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OPINION: Will Nevada PUC lighten up the holidays with gift of efficiency?


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LAS VEGAS – Glimmering lights are part of Nevada’s identity, but those now decking homes across the state during the holidays provide an additional backdrop for a story that offers the promise of true giving – potential savings of millions of dollars for consumers on their electricity bills.

The Public Utilities Commission of Nevada is currently deliberating the future of energy efficiency programs for the state’s largest utility, NV Energy, and rebates for energy efficient residential and business lighting are included in that package. The lighting rebates, which provide discounts to residents who buy highly efficient LEDs and CFLs, have been some of the utility’s most cost-effective and far-reaching programs.

The commission is expected to make a decision on the utility’s 2013-15 efficiency budget before Christmas.

“Switching out inefficient incandescent lights for far superior LEDs and compact fluorescents is one of the most effective ways that Nevadans can make their homes more efficient and save money on their monthly electricity bills,” said Howard Geller, the executive director of the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project.

The residential lighting rebate program was suspended in 2011, and one of the most important decisions the three-member PUC will have to make this month is the level of funding NV Energy should spend on restarting it. NV Energy has proposed an investment of $5.3 million over three years in southern Nevada.

Full funding for the program, however – $7.8 million over three years – would help 100,000 more people take advantage of the rebates, replace 2.2 million bulbs (1 million more than under NV Energy’s preferred plan) and increase total customer savings to $14.4 million on their utility bills ($5.8 million more than under NV Energy’s plan).

Geller testified on the matter before the PUC in November and told the commission that the residential lighting program’s popularity and effectiveness merit the maximum investment possible, with every utility dollar ultimately providing a 178 percent return on investment to the utility’s customers. With highly efficient LEDs and CFLs costing more than older incandescent bulbs, Geller said, the rebate program helps consumers get over the first cost hurdle to installation and the eventual savings.

Plus, it’s good for retailers.

National consumer electronics retailer Best Buy, for example, recently introduced its own product line of new LED lighting that has the shape of an incandescent bulb and a new softer lighting quality. The bulbs come in 40-watt and 60-watt equivalents and retail for $13.99 and $16.99 respectively. They use 75 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs and are designed to have a product life of more than 22 years. Best Buy has 10 stores in Nevada.

Consumers who purchase the bulbs, said Richard Rommel, senior vice president of exclusive brands for Best Buy, will be “earning back the cost of the bulb in energy savings within one to two years, depending on usage.”

On the commercial building front, rebates through NV Energy’s Sure Bet Commercial program, which helps businesses replace old lighting with more efficient bulbs – as well as retrofitting other equipment, such as older inefficient air conditioning units – have proven as successful and beneficial as the residential program.

Almost exactly a year ago, Don Apodaca took over as the executive director of facilities at John Ascuaga’s Nugget in Sparks. One of the first tasks he undertook was an energy efficiency overhaul that included swapping out, as a starter, 500 energy-intensive 200-watt bulbs in the casino’s trade-show pavilion with highly efficient 12.5-watt LEDs and replacing older, inefficient air-conditioning units.

The lighting alone, which cost $6,300 to install after a $4,700 rebate from NV Energy, has led to substantial savings, Apodaca said, paying for itself in just two months. The rebate program, he said, “has really been a great tool to get projects started and push them through the budgeting process.”

While there’s not much of a wow factor for guests – “There’s no whistles and bells. If you walk in you wouldn’t know we had replaced every bulb,” he said – there is for Apodaca.

“It’s truly amazing when you consider that you’re installing a light that uses just 5 percent the amount of energy as the old one,” he said. “But the benefit is also way more than just the 12.5 watts and all the energy saved by the LEDs.

“There’s labor savings because we only have to change light bulbs every seven years instead of annually. There’s book-keeping and inventory savings because we’re not constantly ordering as many lights for replacement. And there’s huge savings in cooling because the LED lights put out a fraction of the heat that the old ones did.”

Like the residential efficient lighting rebates, however, the commercial program is beset – party because of its popularity – by inadequate funding and inconsistency. Funding in 2011 and 2012 dried up by mid-year, and the inconsistent “start-stop” nature of the rebates hinders participation and the program’s effectiveness. SWEEP has recommended the PUCN set funding at $54 million over the next three years. Funding at this level would boost the net economic benefits by 70 percent over NV Energy’s preferred plan.

“Having fully funded energy efficient lighting programs for both residential and business customers would be one of the best holiday gifts the Public Utilities Commission could give to Nevada consumers,” Geller said.

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