lighting retrofits

Cutting Energy Use Could Pump Millions Into Fresno's Economy

What would happen if a new business came to city officials, saying their operations would pump $260 million into the local economy? Of course, the red carpet would be dusted off and rolled out. The mayor would call a press conference, and all five television stations would rush to plant their cameras for a good view.

It would be big news at 5 p.m.

Unfortunately, energy efficiency is a nebulous concept, and somewhat difficult to grasp. It consists of changing lights. Swapping out new motors for old. Adding insulation. Weatherizing windows. Individually, none is headline-grabbing stuff, and, frankly, is rather boring to many people.

But energy efficiency, it turns out, could be an economic savior in this time of austerity and budget cuts. For the first time, Fresno city officials, crunching data provided by PG&E, have determined the cost of energy consumption in the community - and what an energy-efficiency campaign could accomplish. The results are astounding.

That aforementioned $260 million is the amount of money that Fresno property owners would save if they slashed energy usage citywide by 30%. That would be direct savings, and would go straight to your pocket book. "It would be like getting a raise," says Joseph Oldham, Fresno's sustainability manager.

Oldham says Fresno businesses and households spent $866 million on electricity and gas in 2009. Reducing usage by less than a third would save millions - and could be accomplished relatively simply. "No moon shot required," Oldham said at an energy-efficiency workshop held at Fresno State. "It clearly could be an economic driver for our community."

I know what it would mean to me. My power bill last month was $561, which is higher than the average of $400 to $500 for an 1,800-square-foot house in Fresno. It was the second-highest monthly expense behind my mortgage. A 30% reduction would shave $168 off that bill. That is a significant savings, and a pretty good boost to the economy if a few thousand of my close friends did the same thing.

Is 30% a realistic savings goal? Absolutely. Data collected by PG&E in connection with the new Energy Upgrade California program showed an average reduction of 28% - and some individual decreases up to 45% in the Fresno region.

So, it's definitely possible.

The downside, and the part that keeps many from getting energy upgrades, is the upfront cost. The price of energy audits, parts and installation could be hundreds or thousands of dollars, depending upon the scope of the project. Utility rebates cut those upfront costs significantly, but financing the remaining costs could still prove problematic for some people.

In addition, utilities are finding resistance from homeowners who don't want to invest in properties that are declining in value. For those who are interested, financing and other programs are available. A good first step for residents of Fresno and Kern counties is to apply for a free home-energy survey through the Fresno Regional Comprehensive Residential Retrofit Program. Call 855-621-3733 or visit or

Oldham is a big fan of a CHF residential retrofit plan that provides fixed-rate 3% loans over 15 years. There is no minimum or maximum loan amounts, but it does have income requirements: $31,200 to $87,500 per household. There also is a 15% upfront grant that reduces the amount to financed. The program is available in Fresno and Kern counties.

The funds come from the California Energy Commission, and will likely expire after March, Oldham said. Find out more here.

For a more powerful combination, the CHF program can be teamed with a new Energy Upgrade California plan that provides for an additional rebate of $4,000. "The rebate is cash in your pocket after the work is done," Oldham says. Plan on six to eight weeks to get the rebate.

Other loan programs are available through the Educational Employees Credit Union and Rabobank. Bank of America also may have a financing program, according to this announcement. Here is a link to a database with more options, and to an article with more thoughts.

Commercial property owners can participate in energy efficiency through CaliforniaPACE, which finances improvements over 20 years through property taxes. Find out more here.

Efficiency is catching on in a big way. More schools are doing it as a way to preserve their dwindling budgets. Just turning off the lights is a good start, according to this New York Times piece.

University of California at Santa Cruz is spending, after rebates, $104,000 to change out lights in its library. The project will pay off in three years, making it a worthy investment. It is the 15th energy-savings project on campus since 2009, and total savings are nearing $500,000 per year.

Walmart, which started on the path to sustainability in what can best be described as a halting manner, has embraced it. Company execs became believers when they saved more than $1 million simply by shrinking the package on a toy. They discovered, they could stuff more packages in their trucks, thus using fewer trucks and saving fuel., according to a fascinating new book, The Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart's Green Revolution" by Edward Humes. Today, the world's largest retailer is studying ways to be more efficient throughout its supply chain.

