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Commentary Energy & Environment

Opinion: Harnessing the power of EmPOWER – from energy efficiency to greenhouse gas reductions

Grid photo by Pok Rie.

By Jason M. Stanek

The writer is chair of the Maryland Public Service Commission. 

Maryland’s EmPOWER program is one of the country’s leading energy efficiency and demand response programs, but it could be much more than that. In the early 2000s, Maryland’s regional power market, PJM, warned that increasing electricity consumption could overwhelm the grid. The concern was that Maryland would soon face weather-related reliability challenges, much like what Texas has faced in recent years when demand of electricity exceeded available supply.

The Maryland General Assembly responded with the EmPOWER Act in 2008, requiring overall reductions in electricity consumption and usage during periods of high demand. Today’s climate change challenges no longer require energy efficiency, they require a new focus on a broader definition of smarter energy usage that goes beyond simply reducing electric consumption.

Over the past 14 years, under the direction of the Public Service Commission, Maryland’s utilities have consistently delivered. The EmPOWER program has been cost effective, delivering $1.50 in benefits for every dollar spent. The program has saved over 14 million megawatt hours of electricity. Incidentally, the program has avoided over 10 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps the most direct impact is that monthly average energy usage has dropped from 1,000 to 850 kwh for Baltimore Gas and Electric alone. Until recently, despite rising distribution rates, monthly bills remained largely steady (when adjusted for inflation) due to these efficiency gains.

In the past two years, the PSC has led an effort to shape the future success of this program. Changes are coming to energy efficiency. Over time, federal standards have “caught up” to many of the products and services the program currently provides.

Maryland’s priorities are also changing. Today, ambitious climate change goals dictate the need for immediate and cost-effective greenhouse gas reductions. Sen. Brian Feldman (D-Montgomery) and Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) have introduced the result of that process — a bill that would harness the successful program infrastructure of EmPOWER as a greenhouse gas reduction program. Transitioning EmPOWER into a permanent program and opening the door for new program offerings will encourage smarter, cleaner use of energy.

Under the new paradigm, utilities could offer electrification programs to help customers convert their energy use away from fossil fuels. In addition, the utilities could offer programs to support essential state policies related to transportation electrification and adoption of clean energy resources. The contours of this new program remain to be seen, but legislative action is necessary to unlock this potential.

Our new EmPOWER program would also require that a goal be set to serve a greater number of low income households. One in five Marylanders is considered to be “low income” and they often have less ability to manage their utility usage. Maryland’s low income EmPOWER program provides comprehensive weatherization services — which is an incredibly expensive home improvement project. While a $200 rebate may be enough incentive to purchase a new energy efficient refrigerator, it is not enough to pay for a new roof or structural repairs that are required before energy efficiency improvements can be made.

These low income programs are expensive and not cost-effective. However, reducing overall usage is the best way to help this population as low income Marylanders often spend more than 20% of their monthly income for utility services. These customers deserve to take advantage of EmPOWER programs and setting a goal to serve them is an important first step.

As Maryland strives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 60% by 2031 and reach net zero emissions by 2045, the EmPOWER program will be a powerful force in continuing to provide energy efficiency, conservation and demand response programs. With this new transition to a greenhouse gas reduction goal, EmPOWER will also support electric vehicle adoption, electrification of heating and even rooftop solar and battery installations. Now is the time to use every tool we have to reach Maryland’s aggressive climate goals — and the PSC’s transition of the EmPOWER program will certainly get us there.


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Opinion: Harnessing the power of EmPOWER – from energy efficiency to greenhouse gas reductions