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Episode #89: 'Cranking Up the Impact of Energy Efficiency Across the Country' With Rebecca Foster, CEO of VEIC [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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  • Jul 26, 2022
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Energy Efficiency is a key component of every utility across the country, but efficiency programs and departments have been in the power sector for so long that it may be easy to overlook their importance. However, the impact that energy efficiency can have for utilities today is in fact more critical than ever, serving as a key driver toward a myriad of top-level utility goals: decarbonization, grid reliability, customer affordability, the business bottom line, and more.

Seeking to ensure that energy efficiency, and importantly the new tools and opportunities that digital technologies and innovative thinking are uncovering in the efficiency realm, stays top of mind, VEIC has become one of the nation's most trusted voices on how, where, and why to ramp up energy efficiency efforts. To highlight the efforts underway across the country, this episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast brings in VEIC's CEO, Rebecca Foster. Listen in as Rebecca shares with host Jason Price and producer Matt Chester the success stories taking place today and the lessons learned from which all power providers can benefit.

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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 back to the Energy Central Power Perspectives podcast, the show that brings in thought leaders across the utility space to learn more about the latest challenges and trends defining the energy systems 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. I'm Jason Price, Energy Central podcast host and director with West Monroe, coming to you from New York City. Once again, I'm joined from Orlando, Florida by Matt Chester, podcast producer and Energy Central Community Manager. Matt, this July, the focus on Energy Central is energy efficiency, and specifically, the latest developments, innovations, and barriers in what we are calling energy efficiency 2.0. In addition to some great articles and webinars, we're also interviewing utilities and service providers on next generation energy efficiency practices. Matt, if you don't mind, please share with our listeners what to look for during this month of energy efficiency at Energy Central.

Matt Chester: 
No problem, Jason. So, the energy efficiency special issue from Energy Central, it's set to go live the same week as this podcast, actually, so the special issue will drop on July 28th, and specifically, we've asked the community to highlight how they're managing the future of energy efficiency. What are their pain points? What are the exciting new technologies? Where are the unique opportunities, and more? That all that content's going to be coming in and going live all this week. And from a podcast perspective, we've already heard from Larry Rush of Avangrid as he dove into, as you said, energy efficiency 2.0, as well as Rudy Garza, the interim CEO of CPS Energy, as he highlighted their Sustainable Tomorrow Energy Plan. So, this episode, I think, is definitely going to be the cherry on top of our efficiency-related podcasts for July.

Jason Price: 
That's great, Matt. So, as we seek to celebrate the power of energy efficiency today and, more importantly, set our expectations for what the future of energy efficiency programs across the utilities can look like, we're welcoming on today's show a key guest guiding this industry movement. Today on Power Perspectives is Rebecca Foster, the CEO of VEIC, originally known as Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, and most widely known for their operations of the Efficiency Vermont program. Today, VEIC is national in its focus these days. As a nonprofit for the past 35 years, VEIC has brought energy efficiency consulting and expertise to power companies across the United States, including key programs in DC, Ohio, Delaware, and more. And Rebecca has been part of that mission for over 11 years, working in various different aspects of the VEIC mission before being named CEO in 2021. Before that, Rebecca had a career dedicated to clean energy, and so she is as passionate and mission-driven about the work VEIC is doing as you would expect.

Jason Price: 
Today, we're excited for her to share with us an overview of the state of the US utility energy efficiency, and even more importantly, what we can and should hope for in the future. Rebecca, welcome to the Energy Central Power Perspectives podcast.

Rebecca Foster: 
Thank you so much for having me. It's great to be here.

Jason Price: 
Rebecca, VEIC is uniquely positioned in the utility space, so I'd love if you could start by giving the elevator pitch for those who aren't familiar with the work you do, and some history and background of your organization.

Rebecca Foster: 
Of course. I'll start by saying that VEIC is laser-focused on bringing innovation and equity into our work on decarbonization across the country, it's just part of our DNA. That's been the case since we were founded in 1986 as a nonprofit with the goal of improving people's lives through clean energy. For the first 15 years or so, the VEIC existed as a consulting shop and we worked around the country on clean energy programs. But all that changed when Efficiency Vermont was created in 2000 and we successfully won the role of implementer of that work, statewide. That gave us the opportunity to scale up the innovative programmatic ideas that we had been offering through our consulting services and really meet the unique needs of the businesses and residents of Vermont, which is a rural state with a large low-income population and a strong conservation ethic.

