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Kentucky environmentalists criticize state's energy usage

We've got to change our megawatt-wasting ways.

Kentucky's energy-efficiency problem, experts say, is that low electrical rates have lulled us into lackadaisical light-switch-flipping.

The average man, woman and child in Kentucky uses 70 percent more electricity than the average American, according to numbers compiled by Robert Ukeily, a Berea attorney who represents environmental groups.

The average Kentucky home uses 24 percent more electricity than the national average. The average Kentucky industrial customer uses 427 percent more — a testament to the state's history of using local electrical rates to draw aluminum smelters and other energy-hungry industries.

Several environmental groups — the Sierra Club, Kentucky Energy Foundation and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth — invited efficiency guru Glen Cannon to Kentucky this week to meet with executives at East Kentucky Power Cooperative, which is adding to its J.K. Smith Station in Clark County.

The groups argue that East Kentucky Power could avoid the expense and the environmental toll of more coal-fired electricity by aggressively stressing customer-driven efficiency.

Company officials listened to Cannon and later said that although they agree that efficiency is important, they still need the new unit.

But the visit underscores Kentucky's efficiency problem, which also got a lot of attention last month when Gov. Steve Beshear released what he called the state's first comprehensive energy plan.

Kentucky's electrical rates are low because more than 95 percent of our power is generated by burning coal, which is cheap and plentiful because it comes out of the ground here.

With the cost of power so low, spending money to increase energy efficiency hasn't made economic sense for individual customers.

That is going to change.

As government moves to curb global climate change by constraining the amount of carbon being released into the air — either through a carbon tax or a program that allows carbon credits to be traded — the electricity bills arriving in Kentucky mailboxes will increase.

And that will beget energy efficiency.

"As costs go up ... we'll find that more programs become cost-effective," said John H. Davies, acting director of the state Division of Energy Efficiency and Conservation.

In 2006, coal-fired plants in Kentucky put 93 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the environment. That earned the state a ranking of No. 7 in per capita carbon emissions.

When the Brookings Institute conducted a first-of-its-kind study of the per capita carbon footprints of the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas earlier this year, Lexington's combination of coal-fired energy, sprawl and lack of attention to efficiency tagged it at No. 100 — the worst of them all. Louisville was No. 96.

Beshear's plan says renewable energy and biofuels will play a role in the future, but it envisions a Kentucky in 2025 in which coal still is the major source of energy.

The plans's first strategy for the future is improving the energy efficiency of the state's homes, buildings and transportation fleet.

If that happens, the plan says, we will still need more energy in 2025, but will need 18 percent less than if we did nothing.

The plan lays out steps for a process to obtain energy efficiency, but few details.

"The plan did not go into specific programs because they would have to be evaluated on their cost-effectiveness," Davies said.

The plan envisions an education program to let Kentuckians know the advantages of buying energy-efficient appliances and insulating houses so it takes less energy to heat and cool them.

It also calls for energy efficient resources standards — a way to measure the effectiveness of efforts to increase efficiency.

Seventeen states already have such standards. In Kentucky, they would be used by the state Public Service Commission to require utilities to work with customers to increase efficiency.

Cannon, the efficiency expert brought in by the environmental groups, said most utilities in Kentucky and elsewhere aren't paying enough attention to what he calls "both sides of the meter." Customers, not just utilities, need to be encouraged to be more efficient, he said.

Davies said, however, that utilities in Kentucky have become much more interested in energy efficiency for their customers in the last year or so.

There are some programs already in place, but almost all are voluntary, said Andrew Melnykovych, a spokesman for the PSC.

The most common, offered by Kentucky Utilities and others, are switches attached to air conditions or water heaters. When demand for electricity is high, a remote pager communicates with the switch, slightly altering the way the appliance runs, so that less electricity is is used.

In Louisville, a "smart metering" pilot program puts meters in homes so that people can see just how much electricity they are using.

"The idea is that if people have real-time feedback on how much they're using," they'll say 'I'll go turn off a light,'" Melnykovych said.

A smaller program allows people to pay lower rates when electrical demand is low, and higher rates when it is high.

On a hot afternoon in July, when air conditioners are running everywhere, a homeowner might decide to turn off some other appliances or put off running the dishwasher.

What Melnykovych called the "coolest" program is a small number of General Electric employees who have a new generation of energy-efficient appliances — a refrigerator, water heater or dishwasher — that talk to the smart meter.

If electrical demand is high on a hot summer day, for example, the meter will let the fridge know that now is not the best time to go into that energy-eating defrost mode.