Canadian utilities cultivate a ‘conservation culture’

By Betsy Loeff, contributing writer

If you’re looking for role model utilities that know how to sell “green” living, look north to Ontario, Canada. There, utilities have full-throttle campaigns under way to support their government’s goal of creating a “conservation culture” among electricity consumers.

Last year, Toronto Hydro-Electric System Ltd. won a “best environmental program” award for its Peaksaver load-shedding program. Customers get $25 if they let the utility install a device that will cycle off their air conditioners in 20-minute intervals any time the utility sends a signal during critical consumption peaks.

It wasn’t the technology of Peaksaver that earned Toronto Hydro kudos. It was the marketing, which was so effective the utility signed up more than 24,000 of its 678,000 customers in 2006, far more than an early goal of enrolling 2,600 customers by the middle of that year. By the end of 2008, managers hope to have nearly 50,000 in the program. At this point, some 38,000 have taken the utility up on its offer.

There is no recurring financial reward for participating in the program. However, the utility launched vigorous public education aimed at getting consumers to join Peaksaver and take other conservation actions for environmental reasons. And, altruism sells.

“We had people calling up and saying, ‘I would have joined Peaksaver for nothing. It’s the right thing to do,'” recalls utility spokeswoman, Catherine Parry. She says government research indicates those green souls equal about 20 percent of the population. Toronto Hydro’s initial offer of $25 brought many of them into the Peaksaver fold.

Once some 30,000 were enrolled in the program, sign-ups reached a plateau. After upping the sign-up payment, another enrollment spike followed.

“That, to me, indicates there is a group who will do these programs because they think they should. But, you hit your saturation with that group, and you’ll have to increase your incentive,” Parry adds.

Spreading the word
Parry and her team launched their Peaksaver campaign with an event that brought government officials, the media and others to the lobby of the utility’s head office. On a large screen, utility staffers showed the load-reduction impact of a Peaksaver signal. It garnered much media coverage, Parry says.

Program marketing didn’t stop there. The utility hit it hard on its website, in newsletters and billing inserts, through advertising, as well as through weekly news releases spotlighting local businesses that “walk the talk” of the conservation culture.

Last year, the Toronto Hydro team took on hypothermic offices in a “summer challenge” designed to inspire building operators and tenants to cut electricity use 10 percent in exchange for a 10 percent billing credit. Launched on the first day of summer with a fashion show called “Fashion Thrills without the Chills,” the program drew heavily on research supporting a warm-up-your-office message.

A utility-sponsored poll showed that 31 percent of Toronto’s workers found offices “too cold.” More than half said they adapted their dress to accommodate nippy environs. Some even used space heaters under their desks to combat the Siberian settings of the office thermostat. Utility staffers capitalized on these views of workplace “meat-locker syndrome” to prompt workers to dress lighter and turn down the a/c. According to Parry, businesses account for about 80 percent of the utility’s load.

More cool ideas
Toronto Hydro isn’t the only Canadian utility taking on global warming. Hydro Ottawa designed the first provincial “Fridge Bounty” program designed to get energy-hungry appliances out of kitchens and “beer fridges” out of people’s garages. The program offered free pick-up and environmentally sound disposal of the energy guzzlers. Utilities throughout the province are now using that program.

Hydro Ottawa also had admirable conservation results in trials associated with its advanced metering rollout. Consumers piloting smart meters — and the time-of-use rates they enable — cut consumption by 6 percent, notes Owen Mahaffy, the utility’s metering systems program manager.

“Smart metering is the foundation of conservation programs,” he says. “It turns information into knowledge, so that people can react.”

Of course, the meters also are “the way we monitor and assess the effectiveness of demand response programs,” Mahaffy notes. But, given success so far, that effectiveness should be substantial.

Together, Toronto Hydro, Hydro Ottawa and four of Ontario’s other largest electricity distributors have had remarkable success in shifting and cutting demand. A report produced by these six utilities indicates that, in 2006, they jointly slashed electricity consumption by 413,065,155 kilowatt hours. That’s “enough to power 45,896 homes for one year,” the report concludes.

Betsy Loeff has been freelancing for the past 15 years from her home in Golden, Colo. She has been covering utilities for almost four years as a contributor to AMRA News, the monthly publication of the Automatic Meter Reading Association.

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