Rebecca Foster: 
After years of operating Efficiency Vermont, we earned a reputation for success and innovation, and then we took large scale programs to very different markets. The District of Columbia, working with the Department of Energy & Environment to implement the DC Sustainable Energy Utility, and also to the Midwest, working with American Municipal Power to implement the Efficiency Smart program across their territory. Today, we have a staff of over 300 across the country, we work in about 25 states at any given time, and we really pride ourselves on continuing to push the envelope on decarbonization and equity in everything that we do. One thing we say is that at VEIC, we don't just look to the future, we live and work in it every day.

Jason Price: 
For sure. So, policy and regulation often plays a key driving role in new efficiency programs, as well. So, how does VEIC fit into those policy-making processes?

Rebecca Foster: 
We work in the policy arena in several different ways where we are the large scale program implementer, such as in DC and in Vermont. We work with policymakers constantly to identify where the current statutes and regulations may fall short in terms of meeting the needs that we're seeing on the ground, and that's led to innovations like new program performance metrics outside of the electricity sector for things like greenhouse gas reduction and green jobs and deep energy retrofits. But in addition to that, we also work for our consulting practice to provide input on proposed policies across the country. And in that work, what we're typically trying to do is share what we've learned, through our implementations, what we've learned works well and what doesn't, and also, increase the focus on greenhouse gas reduction and serving vulnerable communities in states across the country. And so, there's two tracks to our policy work, I would say.

Jason Price: 
That's very helpful. So, as a leader in the energy efficiency space, I want to give you the floor to comment on the state of energy efficiency programs across the country. Where do you see programs stand today and how have you seen them evolve? And can you call out any states that you would describe as market leaders, as well as those who may be laggards?

Rebecca Foster: 
Well, I would say it's a challenging and exciting time for efficiency programs right now. Challenging because the programs of the past are fading as new codes and standards take effect, and I see many program administrators asking what's next and maybe not having great answers for that question. But it's also a really exciting time, because those changes are forcing innovation and they're forcing new ways of reaching customers. They're breaking down silos and we're seeing things like core energy efficiency programs start to merge with renewables programs or with storage programs or with demand response and flexible load management programs, and that is incredibly exciting. I won't name the laggards, I don't want to get in trouble, but I will say that the leaders that I see are the District of Columbia, California, Hawaii, Vermont, those are all great examples of leaders. VEIC works in each of those states, and what I think really distinguishes them is that those states have recognized that yesterday's efficiency programs can be pivoted to provide the most cost-effective greenhouse gas reductions out there.

Rebecca Foster: 
Policymakers in each of those states really see efficiency programs for what they are, which is existing program delivery vehicles with the infrastructure, the knowhow, the systems, the people in place to meet the challenge of today, which is climate change. So, those are very exciting states to be working in, and VEIC is very proud of the work that we've done in those areas.

Jason Price: 
Rebecca, I want to talk more about that pivot you mentioned. So, we've seen utility efficiency programs focus on the easy wins: more efficient appliances, turning off lights, switching to CFL and LEDs. Today, though, efficiency programs are able to do more complex and nuanced programs. What are some of the goals of efficiency programs today and what are the new opportunities available to reach them?

Rebecca Foster: 
Oh, I'm so glad you brought that up. It's understandable that many efficiency programs have focused on those easy wins, that's where we've come from as an industry. Like you said at the start, I've worked in energy efficiency and clean energy my whole career, so I have been part of those programs, I've seen the real benefits they provide. But looking at where we are today, when I see portfolios with only those easy win programs, what I see now are lost opportunities to go deeper and deliver the full value of clean energy. And while policy goals can really vary from state to state, what VEIC is seeing in the leading states where we work, is we're seeing this pivot to efficiency programs to meet new climate and equity goals, also. So, I'll give you some examples. First, in the District of Columbia, we are standing up a new program, with the Department of Energy & Environment and the DC Green Bank, to help owners of multifamily affordable housing comply with the district's Building Energy Performance Standards.