Nationally, energy efficiency could be a game changer: A movement could produce $1.2 trillion in saved revenue, and create millions of jobs, according to the The US Green Building Council. Here is more on that.

Oldham says Fresno residents don't have to accept high power bills. "Improving the cost-effectiveness of energy use makes huge sense," he says. "It could the answer to our economic dilemma."

Talk about a stimulus program!

Photo of Fresno City Hall:

Energy Conservation: Picking Low Hanging Fruit

Retrofits are one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to reduce energy usage. Installing new pumps, programmable thermostats and motors, beefing up insulation and putting in more efficient lights and windows can reap huge benefits with a relatively modest investment.

Many case studies (like this) and research papers (such as this Pike report from last year, and these just released) extol the virtues of energy efficiency. In these tough economic times, finding an investment with those sorts of yields is tough. We are doing our bit by helping 36 cash-strapped cities and counties in the it-gets-so-hot-I-burn-my-hand-on-the-steering-wheel San Joaquin Valley save 5.4 million kWh of energy through retrofits, such as new streetlights.

Maybe those jurisdictions can preserve a job or two with the monetary savings. Even a journalism major such as myself understands the logic: If my power bill is reduced, I save money. That means I have more cash to invest, or to spend stimulating the economy and putting my daughter through college.

And maybe create a few jobs in the process. Energy conservation doesn't require the same beehive of labor as new construction, but look around you: How many subdivisions are being built? I counted five home builders in my east Clovis neighborhood in 2006; now there are two. Nearly 2 million construction jobs have disappeared since 2007.

In February, President Obama announced the Better Buildings Initiative, which was designed to encourage energy savings in commercial buildings. The goal is a 20 percent reduction in power usage by 2020.

A just-released report crunches national and industry data, and concludes the program would generate 114,000 jobs, with the greatest benefit occurring if tax incentives are used to encourage retrofits.

The analysis concludes the impact would trickle down. There would be direct employment at the job site, but suppliers and manufacturers would see a boost in business too.

The U.S. Green Building Council, Real Estate Roundtable and Natural Resources Defense Council have proposed a few tweaks to the policy to make it more effective: measuring energy savings to an existing baseline; linking the amount of incentives to actual energy savings; and tying a portion of the incentive to implementation of efficiency measures and a portion to demonstrated energy savings.

The last recommendation maximizes accountability: the building owner claims 60 percent of the incentive when the efficiency measures are put into place and the rest after two years of demonstrated savings are achieved.

Saving money and electricity, and producing jobs. There's a reason why conservation is often called the "low-hanging fruit" of the clean-energy movement.

Cities, universities learn the cost-savings power of lighting upgrades

Replacing outdated light bulbs and fixtures with more energy-efficient types isn't exciting. In fact, when compared with solar arrays that track the sun and geothermal wells that bubble out power from the earth's center, it is downright boring.

However, lighting consumes lots of power. By some estimates, commercial buildings use about 60% of their energy for lighting, according to this report.

Thus, lighting retrofits are a crucial part of most energy-saving campaigns. Such retrofits are big at our non-profit, the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization. We are working with several cash-strapped cities in the region to use stimulus money to retrofit interior and exterior lights in efforts to reduce their power bills.

Energy conservation, when compared with siting and development costs of new solar and other renewable-energy programs, is cost effective. There is a reason why the Federal Department of Energy calls energy-efficiency programs "low hanging fruit" of the clean-energy movement.

It appears to be catching on. Similar programs are under way or recently completed in other places. The city of Napa, for example, reported using federal grant funds to replace 148 energy-sapping street lights with more efficient LED models.

And my wife's Alma mater, California State University, Fullerton, is replacing all 75,000 lamps on campus in 13 phases over 18 months. The $1.5 million project will cut the annual power bill some $300,000 annually - for a payback of approximately five years, after rebates, according to campus officials.

Energy conservation makes sense socially and economically. Businesses, landlords and local governments that slash power costs end up with more money in their pockets. That money can be reinvested into operations or research, or can lead to the hiring - or preserving - of more personnel.

Who says energy efficiency doesn't create jobs?

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