Energy Projects and Small Businesses: An Improving — But Still Imperfect — Fit

Solar panelsOne of the surest signs that a new technology or set of technologies is taking hold is increased use by small businesses. These organizations generally lack the manpower and budgets to take a step unless it is straight forward, cost-effective and almost sure to work. Such organizations don’t want to make statements. They want to make money.

The fact that energy efficiency clearly made the leap to attract this sector was clear during 2016. For instance, John’s Cleaners, a small dry cleaning operation in Lafayette, CO, has installed 140 panels that will provide 68,000 kWh of energy, according to the Times Call in Longmont.

The business is only the second in the state to use Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (C-PACE) financing. This approach enables the property owner to finance projects through loans that are paid back through an assessment on the tax bill. In this case, the owners arranged a loan with Petros Partners, an investment firm in Austin, TX. The loan is attached to the property and will become the responsibility of the next owner if the dry cleaner changes hands.

The financing element is difficult — at least until people become more familiar with the process. “It was very difficult,” John Ellwood, the owner of John’s Cleaners, told Energy Manager Today. “There were several parties involved. It was difficult, for instance, for the finance company. They had never written this sort of contract from scratch. Then the county organizations that helped with the rebates and the state entity that also was involve had to work through their pieces of the process,” he said. “Everyone had not been through this before, so it took longer than anyone expected.”

These issues seem temporary, however. “I think the next person who comes through will have more a more streamlined process.”

What may be a bit more difficult, at least when it comes to solar, is space. “I own the land, that’s makes it easier,” Ellwood said. “People without property or enough space on the roof may not be able to do it.”

In California, the new SB 32 law will push communities, and therefore the businesses within them, to increase efficiency. The Lamorinda Weekly reports on an effort by Oakland, CA-based DNV-GL to help small- and medium-sized businesses in the East Bay towns of Lafayette, Orinda and Moraga save money and meet the new rules by increasing energy efficiency. The program, the story says, is targeting businesses with fewer than 10 employees.

The increasing desire of small businesses to become energy efficient also is in evidence in Connecticut. The Simsbury Path reports that the town and its Chamber of Commerce are working with utility Eversource to bring businesses into the utility’s Small Business Energy Advantage. The story says that the program features free energy audits and energy saving recommendations. Financial incentives are available, the story says.

The story says that Fitzgerald’s Foods, a small grocery, used the program to upgrade to LEDs. Annual energy reductions will be 475,000 kWh, with savings of $4,800. The total savings for the life of the LEDs will be $60,000, the story says.

The reality is that the greatest source of energy savings is locked up in buildings used by small businesses. In an interview in this month’s issue of Automated Buildings, Steven Guzelimian, the president of building automation firm Optergy, addressed the potential – and, tacitly, the challenges – of bring automation to this class of structures.

Small buildings represent a disproportionate amount of consumption. When you consider the impact we can have as building automation experts, this is the area we should be looking at more vigorously. In my career I have seen very little activity in these buildings and manufacturers were not catering to this market.  When you consider the economics of the small building, controls have always been too expensive. Traditional controls usually meant multiple stand-alone systems that did not even benefit from simple time scheduling on/off or set point adjustment controls for HVAC and lighting.

Guzelimian was speaking specifically about automation. The thrust of his comment – that small businesses are unique and require special attention – holds true for all approaches to building energy efficiency.

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