Schlaefer: Conservation exec notes strong interest in cutting energy costs

By Brian E. Clark


In spite of the recession – or perhaps because of it – interest in cutting energy costs in the Badger State is growing.  

“Wisconsin is doing quite well,” says Mary Schlaefer, executive director of the 28-year-old Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corporation. She said a recent national study rated Wisconsin fifth overall for energy efficiency achievement and programs.

“So despite the economic downturn, we are still seeing quite good participation,” adds Schlaefer, whose agency runs the state’s Focus on Energy effort and manages more than 30 other state, regional and national programs.

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She was appointed to head WECC about 15 months ago. Prior to that, she was deputy secretary for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, where she oversaw the agency’s work on energy and climate change.

WECC has a staff of about 160 and has a budget of roughly $90 million, up 20 percent from 2008.

“These are exciting times,” she said, noting significant increases in funding by government agencies and concern by the public.

“We view this as an unprecedented opportunity to make great progress in terms of saving energy, saving people money and helping the environment.”

She said it’s relatively easy to get energy savings of 10 percent to 15 percent in most buildings and more than that in some cases with “more aggressive” measures.

Federal Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a physicist and Nobel laureate, “believes in general it is realistic to try to achieve energy savings of 30 percent in commercial buildings,” she added.

Schlaefer said interest among residential, small business, industrial, agricultural, educational and governmental customers in energy conservation is holding steady and should grow thanks to federal stimulus money.

“It will have a big, positive impact on energy efficiency and renewables,” she said, citing tax incentives that should boost the number of people interested in installing energy efficient equipment and renewable energy projects.

“The federal Recovery and Reinvestment Act also includes money for rebates for energy efficient appliances.

“In addition, a great deal of money will be flowing to communities and some cities have been in contact with Focus on Energy” to see how to coordinate retrofitting programs.

Schlaefer said her agency sometimes has to work to convince people that it doesn’t always costs an inordinate amount of money to save energy.

“It depends on what kind of measures you are trying to implement,” she said.  

“The state program focuses only on cost-effective energy savings,” she added, which means the up-front cost is usually paid back in several years with reduced utility expenses.  

She said some costs are relatively low, such as switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs, which pay for themselves within a year.  Some of the solar technologies her agency promotes, she acknowledged, take from six-to-14 years in terms of payback.

Because some people may still not be convinced that conservation is a sound idea, she said her agency also focuses on education.

“It’s a combination of things,” she said. “The state Focus on Energy program is continually trying to assess what the barriers are and develop programs that address those barriers.

“But for some folks, it is a lack of appreciation of how much energy and money can be saved through energy efficiency. We do a considerable amount of education and basic information.

“For some, the barrier is a feeling of complexity… so we are working on programs that simplify the process,” she said, noting that up-front costs can scare off participants.

Schlaefer also predicted passage of legislation that comes from recommendations by the Global Warming Task Force.  

“The task force brought together a wide range of interests and stakeholders,” she said. “They came up with close-to-consensus recommendations. That was a great accomplishment and showed a shared understanding of the climate change challenge we face…”

Still, she acknowledged concerns by major industrial energy users that even a partial switch to alternative sources such as wind power will drive up costs and could drive them to consider leaving the state.

But Schlaefer said her focus remains on energy efficiency efforts.

“Everyone agrees that efficiency is the least-cost, fastest way to reduce emissions. So what I am most concerned about is ensuring the state remains committed to policies and programs that advance energy efficiency.”