Rebecca Foster: 
So, this effort really brings together a policy requirement for all buildings in the district to comply with ever-increasing Building Energy Performance Standards and the programmatic support from the DC Sustainable Energy Utility, which VEIC operates, to help the low-income affordable housing sector meet those standards and bring them the resources that they need to do so, really of preserving affordability, improving the housing stock, improving indoor air quality and the overall condition of these low-income multifamily buildings. So, that's a great example of a new thing that's being done in a more traditional efficiency setting. A couple of other examples, one in Vermont, we were recognized recently by ACEEE as the only program in the country that uses energy burden, which is the percent of a family's income going to its energy cost, as a qualification criterion for our low-income programs. So, again, taking that efficiency program structure, that history, and modifying it to really focus on new needs, in this case, increasing equity and bringing more resources to families who face high energy burdens.

Rebecca Foster: 
In Maryland, through our consulting work, we've supported the People's Council in a long process, with the utilities and other stakeholders, to reenvision the goals of the EmPOWER Maryland programs, and pivot those to focus on greenhouse gas reduction as opposed to electricity savings, so that's very exciting. And then last example I'll give is in California, where VEIC is a partner on a statewide initiative called TECH Clean California. That initiative is working to decarbonize the heating sector through heat pump water heaters and base heating pumps, and ensuring that 40% of the benefits of those programs go to underserved communities. So, again, taking that traditional efficiency program structure, that delivery mechanism, and pivoting it to, one, focus on decarbonization, but, two, focus on equity and ensuring that benefits go to the people who need the most. So, those are all great examples of how efficiency programs maybe started in a more traditional way, doing lighting programs, doing direct install programs, and now are shifting to deliver more than just electricity, to bring those savings to communities that really need them, and to become a real greenhouse gas reduction tool for policymakers.

Jason Price: 
Sure. And I have an equity question I want to follow-up with. Energy Central, we've seen and we've had a number of utilities talk about successful ways of integrating energy efficiency programs into their practices, and I'm sure there's also frustrations with some communities that are falling behind. Can you speak to what happens when some of those efforts have fallen short? What tends to be the missing ingredient in those instances?

Rebecca Foster: 
Absolutely. I think we all recognize how important equity is in everything that we do. As a leader of a non-profit organization that's been working in this space for 35 years, I'm very glad to see the attention that's being paid to equity today. I also won't deny that the regulatory environment is hard right now. Efficiency programs are being asked to do it all: maintain high cost effectiveness without LED lighting, do it while codes and standards are increasing, and deliver more and more benefits to underserved communities. That's a tough balance, but finding the right path is essential. If you care about climate, if you care about justice, if you care about the economy, you have to focus on equity and clean energy. And when I see efforts to better serve vulnerable communities falling short, it's usually due to two reasons. First, the programs may not have the right consulting support to map out programs that meet these new goals. The clean energy portfolio of the future is much more complex, and some consultants aren't really truly grounded in equity and those efforts can fall short.

Rebecca Foster: 
So, one is really a planning shortfall, where the folks who are doing the planning and putting the portfolios together with the utilities or the other program administrators are not really grounded in equity work and not able to create the portfolio that will balance all of those competing priorities. And then the second shortcoming I see is the programs themselves may not be connected enough to those vulnerable communities to know what their needs really are. It's absolutely not enough to have a couple of community meetings and then check the box thinking that you're good to go on your equity goal, that's not how it works. And in many instances, there is a real, sustained lack of trust between the energy program administrators and the underserved communities they're trying to reach.

Rebecca Foster: 
And without that trust, without going deep with those communities, finding community partners who will build bridges and make connections, programs are ultimately going to fail to reach the families and the business owners who need the benefits of clean energy the most. So, I think that those are the things I would draw attention to and really encourage all program administrators to pay attention to, is how are you integrating equity goals in your portfolio, what are the trade-offs that you're making as you plan out your portfolio, and how connected are you to the community so that you understand the needs that are existing, you know how you're going to address them, and you have the partners, who are deep within the communities, that are going to help you reach the audiences that you need to reach?

Jason Price: 
Rebecca, for our audience, they come from the utility industry, but they may have no idea what's going on in the energy efficiency side of the business. So, walk us through a use case of a successful integration or collaboration that you've had with a utility, and how you get from the establishing of the efficiency goals to actually delivering them with customized programs. Are there any steps standardized, or is each new engagement with utility completely unique?

