How many negawatts do I need before I retire?

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By Elisa Wood

December 3, 2009

A candy shop owner on Cape Cod offers a new approach to build a retirement portfolio: put solar panels on your roof.

“We looked at the stock market last year and it didn’t look too good so we decided to invest in electricity,” said Ray Hebert, owner of Stage Stop Candy in Dennisport, in an article on by Nicole Muller.

Thanks to today’s generous state and federal subsidies, Hebert expects to recover costs in five years and then begin collecting a return on investment of 13.8%. “What investment can guarantee that?” he asks. “And since electricity costs are expected to climb, my profit will go up, up, up over time.” He plans to channel the savings into his retirement account.

I’m not a financial planner, so won’t pretend to know if Hebert’s numbers are correct. But his reasoning points out a new and growing way consumers and businesses have begun to think about electricity. Efficiency allows them to not only save money, but also to earn it.

In Hebert’s case, he is saving money by using a generation source that has no fuel costs – sunshine is free – and by taking advantage of Massachusetts net metering laws, which allow consumers to sell back to the local utility any excess power generated by their solar panels.

But there are other ways, as well, that consumers can earn a return on electricity savings. Neighboring Connecticut, for example, has become the king of monetizing energy savings through its innovative energy efficiency certificates. The certificates represent energy savings (negawatts) businesses achieve when they install efficient technologies. Each megawatt-hour of savings equates to one certificate. The businesses then sell the certificates to utilities or retail electricity suppliers who use them to prove to regulators that they’ve achieved state-mandated levels of energy savings.

So far, the Connecticut program is largely confined to businesses, although homeowners are eligible. Private companies have been trying to come up with ways the householder can easily participate, but are having trouble convincing state regulators that their programs can work. One company proposed a green stamps approach, where customers could buy lights, appliances and other efficiency equipment through certificate savings. (See the CPower case before the Connecticut Department of Public Utility Control:

Programs that monetize electricity savings are likely to grow as more utilities install smart meters in homes and businesses. Smart meters let consumers see when and how they use electricity, so that they can better control costs. Connecticut Light & Power found that consumers who participated in a smart meter pilot program liked using the devices, although those who did so for environmental reasons were more satisfied than those who participated to save money. This isn’t surprising since residential customers only saved $24.69 on average from June 1 to August 31, 2009.

Would the savings be more meaningful if packaged into an investment that increases the value of the money — the Cape Cod candy shop owner’s approach? The possibilities are many: Pairing energy efficiency companies with financial firms to offer energy savings retirement accounts or college funds, or perhaps channeling the money into tax deductible donations. Whatever the case, translating kilowatt-hour savings into concrete financial products for consumers offers intriguing market possibilities for the electricity industry.

Visit Elisa Wood at and pick up her free Energy Efficiency Markets podcast and newsletter.

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.


  1. Investing in electricity has indeed become the forefront today of modern-day investing as the realized returns are much higher than traditional stocks. My client, Low Cost Power offers a new solution to the traditional Connecticut Electricity Company and their overpriced electricity rates.