The current economic climate has everyone trying to save money as best they can. According to utility company AmerenUE’s senior vice president of customer operations Richard J. Mark, one way you can save is on your utility bill. Mark, who’s been with the Missouri-based company for eight years, recently spoke to BET about energy efficiency and how it can benefit our wallets and the environment.
BET.com: One of your big projects has been the Strategic Customer Initiative. Please explain what that is.
Mark: Our customer initiative is focused in three different areas that we think are going to be the important areas that will affect the customer in the future. And when we say future, we’re talking in the short term of five years, intermediate term of 10 [years] and long term of 15 [years] and beyond. We think that those three areas are:
1. Energy Efficiency – We hear talk every day about the country adopting an energy policy, how important it is to conserve energy and our natural resources, our dependence on foreign oil, how we’re going to clean up the air. So, what we’re focusing on is how the customer can best utilize the energy they receive at their home, how they can save on energy, and by using less, it’s going to cost them less and at the same time it’s benefiting the environment because if energy usage in the United States decreases then so will the need to build more power plants and our dependence on foreign oil. We have a number of things that we’re doing in Illinois and Missouri to try and educate our customers about how they can save and develop programs that they can take advantage of to save.
2. Smart Grid Strategy – At Ameren, our smart grid strategy is really based around making our infrastructure – our grid – as reliable as possible and to cut our energy losses that naturally occur whenever you have a large electric infrastructure. We have over 2 million electric customers and a million gas customers, and we have quite an extensive electric infrastructure. So, we look at how we can improve that grid, strengthen it – because the primary concern of our customers is reliability – and keep the cost down by eliminating losses by making it what we call an automated and self-healing type of grid. So, if you have a fault or an outage on the grid, we can do automated switching – switching the electric current, sending it into that area – and the customer wouldn’t notice the outage in their area whatsoever. As we become more dependent on electronics as a nation, electric becomes more important, so one of the things that we hear from our customers is that reliability is extremely important in their day-to-day lives. Nothing makes people realize the importance of electronics and electric more than when you have an outage.
3. Distributive Generation – We believe that both our commercial and residential customers are looking at what other sources of electric generation will be possible in the future. We hear a lot of talk about wind power and wind turbines [on the commercial side], but on the residential side you hear a lot of talk about solar energy. So, people want to know if I install a solar panel on my house what does it do for me, how will it benefit me, how will it cut my energy costs? What are the benefits of wind? Are there any other types of distributive generation such as battery storage? What’s going to happen with electric vehicles? If I have an electric vehicle, will your grid be able to support it? Those are the types of questions that we’re answering for our customers through this program to make them more informed consumers in the future.
BET.com: A lot of that initiative speaks directly to the larger green movement in America. How involved are you in the green movement?
Mark: I don’t know, for me, if it’s a green movement. It’s a conservation movement. A lot of times when utility companies have a rate increase we hear from customers about their ability to pay. As we push toward more environmental ways of creating electric, there is going to be increased costs. So, my thought is that the best way for a customer to hold their cost level and not be subjected to some of the normal increases that we’re going to see over the next 20 years is through energy efficiency.
I looked at my own home and I found that we waste a lot of electric. When you look at the simple things in your house, for example, that extra refrigerator in your garage or in your basement. Most of the time it’s an old one that you took out of your kitchen when you got a new one and you put it in the garage. Well, that’s not a very efficient refrigerator in the first place, which is probably why you replaced it. And secondly, since it’s in the garage, instead of in the house, if it becomes hotter in the garage, it’s using a lot more electric and since it is less energy efficient, it’s costing anywhere from $15 - $20 extra a month. Look at all the appliances that you have plugged in at your house. Whether it’s your computer, cell phone chargers, cordless battery chargers, if those things are plugged in, they’re using electric. One night I was sitting in my family room, the lights were kind of dim and I looked around and saw a green light here and a red light there. There were all these little lights on every appliance running and I thought, ‘This is a waste of electric. How can I turn this off?’
And if you look at people who are really struggling to pay their bills, their homes aren’t always the most insulated; they’re not conserving energy. So, one of my motivations is, the more we can educate those consumers to take some safeguards and do some simple things to help weatherize their homes, conserve on energy, helping them do that will reduce their bill and clean our environment at the same time. At Ameren, our goal in Missouri is that by energy conservation we feel we will be able to reduce our energy usage by 2020 by about 540 megawatts, the size of a brand-new medium sized power plant that we will not have to build if we can be successful at convincing our customers to save energy. By not having to build that plant, it benefits our customers and our environment.
BET.com: You’ve already mentioned a few, but what are some other energy efficiency tips we can all use?
Mark: There are some simple tips first. Those simple things our parents taught us as children – turn off the lights when you’re not in a room. That’s one of the best things, but having that extra refrigerator… you will be surprised by how much extra electric those things use. If you have a refrigerator that’s more than eight to 10 years old, it’s probably not very efficient so I would try to replace it if you can. A lot of states and utilities companies now have rebate programs so customers can take advantage of that. If they see that rebate and they have a refrigerator that is 10 to 12 years old, they can probably save $5 to $10 a month by replacing it with a new Energy Star refrigerator. Any appliance that you get should have that Energy Star label. You should also regularly clean the filters in your air conditioners and furnace. By keeping those clean and keeping debris from outside around the air conditioning unit will help reduce their energy bill.
If you are going to update [your home] or do some renovations, get the best energy efficient windows you can get and improve the insulation in your home. If you can’t afford to get new windows, make sure you caulk around the outside of the windows and during the winter months try to get some weatherization kits to try to seal around those windows to keep the draft out and the heat in. The other thing that everyone can do, and utility companies have a lot of programs that are giving away free compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), is replace your standard light bulbs with CFLs. Those will save you energy, they last longer and they will cut down on the lighting bill in your home. If you’re looking at buying a new air conditioner or furnace, if you spend the extra couple of hundred to buy the one that’s more energy efficient, and look for that Energy Star on the certification, it could save you thousands of dollars over the life of that unit on your energy bill because they are that much more efficient. The ones being made today are 10 to 20 percent more efficient than ones made even five or six years ago and if yours is older than that then you will get even more benefit from it.
And when you get your monthly bill, don’t look at how much it costs but look at how much you use. Look at the kilowatts, kilowatt-hours of electric or therms that you use, and try to ask yourself how you can reduce that number every month because you can track that number. As you implement these tips, you’ll see that number go down. There are also energy saving tips on your local utility’s website, we have them on Ameren.com. The Department of Energy also has useful tips on their website or at your local library you can go there as well.
I encourage anyone who is concerned about their monthly budget to learn as much as they can about how to conserve energy in their home. It will benefit them, our society and our environment.