Testimonial: Energy efficiency can be tough (sometimes)

For the past two years, I've been helping cities and counties prepare to install energy efficiency retrofits.

It hasn't been simple. We're working with federal grants with very particular requirements. But the challenge caters to my make-the-world-a-better-place sensibilities.

And we've got a lot of company. Energy efficiency has caught fire in the past couple years. In the corporate world, companies are installing lighting and other electrical retrofits and establishing sustainability policies that revamp manufacturing and distribution practices. Their directive is to cut waste and promote savings of not only but energy but water and other materials.

Building information modeling, which enables designers to drop energy use like a rock, is sweeping the urban construction industry and is threatening to encompass more. Managers have learned to shave significant energy costs by monitoring and adjusting power consumption before construction and during occupancy. New products are coming on light rapidly that allow greater central control and monitoring.

And utilities are reworking their distribution networks by incorporating smart grid technology that offers game-changing savings through broad energy management protocols.

Into the light

Lighting retrofits are possibly the most cost-effective of these measures. And they're much of what I'm in charge of at the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization. We've also got air conditioning, pumps and other retrofits.

Yet getting our projects installed has not been simple. From my Formica-covered table top in Fresno, I have been working to funnel federal stimulus money into the Valley economy via Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants. It's been a long road. We're finally getting the projects bid, materials purchased and at least some problems resolved.

Some issues still pose difficulties. Because of the relatively low rate of reimbursement offered by the California Energy Commission for the energy efficiency retrofit measures, some of my cities and counties have struggled to find contractors. The small size of some projects haven't helped.

Get 'er done

The state has been working frantically to get jurisdictions finish their projects by the March 14, 2012 deadline. But California Energy Commission project officers can only offer advice and direction -- no extra funds.

I heard one county was able to figure out how to pay for the replacement of air conditioning units on the maximum reimbursement of $1,000 per ton. That's a pretty big deal, by the way. So I gave the woman in charge of the program a call.

She said her county had no magic bullet, just an employee who had spent years in the HVAC trade. The county purchased units from a manufacturer that certified its products as Buy American-ready and installed them itself rather than going to an outside contractor.

Energy savings American style

The SJVCEO wants to maximize the value of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grants my team is administering. When complete, the retrofits would save 5.4 million kilowatt hours of electricity. We want to save all that energy.

However, about four months remain before our deadline to complete the work, and a number of our jurisdictions still need contractors. Many of our cities don't have the staff to do their own retrofits. All have had to make drastic budget cuts because of the economic slide of the past few years.

We discovered almost immediately that because of the reimbursement rates our jurisdictions were having trouble attracting interest even in this down economy. Requests for proposal issued by several cities turned up no interested bidders, while others came in with bids that far exceeded reimbursement costs.

Finding solutions

My boss charged my co-worker Sandy Nax and I to come up with a solution. We followed the formula of using a sole proprietor who has no employees and does all the work himself, thus avoiding Davis Bacon wage rates. But this work is difficult for one person.

Sandy tracked down names using an online contractor search engine and California's Contractors State License Board listings, and I started cold calling.

I eventually called 83 contractors all over the San Joaquin Valley. Three contractors expressed interest in air conditioning retrofits.

I'm hopeful we'll find lighting contractors interested as well. I'm not so sure about pump retrofits, but we all have our fingers crossed.

Nothing's simple with grants

I've been on the phone a lot explaining how the process works. Reimbursement is likely going to be slow, making it tough for contractors already strapped by an unforgiving economy.

I did reach a friendly contractor in Kingsburg who said, "I'm not interested in anything to do with the government." I get that. Seriously, I do. Working within the strict confines of federal grant requirements is enough to make anybody relate to rocker George Thorogood's request for "one bourbon, one scotch and one beer."

Maybe when the job's done. We're determined to make this work.

Photo: Corcoran pump 9A where we have retrofits planned.