individually metered units and you're trying to influence someone to install heat pumps, or something that really only gives a capital investment for the building, but doesn't really have any direct return on investment for energy savings for that landlord.

Larry Rush: 
So, we're always looking at unique ways to do it. One of the ways that we do the multi-family program, is we actually offer comprehensive incentives for multiple end use measures, right? So, if someone was to move forward with air sealing and insulation and HVAC project altogether, we'll offer them an increased incentive, to try to move the mark there. This gives the landlord some more skin the game, to want to move forward with it. Because, they're not making the full investments themselves. And we want to see our customers save on their energy bills. And we also want to make sure that they're living more comfortably in their homes. We also partner with a bunch of different groups in Connecticut to try to teach them the importance of energy efficiency in their buildings. Whether, it's in the low income markets, or in the market-rate markets. With market-rate, you do have ton of retention, especially in the past.

Larry Rush: 
Electric heat is extremely expensive. Selling heat pumps obviously, saved instantaneously. And those landlords should start to see people stick around more. So, it's always a ever-changing field. Actually, one of my jobs prior to working in the utility industry, was I was a multi-family manager for a company in Connecticut called CMC Energy Services. And my job, was to try to help upsell products like insulation and LED lighting at the time. And it was really successful. The program was really successful and you got to learn what some of the pain points were, from the landlords. And at the end of the day, that learning and that frontline helped us and helped me to be in these programs and try to make them better for the industry and for our partners and customers out there.

Jason Price: 
Yeah, for sure. The unique issues with renters are just one of myriad of ways where equity comes into play with these programs, which I'm sure you're facing. So, what are some of the other ways in which you're trying to bring efficiency programs to new customers, that have been previously been unable to access, or unable to deliver to them?

Larry Rush: 
So, we've been working on a bunch of different cross-collaborations amongst our groups. The community partnership, I think, that we started this past year, is going to really help us get on the front line. Just, help and working with local organization, community action agencies, the towns, to try to spread awareness, to get to places. I like to say, areas with the market potential, right? We're a person too, we're trying to help you. And that, it's ever-so important when you're trying to reach these community groups. We have a strong presence, with our other programs. So, for instance, we have a matching payment program at the utilities, to help customers that may have fallen behind on their bills. One thing that we've been doing, that really has helped to increase our income eligible participation, is making sure that application that they have is automatically approved, if they're on one of those hardship programs, we manage internally.

Larry Rush: 
That way, it makes it easier to really approve and not have to recollect data for customers. I mean, so many people get turned away, because they don't want to get their bills together. So, people don't want to always admit that they're in hard times, it's not an easy thing to admit. So, by making things easier on customers, it's helped us to expand the programs and reaches and touches. I mean, we're also going to be looking towards, some more data sharing procedures with some of the other state agencies in Connecticut. So, that way, we could continue to make this easy for customers. And so, that they're not continuously, giving repetitive data, and then repetitive information on bills, how do we make it easier to get them in the program?

Jason Price: 
Yeah, I agreed. So, energy efficiency, it falls into the demand side of activities. So, tell us about, or let's talk a little bit about demand response. How does demand response play into this equity conversation, when building out load management and demand response programs for the residential market? Are there equity considerations that other utilities are overlooking? Or, how are you even, AVANGRID, managing all this?

Larry Rush: 
So, one of the ways, we've piloted some demand response, and this is more in particular in the New Haven, Bridgeport areas in Connecticut, is we had managed to run a heat pump, water heater pilot a few years back, where we were providing low income customers with a free heat pump water heater, if they had electric resistance and also in agreed to participate in the demand response program. The other things that we do that help, is we actually will install wifi thermostats through our Home Energy Solutions Income Eligible Programs, which is the first step to getting them enrolled in a demand response program. And we try to make it easy and accessible through our online marketplace to sign up. We also discount through our energy efficiency programs, the thermostats that we have. So, that way they're affordable too. So, it's trying to reach many, many channels.

