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Vail Resorts has teamed with Holy Cross Energy to test energy-efficient snowmaking equipment. Incentives targeting large customers in the recreation and hospitality industries are helping Holy Cross reach its ambitious energy savings goals. (Photo by Vail Resorts)

Team building, communication mark first year of Holy Cross efficiency program

Mary Wiener’s first year in her first utility job has taught her many lessons about the industry, about life in the Roaring Fork Valley and about the unique challenges of reducing energy consumption in a resort and recreation community. One thing the Energy Efficiency Program manager for Holy Cross Energy didn’t have to learn is the value of collaboration.

As she sheds her “novice” status, Wiener is focusing on building partnerships to increase awareness and participation for Holy Cross’s energy-efficiency rebate programs. If Holy Cross is to reduce its energy consumption by 33,000 megawatt-hours (MWh) over the next five years—the stated goal of its energy-efficiency plan—no customer class can be left behind. From year-round residents and shop owners to large vacation home owners and energy-intensive ski resorts, the utility is expanding its outreach.

Big thinking

One strategy for achieving deep energy savings is to go after the biggest energy consumers. Holy Cross's new Think BIG grant, a competitive energy-efficiency incentive, invites the territory's top 20 users to ask themselves, "How much energy could I save with this much money?"

Large commercial customers can apply for a grant of up to $400,000 or 50 percent of eligible project costs, for projects that save a minimum of 500,000 kilowatt-hours annually. The program will award up to $1 million for projects to be completed by Dec. 31, 2014. "This is an opportunity for individual organizations or groups to get funding for visionary projects that might otherwise be capped under our other rebate programs," said Wiener. "We are encouraging facilities and homeowners associations to team up to submit grants."

The Think BIG grant was inspired by the success of Holy Cross partnering with Vail Resorts to install an energy-efficient compressor on the resort's snowmaking cannon. The costly project received rebates and in return, saved more than 2,800 MWh, contributing significantly to Holy Cross's annual goal of 6,600 MWh.

A little help from friends

Holy Cross's new on-bill financing program will help bring the goal closer still by removing a critical barrier to both large and small energy-saving projects. The utility teamed up with the Bank of Colorado to offer low-interest loans to homes and businesses for energy-efficiency upgrades. Homeowners will be able to finance such projects as air sealing and insulation and efficient windows, while businesses can get financing to replace inefficient motors, refrigeration or lighting.
 
For the first time, several nonprofit energy agencies in the Roaring Fork Valley will be helping Wiener to promote on-bill financing and other rebates. Clean Energy Economy for the Region, Community Office for Resource Efficiency, Eagle Valley Alliance for Sustainability and EnergySmart are collaborating to reach out to small business owners and higher-use residential customers, one on one.

"That personal connection is so important to getting customers to follow through on energy-efficiency projects," Wiener observed. "But like many cooperatives, Holy Cross just doesn't have a big member services department. Those extra 'boots on the ground' will free us up to focus more on large custom projects." 

Bring in a ringer

Even with the partnership's help in educating customers about rebates and incentives, Holy Cross couldn't ignore a more fundamental obstacle facing its energy-efficiency program. "There are just too many people who can't even tell you who their utility is," Wiener pointed out. 

Recognizing that Holy Cross didn't have the expertise or in-house staff to conduct a public relations campaign, the co-op's board of directors issued a request for proposals last spring. The board's communications committee selected Impact Marketing Aspen from the eight marketing agencies that responded. Wiener had worked with Impact Marketing at EnergySmart, and is excited about the prospect of doing so again. "We want to go beyond simple name recognition—we want our customers to understand what it means to get their electricity from a cooperative," she explained. "It helps to have a specialist to communicate that message."

The marketing blitz has so far included newspaper ads, Holy Cross's first radio ads and a revamp of the co-op's quarterly newsletter. The strategy Impact Marketing presented to the board in November highlights energy efficiency and Holy Cross's status as a nonprofit power provider. "We are starting from a relatively strong position, since co-ops generally enjoy a higher level of trust from their members," Wiener said. "Also, having a board that appreciates the importance of marketing our services is a big advantage."

A few small adjustments

With so many new programs rolled out in the last year, it might seem like Mary Wiener has completely overhauled the Holy Cross energy-efficiency program. But the rebates themselves have changed very little, she asserted. "The new programs are mainly just tools to deliver the incentives that have been successful in the past," Wiener said. "You have to keep the program consistent or customers get confused."

The program still has to respond to new information, technology and consumer habits, however. Wiener said that Holy Cross will be analyzing the results of window upgrades receiving rebates to see if the performance is worth the investment.

An uptick in the use of air conditioning is another issue that calls for a closer look, she noted. Both commercial and residential customers have been installing air conditioners in buildings that previously had no mechanical cooling systems. “Because of the region’s mild summers, few older buildings have central air conditioning,” Wiener explained. “But people are coming here from parts of the country where homes and businesses are always cooled, and that is what feels ‘normal’ to them.”

Those customers may not even be aware of evaporative coolers (ECs), since the technology is not as effective in more humid climates. “Offering a rebate for ECs might get them to consider a more efficient system that works just as well as air conditioning in the Rocky Mountains,” Wiener said.

Wiener believes in getting people to think outside the box, something she learned to do at EnergySmart that carried over to the utility industry. Her experience working with contractors and other energy services vendors has also served her well as a utility program manager. But the most important skill, she added, may be salesmanship. “You have to have an answer for every reason the customer gives for not doing an upgrade,” said Wiener. “Ultimately, the energy program manager’s job is to convince customers that energy efficiency is a good investment, even in a down economy.”

And with that philosophy, Energy efficiency Program Manager Mary Wiener is off to a flying start at Holy Cross Energy.

 

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