Sustainable Connections' policy manager sees new energy future | Q&A

Few programs have been as successful reducing energy use and creating jobs as Bellingham’s Community Energy Challenge, wrote the authors of a recent report on U.S. cities leading a “new energy future.”

The Community Energy Challenge, funded through government grants and coordinated by the nonprofit groups Sustainable Connections and Opportunity Council, combines several programs and partnerships designed to help property owners cut heating and electricity costs through retrofits and weatherization upgrades.

With millions of dollars generated in building projects, the program has led to new job growth in the construction sector. And according to the Community Energy Challenge website, the effort has also prevented the release of more than 7,000 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.

After the program celebrated its two-year anniversary in August, Alex Ramel, a policy and energy manager with Sustainable Connections, spoke about future goals and the road ahead for businesses and homeowners up to the challenge.

BBJ: The Community Energy Challenge’s goals are reducing energy use, boosting economic development and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Is one more difficult to achieve than the others? 

Ramel: I think they’re all equally easy to achieve, and all equally difficult to achieve, because they’re really part and parcel of the same thing. For better or worse, they’re all tied together.

Energy use and greenhouse gas emissions are effectively one in the same thing. It differs a little bit based on the type of energy that you’re using, but those two are interwoven with each other.

From the perspective of energy efficiency, where what you’re doing is reducing energy use by installing new equipment and reducing the use of existing equipment, all of that is tied to construction work. With that, we’re creating jobs and reducing energy use and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

So, the fun part about this work is it’s achieving multiple policy goals simultaneously.

BBJ: Do you think the cost-saving benefits can be used to encourage development of renewable energy sources? 

Ramel: I think you could view it two ways. You could view it as the first step in a long series of necessary steps toward solving our dependence on fossil fuels and all of the problems that go along with that. You could also view it as the easy thing to do that makes sense whether you agree with the notion that we need to reduce fossil fuel use or not.

We don’t need to have that sort of philosophical discussion to agree that cutting your energy bills in cost-effective ways makes sense for businesses and homeowners.

BBJ: Is it easier to attract people with the potential of saving money?

Ramel: That’s absolutely where we start. Many of our clients, both homeowners and business owners, I think are happy that there’s a positive environmental effect to the work that they’re doing. Some of them are also happy that they’re helping stimulate the economy at the same time.

But all of them are looking at the numbers and saying: How much money am I going to save? How long is the project going to take to pay for itself? How much is it going to cost me upfront?

In the end, I think that’s where most of the decision making occurs.

BBJ: Where does the Community Energy Challenge go from here?

Ramel: We’re continuously trying to deepen and improve the program. There’s a lot of interesting opportunities out there. We’re always exploring for ways to save more energy, to deepen the energy efficiency that we can get.

For example, right now we’re saving about 20 percent of the energy in the average home that we work with.

BBJ: How are you doing that? 

Ramel: Typical projects include weatherization, air sealing, duct sealing, insulation, replacing an inefficient furnace with an efficient furnace or a heat pump. Some of our clients have replaced their windows. Some of them put solar panels on.

So, the average project is somewhere in between all of those things. We’d love to find ways to save even more energy on top of that.

For example, LED lighting is a technology that’s been making leaps and bounds over the last few years, and I think is really ready for prime time. The lighting quality is good, it’s dimmable, and the price has come down to the point where when used in fixtures that are used all the time, it will pay for itself in a time period that most people can live with and be happy with.

A year and a half ago, we were really starting to ramp up the use of heat pumps in the program. That wasn’t something we used in the program’s pilot phase.

The continuous improvement in the services we offer to clients and the technologies that we’re using is an ongoing challenge.

BBJ: How is that a challenge? 

Ramel: Just making sure that we’re making the right recommendations to people.

So, if you recommend LED lights in a commercial setting, you want to make sure that the color temperature is good and the spread of the beam is similar to what they had in the lighting they had before. That way you don’t end up with a spotlight where you used to have a floodlight.

You want to make sure that it’s lighting the space in a way that the client’s going to be happy with, especially if you’re talking about a restaurant or a retail space where the mood is really important to the business.

So, just keeping up with technology and best practices is a continuous challenge.

We’ve also set ourselves a goal to expand the program beyond Whatcom County to be able to provide service in Skagit, Island and San Juan counties. We’re just at the starting point of that, but in the next year, I expect to be serving dozens of homes and businesses in those communities as well. So, adding geographic territory is a challenge.

BBJ: The national report said small-city partnerships and initiatives seem to succeed where state and federal lawmakers cannot. Why do you think that is? Are American politicians capable of finding solutions for energy independence?

Ramel: I absolutely think they are capable of it. Whether they are willing to is perhaps another question, but the focus of that particular report was on small cities.

There are big cities that are doing equally compelling work. Some state governments are taking decisive action, and I place Washington state among them.

The Community Energy Challenge and the six sister programs like it around Washington state are currently funded through our state Legislature. We’re organized at the local level, but we’re funded through the state government. So decisive action is happening at other levels of government as well.

But I think the question is still a valid one. Smaller governments overseeing populations of 150,000 or less, which is what the report was focusing on, I think are more capable of taking baby steps.

What we did was take a very narrow set of things, said these are our goals, this is what we’re going to do, we’re going to work with homeowners and small businesses, and we have been able to focus, whereas larger governments have a tendency to try to do everything. So, it’s easier on a small scale to take a bite-size piece.

Contact Evan Marczynski at or call 360-647-8805.

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