Xcel Energy customers in Wisconsin can get help in cutting their energy use.

State regulators have approved the utility’s plans for a 2018 community conservation plan that shifts some resources to help business customers take better advantage of energy efficiency programs and incentives.

Under the new plan, Xcel will deploy five field representatives to help about 36,000 small and medium-sized businesses in its Wisconsin service territory identify potential energy savings and connect them with Focus on Energy, a statewide utility-funded program that helps customers reduce energy use.

The idea is to help Xcel’s customers get a better share of the money they pay into Focus on Energy, which funds efficiency and renewable energy projects across the state.

Lori Drilling, who manages Xcel’s community conservation program, said a large portion of the Focus dollars tend to go to Madison and Milwaukee, rather than to the less populous western part of the state.

“The reason we have these programs is to get this money back to our customers,” Drilling said. “We want to see money come back to them.”

Regardless who receives the incentives, energy efficiency investments benefit all ratepayers, said Thomas Content, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin, a nonprofit organization that lobbies on behalf of utility consumers.

The reason has to do with how regulated electric utilities turn a profit. Unlike other businesses, they don’t mark up the cost of their product. Instead, the state sets rates in such a way to guarantee the utilities a return — generally around 10 percent — on their investments in the equipment to generate and deliver power.

“It’s cheaper to invest in saving electricity than in building new capacity,” Content said. “If there’s enough savings maybe we can put off the need for a new power plant down the road.”

An external audit of the program found Focus on Energy could potentially cut statewide electricity use by 14 percent by 2030. The same auditor determined that every dollar invested in FOE generated $3 in total benefits.

In order to provide the new service without expanding the budget — which is ultimately paid for by utility customers — Xcel shifted money from its residential conservation program. That means residential customers who take advantage the incentives will get only a 60 percent utility bonus instead of 80 percent.

Drilling said small to medium-sized businesses have traditionally been an under-served market and Focus on Energy doesn’t have the resources to do direct outreach.

What Focus does offer is incentives designed to help businesses make energy-saving investments that might not otherwise pay themselves off in a year or two, said spokesman Casey Langan.

“Our goal is to help make things happen that wouldn’t happen otherwise,” Langan said.

Focus on Energy also serves residential ratepayers.

In addition to offering rebates for weatherization, high-efficiency furnaces and water heaters, the program is offering free packages of energy-saving equipment to customers of Xcel Energy and a handful of municipal utilities, including Arcadia, Bangor, Black River Falls, and Trempealeau.

Customers can choose from six combinations of LED light bulbs, water-saving showerheads and faucet aerators, pipe insulation and advanced power strips that prevent televisions from drawing power when they’re turned off.

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Rhymes with Lubbock. La Crosse Tribune reporter and data geek. Covers energy, transportation and the environment, among other things. Call him at 608-791-8217.

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