Sick of $450-a-month gas and electric bills for their Baltimore County rowhouse, James and JoAnn Allis replaced their old, inefficient air conditioner. And their windows and doors. Then they added insulation in their home's many leaky spots and coated their roof to keep the house cooler in the summer.
Now the retirees pay about $220 a month.
"That's a big difference," said JoAnn Allis, flipping through recent Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. bills. "We had to do it in spurts, but ... gradually one thing leads to another that all brings your bill down."
They're not the only ones needing less energy. BGE says per-customer electricity use was about 10 percent lower last year than in 2005, despite the proliferation of power-sapping smartphones, digital video recorders and other electronics. Highly efficient appliances, light bulbs and other products — both residential and commercial — are helping reduce consumption.
The recession suppressed electricity demand, too. But that's not the major story, BGE says.
"There was a reduction in part due to the economy," said Ruth Kiselewich, BGE's manager of energy-efficiency portfolios. "But ... the vast majority of that reduction was due to energy efficiency."
BGE customers collectively save nearly 1.5 billion kilowatt hours of electricity a year through incentive programs that cover part of improvement costs, Kiselewich said. To put that figure into perspective: It's enough energy to power 156,000 homes for a year, she said, or the equivalent of a year's worth of greenhouse-gas emissions from 230,000 cars.
Statewide, electricity use at the start of this summer was slightly lower than a decade ago. That's total, not per-customer, over a period in which population increased about 8 percent.
"We have seen a continually rising interest in energy-efficiency improvements," said Peter Van Buren, president of TerraLogos Energy Group, a Baltimore home- and building-performance firm founded in 2006. "People are starting to see the benefits. ... So often in the past, people have felt that their home is cold, their bills are high and there's really nothing they can do about it."
TerraLogos focuses on projects such as improving insulation and duct sealing, projects for customers trying to lower energy use. Some people, though, cut back without even realizing it.
Replace a refrigerator from 1990 with one made last year, and you'll use half the energy, says the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers. Same with a dishwasher. A new clothes washer uses about 75 percent less energy — and it's bigger than 1990 versions.
Those are the improvement averages, not just for higher-efficiency appliances that qualify for the federal government's Energy Star label. An Energy Star refrigerator, for instance, costs about $50 a year to run compared with about $130 for a 1990s refrigerator, according to Environmental Protection Agency calculations.
Furnaces, heat pumps and air-conditioning units also are far more efficient than they used to be, said Bill McNary, a survey statistician who focuses on residential energy consumption for the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
But not everything is pushing use downward. The counterbalancing forces are electronics — more computers, more televisions, more products that didn't even exist a decade or two ago — and larger homes. The average U.S. house built last year is 20 percent bigger than one built in 1990, which means more space to heat and cool.
The result: Energy use per residence has edged mostly downward nationwide for years, but not dramatically so, according to the Energy Information Administration. The average U.S. home consumed about 3 percent less energy in 2009 than in 2001, according to recent surveys by the agency.
"For every gain in efficiency, it seems like a lot is being offset by the introduction of new products," McNary said. But he zeroed in on the upside: "Think how bad it would be if it wasn't for efficiency."
Maryland is one of the more aggressive states in lowering energy consumption. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy ranked Maryland's efforts ninth nationwide in its most recent score card, based on the state's EmPOWER Maryland program.
That initiative, passed by the General Assembly in 2008, set a goal of reducing per-capita electricity use through 2015 by 15 percent. Utilities are required to help meet the target by offering incentives for customers to buy high-efficiency appliances, conduct home energy audits and the like. Companies also can qualify for assistance.
Maryland's Public Service Commission said the amount of energy saved through utility programs beat the forecast last year. But the agency said the programs got a slow start in earlier years and will fall short of 2015 goals without changes. The commission said in April that it asked utilities and others to propose "program enhancements."
Everyone pays for the EmPOWER incentives. BGE's residential customers see a surcharge of about $1.60 a month on average.
Towson-based Zeronet USA is among the energy-efficiency firms that have sprung up locally in recent years, finding a vibrant market for their services. It started in 2008 as a one-man operation inside a recession-buffeted architecture and construction firm. Now it employs more than 40 people.
"Energy efficiency is a public good," said Kurt Pfund, co-owner of Zeronet. "It benefits everyone to not have to build new power plants."
The company has conducted about 160 energy audits for commercial clients this year and an equal number on the residential side, through its Zerodraft Maryland division, Pfund said. Also this year, the company has done 11,000 of the "quick home energy checkups," the ones that BGE customers can schedule for free to get compact fluorescent lights, a low-flow shower head and other energy-savers installed in their homes.
Pfund said Zeronet's biggest growth comes from commercial business. The owner of a midsize office building can cut energy costs by about 30 percent just by replacing old lights with high-efficiency LED lighting, he said.
Among business clients, "we're finding virtually all of our efficiency projects are cash-flow positive," he said.
Spice maker McCormick & Co. has shed energy costs for several years by finding ways to be more efficient. Its Hunt Valley plant has cut energy use since 2006 by more than 40 percent per unit produced, and the company is racing to reduce consumption at sites around the world.
Jeff Blankman, sustainable manufacturing manager at McCormick, said two factors pushed the company to go full throttle: growing attention to environmental sustainability by businesses and "a huge increase in our electricity rates over about an 18-month period." (Everyone felt that: BGE bills spiked in 2006 and 2007 after residential rate caps put on during the deregulation process expired.)
McCormick got big savings from replacing its lights — the new ones use half the energy consumed by the old — and by putting motion sensors on fixtures, allowing unoccupied areas to go dark. McCormick swapped out 1,100 light fixtures in its Hunt Valley manufacturing and warehouse complex alone, Blankman said.
Other projects included higher-efficiency motors, using box adhesives that require less heat and therefore less energy, and contracting with Constellation Energy to build and operate a new air-conditioning system because the old one was obsolete.
Efficiency improvements enable the solar panels on McCormick's Belcamp distribution center to produce all the energy the facility needs and then some, Blankman said.
"Energy efficiency is actually more effective than renewable energy," Blankman said. "It's easier to cut your energy consumption than it is to make energy in a more sustainable way, so it's actually a more powerful way to reduce your impact on the environment — and it's more cost-effective."
Still, not everything that can reduce energy use is cost-effective, TerraLogos' Van Buren warned. Replacing windows in a home, for instance, is an expensive proposition that might not pay off. But he's a big proponent of insulation and sealing, saying they cut down on more than energy consumption. They also mean fewer allergens and pollutants getting in, and fewer areas in the home that resist air conditioning and heating.
"Money is not the only reason to do this," he said. "Comfort is pretty important."
JoAnn Allis was one of his customers, and she used to have a chilly spot by her bed. She couldn't figure out why — until TerraLogos discovered that there was no insulation in that section of the house. Other uncomfortable places — hot in summer, freezing in winter — were revealed with an infrared camera to be leaking air.
"It was like, 'Oh dear Lord have mercy, no wonder I can't even sit in my living room,'" said James Allis, a retired longshoreman.
The work cost about $5,400, partly offset by the $2,000 rebate the Allises received from BGE's incentive program.
More states, utilities and people are zeroing in on such energy-efficiency work, said Rodney Sobin, director of research and regulatory affairs for the Alliance to Save Energy. He hopes to see more.
"There's a lot going on, but there's a lot more that could be done," he said. "Energy efficiency is really our cheapest resource."
Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers looking for ways to reduce energy use and costs can check out the incentives offered through BGE's Smart Energy Savers Program, http://www.bgesmartenergy.com. Homeowners, renters and businesses can qualify.