Larry Rush: 
We're recently starting a demand response gas program as well, where we've had a pretty good uptick of customers enrolled. But, it's part of the challenge, trying to get people to sign up and understand the ability of a demand response. Isn't the easiest sell, but we try to educate people. And that's why some of our programs, they create so many synergies. And so, when we go out there with our Home Energy Solutions Income Eligible Program, we leave them with a leave-behind packet, that teaches them and shows them where to look into things like demand response, and that all helps. So, I guess keeping it as simple as possible and trying to educate people, is a couple of the best things that we could really do. One of the things also, that we've recently done to try to expand this education and knowledge, in Connecticut, we started a Energized Connecticut Mobile Exhibit. A mobile exhibit goes around to different schools and areas.

Larry Rush: 
And we made sure that we integrated environmental justice community metrics into that, to teach kids about energy efficiency, teach their parents about energy efficiency, go to different events, which also includes DR and clean energy jobs. So, we're really trying to make this field. There's a lot of opportunity in this field for people, to see and understand and getting that word out, or trying to get that word out is important. And we have to do it through multiple channels. There's not just one right way. The worst thing, they say, in business, is doing it the same way, isn't the right way. And I totally believe that. Keeping on, shaking it up and trying new things is important. So, we're always trying to pivot to see what we could do next and what we could do better.

Jason Price: 
Yeah, I agree. And I think, that our audience would be interested in learning more about some of this outreach. Going after, for example, low income households is different, than going after moderate income households and others. Can you just, simply talk a little bit about some of the outreach programs that you've introduced and you're doing at AVANGRID?

Larry Rush: 
Yeah. I mean, so funny enough, we've had multiple channels to try to introduce it, right? So, we've seen a great uptick since the end of COVID, in our program, as far as marketing and outreach go. Probably, the context of what's happening in the world right now. But, one of the things that we were really excited about, as far as marketing, is just simple things, like TV commercials. And I believe it was last Summer, we ran a TV commercial in English and Spanish, to teach people about the programs and to get them interested, billboards, stuff like that. But, that's just your regular running the mill, doing things like getting to community events and getting out there, showing them what it's all about, bringing the mobile exhibit out to different places in the community, that really started to help and really started to help move the mark.

Larry Rush: 
So, it's the challenge. It's something that we're ever-adapting. So, we send letters out to our hardship customers, to try to engage them and get them signed up. Like I said, making it easy as possible, trying to make these things work. Talking to the community action agencies that we work with and trying to influence them to promote our program. Everyone's busy, and you have to get buy-in from them. Everyone has their own roles. So, if you could get little seeds planted about what these programs are, just get them a little bit engaged, it goes a long way, right? Making small changes and the programs, the way we approach things, make a big impact. We're also working on a low income qualification tool in Connecticut. This tool, is going to allow our vendors to automatically approve people, by using the data that we have in our system.

Larry Rush: 
It's also going to be built, so that our vendors could draw a line around a certain area and pull a mailing list to help them, really get to the distressed areas that we may not have good participation in. The other thing, is looking into different languages and seeing, how does our material relate to people of different backgrounds? It's not one-size-fits-all, when you're talking efficiency and trying to get people to engage. And it's also not easy to convince people to get in their houses. So, doing that helps, having community advocates, people that will promote the programs. I was at an event this Tuesday, one of the ladies there was saying, how she had the program and it helped her out so much. She saw the instant saving, she felt more comfortable in her living room, because her window wasn't as leaky, right?

Larry Rush: 
And people like that, they're really the ones that help promote the word. And news spreads is quick when you have good advocates in the community, right? It takes a village to really help grow this and get people going. And so, that's what we're always looking for. How could we do that? How could we get out to these communities? Who could we talk to about the programs? What events could we help sponsor? How do we engage different business owners and people to understand what these programs look like? A lot of different ways, techniques, unique to just, run of the mill. We don't sit just behind a computer screen, we're out there in the community, trying to make an impact and difference.

