JEA can improve its underachieving energy efficiency plan by delivering more ambitious savings for low-income customers and adding back the missing programs that led to far higher savings at the utility over the past two years.George Cavros | May 12, 2020
No family should be forced to make the choice between paying their energy bill and purchasing essential needs like food and medicine. The unprecedented and ongoing economic fallout from the COVID-19 crisis is exacerbating an already high energy burden on Florida’s hard-working families. Low-income customers particularly feel the energy burden squeeze – with monthly energy bills consuming a disproportionately high percentage of their household income. JEA’s latest energy efficiency plan fails to rise to the level of need for struggling families, and it omits many of the efficiency programs the utility has operated in recent few years to achieve much higher levels of savings.
Ongoing Economic Hardship
To its credit, JEA, Florida’s largest municipal utility located in Jacksonville, has provided short-term relief by halting utility disconnections due to nonpayment and providing other COVID-19 relief to customers. But the problem of unaffordable energy bills runs much deeper than the current crisis. That’s where investment in energy efficiency programs by JEA – especially in low-income efficiency programs – can really make a difference, reducing energy burdens by lowering household energy use to save money on power bills.
Unfortunately, JEA was one of several utilities that asked the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC) to reduce its efficiency savings goal down to “zero” last fall. Luckily for customers, the PSC stopped the backsliding on goals and required a number of utilities to meet higher levels of conservation – including JEA. Now Florida’s largest utilities are putting forth plans to meet these requirements. JEA’s plan can benefit from more ambition in its low-income program, and more transparency.
Room for Improvement to Meet the Needs of Low-Income Families
Jacksonville has the highest energy burden of any major Florida city. JEA’s plan must meet the critical need of its low-income customers as almost 38% of the population in JEA’s service territory lives at or below 200% of the federal poverty level. Its low-income program, Neighborhood Energy Efficiency, is projected to reach 1,350 eligible low-income customers annually with savings of 1,084 kWh per participant per year. This amounts to a 5% cumulative penetration of eligible customers, with a total of 6,750 low-income customers assisted over the next five years.
While this is a magnitude of times more meaningful than OUC’s (Orlando’s municipal utility) program, it still lacks the ambition of other utilities’ programs. For instance, Tampa Electric – which serves about 50% more customers than JEA – has a program to help 32,500 customers during the same period (almost five times as many). Moreover, Duke Energy Florida’s plan, which projects to reach a slightly higher percentage of eligible customers than JEA, will provide three times the energy savings to each of the families served by its efficiency program for low-income neighborhoods. Utilities in Florida should be learning from one another and deploy strategies used by utilities who are achieving higher performance – particularly with programs serving low-income customers.
JEA’s plan lacks transparency
More transparency is always better than less. The utility and the City have been embroiled in a public controversy over a less-than-transparent proposed sale of the utility – that ultimately led to the firing of the CEO and resignation of its board of directors. The new board intends to provide more public transparency; JEA should do the same in its filings – which should include budget information that is currently lacking in JEA’s proposal but has been provided by its peer utilities in similar filings to the PSC.
Additionally, JEA has apparently implemented meaningful efficiency programs to help customers save energy in past years, but it does not list those programs in its current next five-year plan. These have included programs for customers such as Residential Efficiency Upgrade and Residential Efficiency Products. But JEA does not include these programs in its plans to the PSC. Why not? Without including these programs in the plan, the utility can’t be held accountable for continuing these more meaningful programs going forward. Is it planning to continue the programs, or cut them? We don’t know.
Moreover, JEA is the only utility that included savings from solar net metering to meet its goals. JEA effectively ended its net metering program in 2017 (which is not a utility-sponsored energy savings program anyway). After Southern Alliance for Clean Energy-Earthjustice filed comments opposing the move to include savings its customers are achieving by investing in rooftop solar, JEA amended its plan by removing net metering as a source of utility-sponsored program energy savings.
JEA can be a leader in overall energy savings
It is time for JEA to go back to the drawing board and amend its plan one more time. It should just include the programs it has been offering for the past several years at comparable savings levels. Doing so will provide certainty for JEA customers and take the utility from having one of the worst plans in the state to having one of the best. JEA should also aim to increase the scope and depth of its low-income program. After all, energy efficiency is the cheapest, quickest and cleanest resource to meet our energy needs and it helps hard-working families in JEA’s service area reduce their power bills – which is now more important than ever.