Rebecca Foster: 
Yeah, that's a great question. There is an example I would give from our work in Vermont. I guess I'll start back in 2019 when the legislature in Vermont started asking Efficiency Vermont, the program VEIC operates, what we could do to better support the state's greenhouse gas reduction goals. And after significant dialogue and a policy-shaping effort in 2020, the legislature passed the Energy Efficiency Modernization Act. This gave Efficiency Vermont the ability to administer pilot greenhouse gas reduction programs, specifically in the transportation sector, so it opened up transportation sector to Efficiency Vermont. That leveraged VEIC's existing expertise in clean transportation and it enabled us to use the powerful Efficiency Vermont brand to increase electric vehicle adoption. So, at the time, and still today, the Vermont electric utilities had existing electric vehicle incentives for customers, and we certainly did not want to duplicate efforts. We knew a joint approach would be most effective.

Rebecca Foster: 
So, VEIC worked with the utilities in Vermont to develop a supportive role for Efficiency Vermont to play, basically asking the question, where are the gaps that exist in driving electric vehicle adoption? What is it that a statewide program like Efficiency Vermont could do that would provide benefits to, and a boost to, all of the specific, distinct electric utility programs across the state? Where we landed after that dialogue and deep consideration was implementing a statewide education and marketing campaign, as well as offering training, charging infrastructure support, and sales incentives to vehicle dealers across the state. And so, all of that work augments and enhances the direct-to-consumer incentives that are offered by the utilities. So, the reason that's a good example, I think, is that we're always, at VEIC, focused on the goals, asking what does the world need us to achieve? But we're also asking how can we get there most efficiently and equitably? Where are the influence points, who are the potential partners, and how can we bring something new to the table?

Rebecca Foster: 
And so, the process we use to go through that set of questions and to work through process, from identifying the goals and making sure those are really grounded and clear and impactful to determining how we're going to address those goals, the process is fairly standardized, but each engagement does yield very different results, especially when working at this cutting edge, especially when working with vulnerable communities, when working on innovative products or services that have not been tried before. The needs on the ground can be very different, the solutions can be very different, and there's no one size fits all.

Jason Price: 
Those are great examples. I feel like I could continue talking to you for another couple hours, but I really appreciate that. But at this point, we have to pivot for a moment and go to what we call the lightning round, which gives our audience an opportunity to learn more about you, the person, as opposed to you, the CEO of VEIC. So, we have, in our lightning round, a series of questions that require either a one word response or phrase. Rebecca, are you ready?

Rebecca Foster: 
I am ready.

Jason Price: 
Okay. Given that you hail from Vermont, assuming you ski, are you a green circle, blue square, or a black diamond skier?

Rebecca Foster: 
I do not ski. I'm an avid snowshoer, though.

Jason Price: 
What's your favorite time of the year?

Rebecca Foster: 
Definitely fall.

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

Rebecca Foster: 
Probably sustainable economic development.

Jason Price: 
Who are your role models?

Rebecca Foster: 
My grandparents who grew up in Eastern Tennessee and lived through the Depression, because they had a tremendous conservation mentality, and also, an outstanding work ethic that I always work to try and emulate.

Jason Price: 
What goals do you have left in your career?

Rebecca Foster: 
It's simple, I want to do as much good as I can, for as long as I can, in as many places as I can.

Jason Price: 
Terrific. You've been a great player of our lightning round. And for being a great sport, that means you get the final word of the episode. So, knowing that we have utility professionals from across the sector listening in today's show, what's the main piece of information you hope they take away from our conversation today?

Rebecca Foster: 
The future is waiting, and VEIC is here to help.

Jason Price: 
Well said. Thank you for that, Rebecca. This has been a great conversation and I'm thrilled to learn more about this important focus on energy efficiency, and as I know, the Energy Central community will, as well. I look forward to reading some of the questions and comments our listeners will have on energycentral.com. For now, we just want to thank you for sharing your insights with us on today's episode of the podcast.

Rebecca Foster: 
Thank you so much. It was great to be here.

Jason Price: 
You can always reach Rebecca through the Energy Central platform, where she welcomes your questions and comments. We also want to give a shout out of thanks to the podcast sponsors that made today's episode possible. Thanks to West Monroe. West Monroe works for 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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