ANNAPOLIS—It is 8 a.m. on a Friday, and Elysian Energy auditor Greg Abbe steps out of his car into the drizzling April rain in a quiet neighborhood in Olney.
He waits at the door of a single-family home, the first of five on his schedule that day, to conduct a free, 90-minute efficient energy checkup for a Maryland homeowner.
Abbe, 29, is one of many energy auditors contracted to the five largest utility companies across the state, which are enrolled in the EmPOWER Maryland Program.
Baltimore Gas and Electric, Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative, Delmarva Power, Potomac Edison and Pepco all work to fulfill the 2008 Empower Maryland Energy Efficiency Act’s goal to become more energy efficient and decrease electricity demand statewide by 15 percent by 2015.
As of 2014, these electric utilities had reached more than 80 percent of this goal, with about a 12 percent reduction, according to the Maryland Public Service Commission. Maryland ranks ninth in the country in its progress toward state energy efficiency policies and programs, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.
Abbe’s trip to Olney was a subset to the EmPOWER Maryland Program known as a free Quick Home Energy Checkup. The service entails a walk-through of a residential home during which an auditor identifies potential areas where the homeowner is losing heat and energy, the usual culprits for higher electricity bills, Abbe said.
The audit also includes the installation of a number of energy-saving items like pipe insulation, low-flow showerheads, and the replacement of installed incandescent light bulbs with up to 12 compact fluorescent light bulbs, according to the involved utilities companies’ websites.
And if you’re a Maryland resident, Elysian Energy marketing coordinator David Zussman said, you’ve already paid for this one-time service through your electricity bills.
“The main point of this particular program is to educate people,” Abbe said as he installed energy-efficient light bulbs over the Olney home’s dining room table. “It’s giving people the tools to make informed decisions rather than people making decisions kind of blindly.”
For more than two decades, the Public Service Commission has required energy companies to provide any program or service that promotes the efficient use and conservation of energy, said Regina L. Davis, the commission’s communications director.
In 2008, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation to amp up the number of energy-efficient programs offered by these utility companies in order to meet the 15 percent electricity reduction goal by 2015. For utility companies to afford these new programs, a surcharge was established in 2009 onto ratepayers’ monthly electricity bills.
The amount of the surcharge on the monthly bill depends on a customer’s usage as well as his utility service provider, and it is calculated based on costs that each utility company paid over the last five years to install these energy efficiency programs, said Marissa Paslick, an adviser to the state’s Public Service Commission.
“The program costs that are actually spent are divided up into equal installments and are spread out over a number of years,” Paslick said. “In one year, they are recovering five years’ worth of program costs.”
The 2015 monthly surcharge has increased significantly since 2010, Paslick said, because the utility companies have installed more programs to reach the 15 percent energy efficiency and electricity reduction goal by Dec. 31, and they’re reaching more participants.
Regulated by the Public Service Commission, each utility company submits semiannual and annual reports to show what it has spent on programs that qualify for reimbursement under the surcharge.
The energy companies’ costs are spread out over five-, 10- and 15-year cycles, so the surcharges will go down a little bit next year because 2016 is the first year that the state’s reimbursement for utility companies’ energy-efficient programs offsets their costs, Paslick said.
And the surcharge is set indefinitely on Maryland residents’ electricity bills until the program’s costs outweigh its benefits.
“Even if we stopped EmPOWER programs today, like if we had no more EmPOWER programs, the surcharge would exist for another four years because it would have to recover for years’ past,” Paslick said.
The program’s budget for each company runs in three-year cycles, and then is reevaluated to ensure cost-effectiveness and an appropriate impact on ratepayers.
“If they didn’t spend all the money in 2012, they could spend it in the next year because it’s approved for three years,” Paslick said. “Utilities can only recover what they’ve actually spent.”
The program-to-date investment in EmPOWER Maryland is projected to yield energy savings in excess of 35.8 billion kilowatt-hours (“kWh”) over the lifetime of the installed measures, equal to $4.089 billion in energy bill savings, according to Davis.
With the average residential ratepayer using around 1,000 kilowatt-hours a month, the predicted amount of saved energy from these reduction programs would be enough to power almost 3 million (about 2,983,333 homes) for a year.
Of the $106 million spent on residential programs in 2014, 75 percent went toward audit and discount programs, like Baltimore Gas and Electric’s Smart Energy Savers Program, that provide rebates and discounts to customers who recycled appliances, used energy-efficient light bulbs and retrieved a portion of their electricity from alternative energy sources.
Twenty-five percent of the money spent went toward the Quick Home Energy Checkups statewide, according to the Public Service Commission.
Yet participation rates in the no-extra-cost program remain low. Even though it’s more than 5 years old, Pepco has the highest rate at 23.5 percent of residents receiving the Quick Home Energy Checkup, and Delmarva has the lowest at 10.4 percent.
Homeowner and Kensington resident Aurelio Baca-Asher said he decided to have the Quick Home Energy Checkup service performed in December because he heard about it from a friend and wanted to be environmentally conscious.
“It was something we wanted to have done for our house because we know we have some points we could improve on, and we wanted some help,” Baca-Asher said. “It’s helped slightly — nothing like I’m saving a ton of money each month, but a little bit here and there — I have seen some savings.”
But, as Abbe wrapped up his 90-minute, free energy audit, he said that even if homes are upgraded to become more energy-efficient, customers need to learn how to live economically energy-wise, too.
“If after all that work is done you then think, ‘Oh, well my house is so much more efficient that I can turn my thermostat up to 70 instead of 68’—your bills aren’t going to get any better,” Abbe said.