Jason Price: 
Yeah. That's a whole dimension that I'm sure a lot of people don't really think about. It's not much different, than trying to reach disenfranchised communities, when it comes to healthcare, maternal health, children's health, and working locally with the communities and local representatives and building that network of trust, is no different, than what you're trying to tackle here, from an energy efficiency standpoint. So, I applaud the efforts that you're carrying and AVANGRID is doing. Well, at the top of the show, I introduced a little bit of your background and you came from a different area. So, I'd like you to explore and take us through, what you learned from your past experience, to what you're doing today. Could you do that for us?

Larry Rush: 
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, funny enough now, you have the Infrastructure Job Act coming out and I like to relate that back to how I got into this industry. So, I started in this industry right out college, I'm working for a community action agency in Waterbury, just needed a job and there was an opening, so I hopped in. And what I was doing at the time, was I was sending out little notices, for people to sign up for energy assistance and led me to get my certificates in energy efficiency. So, I was actually, at the time then, starting to do inspections and audits for that community action agency. I got to see the nonprofit side of the world first, right? So, I did that for a few years. And then, what I did, was I actually moved over to an ESCO type company, right?

Larry Rush: 
And they're one of the leaders in Connecticut, as far as their weatherization programs. And one of the things I was tasked with, was trying to grow their add-on measure program. So, that add-on measure program, was helping multi-family customers and landlords install different products, like LED lighting, insulation, HVAC, boilers and even heat pumps at the time, right? So, trying to influence people to do that was really important. So, from there, I moved on to the United Illuminating, which is part of the AVANGRID family. And there, I took my industry and background knowledge, to manage the Home Energy Solutions Program, which is our in-home delivery service program, right? So, that's our flagship program, that goes out there to weatherize homes, do these audits, like I spoke about a little earlier. A couple years went by, an opportunity presented itself, to take the team on for the full residential portfolio.

Larry Rush: 
So, I had actually hopped into that job. And now, I'm overseeing, not only the weatherization programs, the online marketplaces and behavior programs, HVAC programs. So, pretty much everything soup to nuts in Connecticut and a Massachusetts. And one of the things that I've really tried to work hard to do, is create synergies amongst that, right? All these things are interconnected. So, one of the things that benefited me the most, is unlike a lot of people, I was in the trenches. I've been in an attic when it is a 95-degree day outside. And we had to go up an air sealer, we had to go take a look around. I've lost multi-family properties in low income areas and did lighting schedules and tried to influence customers to do the work that they should do.

Larry Rush: 
And really, that background, gives me an understanding of what the contractor networks looks like, what it looks like working at a cac agency, or a community action agency. It gave me a holistic view of the industry. And I'm ever-so grateful for the position that I'm in and the experience and diversified background I've had.

Jason Price: 
Yeah, and energy efficiency isn't something where you're done either. It's an ongoing process to just... You can never be 100% at energy efficient, can you?

Larry Rush: 
You should never be 100% energy efficient, that's correct. I mean, even if you're off the grid, that's zero-

Jason Price: 
Right.

Larry Rush: 
There's always going to be improvements. Things deteriorate over time. I mean, you have to keep on looking at them. This is an industry that needs to hit the mainstream.

Jason Price: 
Yeah.

Larry Rush: 
You can't always rely on utility incentive. People should know that they should want this. It's an important part. Health, safety, comfort, everything and it hits all the tri- factors.

Jason Price: 
Right, right. Well, I love the passion. We're going to give you the last word, but before we do, we have something called The Lightning Round. So, we're switching gears here for a moment. We want to learn a little bit more about Larry Rush, not the professional, but Larry Rush, the person. So, we have, what's called Lightning Round. We're going to ask you a series of questions and you need to keep the response to one word, or phrase. So, Larry, are you ready?

Larry Rush: 
I'll try to be.

Jason Price: 
All right, here we go. Favorite meal of the day?

Larry Rush: 
Got to be dinner. Dinner with my fiance. Every night, we try to sit down and have one.

Jason Price: 
Nice. Next vacation, you want to take?

Larry Rush: 
Right after this, I'm heading camping. So, right there on that vacation.

Jason Price: 
If you weren't working in energy, what might your career path have been?

Larry Rush: 
Could've been in social services, actually. Just, working in that industry, that's where my college background came from.

