In a society brimming with computers, big-screen TVs, French-door fridges and plug-in gadgets, New England’s electric grid operators are seeing something surprising: Electricity use in the region is expected to remain flat over the next decade and consumption actually will fall below today’s levels by 2023 in Maine, Vermont and Rhode Island.

The reason is energy efficiency.

Millions of old-school light bulbs have gone dark and millions more will be switched out over the next 10 years, replaced by compact fluorescents and LEDs that use only one-quarter as much electricity.

Businesses are installing thousands of new power-sipping motors, compressors and heating and ventilation systems. Homeowners are junking 10-year-old refrigerators for units that use half the power.

Hundreds of small, scattered energy-saving actions are shaving off so much electricity demand each year that, taken together, they equal the output of a 205-megawatt power plant, grid planners estimate. Over a four-year period, that’s the equivalent output of Maine’s largest power plant, Wyman Station, which can serve 800,000 average homes.

The cumulative impact is highlighted in a new report by ISO-New England, which operates the region’s electric grid. It’s the nation’s first multistate energy-efficiency forecast, and it verifies that millions of individual efforts to cut waste amount to more than a feel-good exercise – they’re a cheaper, cleaner source of power.

“When this first started I was skeptical about what this all meant,” Stephen Rourke, ISO-New England’s vice president for system planning, told the Maine Sunday Telegram. “But we’ve learned a lot.”

The report estimated that electric use in New England was on track to grow at 1 percent a year overall through 2023. And it made a slightly higher growth calculation for peak demand, which is a measure of the greatest amount of electricity used in a single hour.

But even these modest growth figures proved too strong, when projected savings from state-sponsored energy-efficiency programs were factored into the region’s load forecast.

With energy efficiency, electricity usage is expected to barely grow at an annual rate of 0.1 percent, rather than the 1 percent in the baseline forecast. Similarly, the growth in peak demand is being trimmed from 1.3 percent to 0.7 percent a year.

“This is a good news story for the region,” Rourke said. “We’ve observed the savings in real time. The savings are substantial, and they are real.”

It would be nice to think that these energy savings would translate into lower power rates, given that as we use less power, there would be less demand for new power plants and transmission lines.

The equation isn’t so simple, at least in the short term. New England continues to suffer from tight and expensive supplies of natural gas, which fuels half of all power plants. Some large generating stations, such as the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, also are due to go off line. Add to this state policies to import hydro power from Canada, and consumers still face billions of dollars in costs.

“We’re making a lot of strides in energy efficiency, but it’s not translating into lower rates,” said Patrick Woodcock, Maine’s energy director.

The biggest savings, Woodcock said, are being enjoyed by factories and other energy-hungry businesses that take full advantage of state-sponsored conservation programs to change out old equipment.

“But for low-income people who aren’t using these programs, the rates are going to go up,” Woodcock said.

‘DEMAND IS GOING DOWN’

Lately, lower-income residents are getting some help. Efficiency Maine, which operates the state’s conservation programs, weatherized 2,192 electrically heated apartments last year and installed 1,325 high-efficiency heating units. It also gave away 169,000 efficient light bulbs at soup kitchens and food pantries.

The ISO forecast reflects conclusions reached by Central Maine Power Co., which used computer economic modeling for a rate-design case at the Maine Public Utilities Commission. CMP is using the data in a bid to stabilize revenues as power sales decline, especially to large business customers that are maximizing efficiency measures.

“I think we’re pretty much in line with the ISO report,” said John Carroll, a CMP spokesman. “We’re saying that, over the next five years, electric demand is going down.”

Carroll said the impact of efficiency is likely to be even greater than what the ISO is projecting. Over 10 years, millions of appliances and heaters that wear out will be replaced with more efficient models, regardless of state programs.

For its forecast, the ISO added up how much money each state has earmarked for efficiency programs. It calculated that the six states are on track to invest $900 million a year in efficiency measures.

The ISO report shows that Vermont and Rhode Island, where electric load was growing slowly to begin with, have done the most to “dial back” electricity use, Rourke said. Maine has had steeper load-growth than Vermont or Rhode Island. But commitments last year by the Maine Legislature to steer more money to efficiency programs, plus new slugs of cash from other sources, such as a settlement with the federal government over spent-fuel storage at the former Maine Yankee nuclear plant, led the ISO to up its estimates. Maine spent $71 million on electric programs from 2011-2013, and has budgeted $110 million through 2016, according to Efficiency Maine.

“You really see Maine starting to turn the corner, more like what we see in Vermont and Rhode Island,” Rourke said. “As a state, we see Maine going negative over time.”

Peak demand is the second metric. It’s a costly one, because transmission lines and power generators have to be sized to keep the lights on during the coldest and hottest days. The strong economy in southern Maine has been pushing up the state’s peak, but Rourke said efficiency is starting to slow and flatten the demand line.

The state spending making it happen – the discounted bulbs, the subsidies for refrigeration units and air-source heat pumps – also turns out to be a frugal investment. The latest annual report from Efficiency Maine shows that last year’s actions delivered savings at an average rate of 3 cents per kilowatt hour. That’s less than half of what homeowners pay for power on the retail market.

“It’s understandable that the ISO findings would be surprising,” said Michael Stoddard, Efficiency Maine’s executive director. “The perception is that there are more electronic devices being used more of the time. But for those of us in the business, it confirms what we thought all along.”

‘THE CHEAPEST KILOWATT’

A good example, Stoddard said, is the cumulative impact of modern lighting. Efficiency Maine has provided discounts for 6 million compact fluorescent bulbs, mostly for homeowners. Businesses also received subsidies to upgrade their lighting systems. The biggest driver of peak demand in Maine during the winter is lighting, so trimming demand on the coldest days reduces the need for new power plants.

Shawn Moody took Efficiency Maine up on its offer of a subsidy when he upgraded in 2009 the Moody’s Collision Centers location in Portland with energy-efficient lighting fixtures and a more efficient motor for the air compressors used to repaint cars. The upgrades have saved the business $75,000 in electricity costs over the past five years, Moody said.

Moody is now planning to include the same energy-efficient measures in a new collision center he’s building in Sanford. He called working with Efficiency Maine on these projects a “win-win.”

“The fact we’re going to use less energy is a positive for everybody in my opinion,” he said. “The cheapest kilowatt is the one you don’t have to pay for. That’s what it amounts to.”

Promoting energy efficiency also frees up capacity for modern technology. For instance: It costs roughly $1.50 in Maine to burn five 100-watt old-style incandescent light bulbs for 20 hours. The same amount of money and power can fully charge an iPad for one year.

Looking ahead, the ISO forecast raises questions about how much more efficiency can do for the region’s electricity supply. Stoddard said there’s still plenty of fat to be trimmed.

A large potential lies in technology that uses waste heat from electric generators, known as combined heat and power.

These small power plants, which typically are fueled by natural gas, are suited for hospitals, factories and businesses with a steady need for both heat and electricity. They account for 8 percent of the country’s generating capacity, according to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. Maine has a handful of them and Efficiency Maine has an incentive program. Stoddard said he expects more proposals, prompted by recent spikes in wholesale electric and natural gas prices.

And there’s still a chance to screw out some light bulbs. Efficiency Maine has subsidized 6 million new bulbs so far, but the agency estimates that the state’s homes contain a total of 17 million light sockets.

Staff Writer Whit Richardson contributed to this report.

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or

tturkel@pressherald.com