Fridays in the Field #2: Talking Energy Efficiency with Bill Dornbos of Environment Northeast

ENE and CFE are closely allied in our commitment to expanding energy efficiency, and often partner to advocate for stronger policies and investment in Hartford.

(The organizations released a joint paper about effective efficiency programs earlier this year.) Bill Dornbos is Connecticut Director of ENE, an advocacy organization with a specialty in environmental and energy policy in the northeast. Speaking with Bill is Kevin Kromash, blogger for CFE/Save the Sound.

Kevin Kromash: Hi Bill, welcome to “Fridays in the Field.” Let’s start by discussing what ENE works on in Connecticut.

Bill Dornbos: Sure. Our priorities fall into two broad categories. The first is about transforming our energy system—moving it towards a sustainable, low-carbon, clean energy system. The second is climate change policy reform, which is, at the highest level, how we transform the economy, and bring down emissions in all different sectors—not just in the energy system, but also transportation, buildings, land use, and other parts of the economy.

ENE’s approach is to push for policy change through policy analysis and advocacy. We focus on the power of facts to support policy change. Our number one priority has been maximizing energy efficiency. That is because energy efficiency is such a clear win-win, economically and environmentally. It’s the easiest thing we can do right now to start to address climate change. We try to get state officials to view cost-effective energy efficiency as an actual resource; to think of it as a fuel. The cheapest watt of energy is the watt you never consume.

Kevin: If there is big money to be made in saving energy, why does the problem still exist?

Bill: That’s a great question. There are many market barriers that lead to energy efficiency not being pursued in the full amount that it should be. One example of such a market barrier is the landlord-tenant problem, where the tenant pays the utility bills, so the landlord has no incentive to install more efficient appliances or equipment, or to weatherize the building. That’s called the “split incentives” challenge.

There are also education and information barriers. People don’t know that much about energy efficiency still. They are very used to thinking about things like mortgages and car loans, but they don’t fully understand that energy efficiency measures like insulation, air sealing, or more efficient furnaces can pay back much faster than other investments.

We need to create policies at the state, regional, and federal levels to help overcome market barriers. That’s what the state energy efficiency programs try to do: to overcome specific market barriers by using incentives, rebates, discounted financing, and technical education and assistance.

Kevin: Can you give a sense of the scale of the opportunity?

Nationally, the most recent estimate, released just a couple months ago, is that something like 61% of energy is wasted. That’s all the way from generation to transmission and distribution and end uses. So that means most of the energy we produce just goes to waste. A lot of it is lost as heat from power plants or transmission lines, but also from inefficiency in buildings, homes, cars, appliances, and electronics.

Kevin: ENE thinks of itself not just as a think tank, but an “action tank” of sorts. After ENE develops a solution, what are some of the methods that you use to implement it?

Bill: Once we have developed a policy approach that we think makes sense, we work in many different venues to get that policy implemented. We work within different regulatory processes, with policymakers of all kinds, and with other stakeholders here in Connecticut to raise awareness about the policy solutions that are available. We also work in the media and issue reports to advance these different policy solutions.

One of the things we are best known for are the state-level energy efficiency councils we helped to create. These are stakeholder councils that pull together state agencies, business allies, consumer and low-income advocates, and environmental groups like us. This creates a forum where everybody can come together to figure out the best path forward through a planning process, rather than tripping over each other in other arenas. It can be a challenge, but it is a rewarding challenge.

Kevin: On the personal side, perhaps you can say a few words on what inspired you to do this type of work.

Bill: I grew up in the Midwest, and growing up, my dad was really into the outdoors. So we used to do stuff like camping, hiking, canoeing, hunting—and I really came to love the outdoors. When I got to the point where I needed to figure out what I was going to do with my life, I decided to find a way to use my skills to help try and protect the natural world. It’s hard to talk about your passions as an environmentalist without sounding clichéd.

Kevin: But it’s not clichéd if it’s true.

Bill: True. And in the last five years, I’ve been much more interested in issues that pertain to climate change—it’s such a huge threat. I’m about to have a daughter, and I want to see if I can leave her a slightly better world, a climate-safe one.

Kevin: One more personal question: can you describe one challenge of your job, and one joy that you get from it?

Bill: That’s a good question. One challenge is that lately Connecticut has had a lot of change in energy policy. That is a positive development, but at the same time, as an advocate, you’ve got to try to stay on top of those issues. That’s a real challenge, especially in the energy system, which is, at times, incredibly arcane.

Kevin: What about the joy?

Bill: The joy is that this job actually gives me a chance to, in some shape or form, make a difference from time to time. It’s incredibly rewarding when you work on an issue, and then you see it become a reality. That’s really exciting and hopeful, and tells me that we should still have hope about tackling the big issues, like climate change.

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