Jason Price: 
Who do you look up to?

Larry Rush: 
I know this sounds cliche, but definitely my mom and dad. They worked hard to get me to where I can, struggling and paying the bills to make sure it happens. So, those are the two people I always look up to.

Jason Price: 
And what are you most passionate about?

Larry Rush: 
What am I most passionate about? Other than playing golf on the weekends, it's helping and explain to people. I know it's outside of careers, but I really do enjoy helping people out and trying to explain things, whether it's in my field, or maybe outside, doing different volunteer opportunities.

Jason Price: 
Very nice. It's always nice to pull back the curtain a little bit for the community to get a little more awareness of who our guests are. So, thank you for sharing those thoughts with us. And at this point, we're going to wrap up. We want to give you the final word. So, knowing your peers across the industry are listening, what's the one takeaway piece of knowledge you hope they glean from our conversation today?

Larry Rush: 
Small changes make big impacts and continue to do what you do. There's still a long road, even though it keeps on seeming shorter and shorter, everyone's doing a great job trying to make their programs more robust and trying to learn from others in the industry. So, listen to your peers, network, talk, we're all in it together. And whether, it's for our customers, or for the environment, however you want to look at it, it's all going to make a difference in the end. And that's important.

Jason Price: 
Well, thanks for those thoughts. And I'm excited to hear what the Energy Central Community thinks of this conversation. And I'm sure they'll let us all know in the comments section, energycentral.com. So again, Larry Rush, thank you so much for sharing your insight with us on today's episode of the podcast.

Larry Rush: 
Anytime. Thank you guys for having me, I really appreciate it.

Jason Price: 
Absolutely. Likewise. You can always reach Larry through the Energy Central platform, where he welcomes your questions and comments. And we also want to give a shout out to the podcast sponsors that made today's episode possible. Thank you to West Monroe. West Monroe works with the nation's largest electric, gas and water utilities in their telecommunication, grid modernization and digital and workforce transformations. West Monroe brings a multidisciplinary team that blends utility, operations and technology expertise, to address modernizing aging infrastructure, advisory on transportation electrification, ADMS deployments, data and analytics and cybersecurity. And once again, I'm your host Jason Price. Plug in and stay fully charged in the discussion by hopping into the community at energycentral.com. And we'll see you next time at the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast.

 


About Energy Central Podcasts

The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ features conversations with thought leaders in the utility sector. At least twice monthly, we connect with an Energy Central Power Industry Network community member to discuss compelling topics that impact professionals who work in the power industry. Some podcasts may be a continuation of thought-provoking posts or discussions started in the community or with an industry leader that is interested in sharing their expertise and doing a deeper dive into hot topics or issues relevant to the industry.

The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ is the premiere podcast series from Energy Central, a Power Industry Network of Communities built specifically for professionals in the electric power industry and a place where professionals can share, learn, and connect in a collaborative environment. Supported by leading industry organizations, our mission is to help global power industry professionals work better. Since 1995, we’ve been a trusted news and information source for professionals working in the power industry, and today our managed communities are a place for lively discussions, debates, and analysis to take place. If you’re not yet a member, visit www.EnergyCentral.com to register for free and join over 200,000 of your peers working in the power industry.

The Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast is hosted by Jason PriceCommunity Ambassador of Energy Central. Jason is a Business Development Executive at West Monroe, working in the East Coast Energy and Utilities Group. Jason is joined in the podcast booth by the producer of the podcast, Matt Chester, who is also the Community Manager of Energy Central and energy analyst/independent consultant in energy policy, markets, and technology.  

If you want to be a guest on a future episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast, let us know! We’ll be pulling guests from our community members who submit engaging content that gets our community talking, and perhaps that next guest will be you! Likewise, if you see an article submitted by a fellow Energy Central community member that you’d like to see broken down in more detail in a conversation, feel free to send us a note to nominate them.  For more information, contact us at community@energycentral.com. Podcast interviews are free for Expert Members and professionals who work for a utility.  We have package offers available for solution providers and vendors. 

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