Sustainable: Energy Coaches Help Small Businesses Search For Savings
Photo by Bill Klotz

Photo by Bill Klotz

Are you a small business searching for ways to cut energy costs? EnerChange can help you do so. Finance Commerce put together a story detailing the trials and costs that many small businesses run into.

The owners of Los Hornos del Rey bakery in Minneapolis are studying bids for new lighting and occupancy sensors that will cost less than $100 after the rebates and produce $143 in annual energy savings.

The 1,000-square-foot bakery, at 1703 E. Lake St., is co-owned by Cecilia Pelaez and her mother. Pelaez discovered the rebates after the Lake Street Council, a neighborhood business group, approached her about opportunities to save energy and money.

“It’s a win-win,” said Pelaez of the $366 project, of which the bakery will pay just $98 of the cost. “I get to pay less money for lighting and only pay one-third of the cost of the project. And it’s the environmentally responsible thing to do.”

The Lake Street Council is one of 10 neighborhood business groups in the Twin Cities’ region participating in a new energy coach training program sponsored by the Minneapolis-based Great Plains Institute.

Fifteen members of the nonprofit groups received training this fall in the various energy-related programs available to small businesses and have begun canvassing businesses in their neighborhoods to push them to consider spending a little for a potentially large impact on their utility bills.

Trevor Drake, the Great Plains Institute’s coordinator for the project, explained that a barrier exists when energy experts talk to small business owners about changes they can make to improve efficiency and reduce energy. The small business owner may have little idea of what he is being sold and have no knowledge of the nonprofit behind the sales call, Drake said.

THE PITCH

Most business owners have little time available for anything other than the task at hand, Drake noted, and they have little knowledge of various programs to cut energy costs.

The Sustainability Review summed up the fragmented market, based on its own market research: “The business owners we spoke with overwhelmingly want to reduce energy costs. However, most of them simply do not know where to find information on how to do so.”

Add in another challenge – the sheer number of organizations involved in energy conservation efforts. Drake counts 10 energy audit organizations alone in the area, everybody from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s St. Paul-based Energy Smart program to Enerchange, a Shorewood-based organization serving nonprofits.

The Great Plains Institute developed the concept of training “energy coaches” after receiving a $50,000 grant from Wells Fargo. The coaches work in neighborhood business organizations that are much more familiar faces than a stranger on the phone or a utility representative stopping by the shop to sell services.

“The energy coaches already have relationships with business owners,” Drake said. “They are known and trusted.”

The energy coaches will recommend which vendors would work best for individual businesses, Drake said, beginning with the suggestion they get an energy audit and assessment. After the audit the coach and business owner will develop a strategy to improve efficiency.

The coaches will address financing and rebate options that can help reduce the cost, as well as any incentives available through the neighborhood business organizations, Drake said. The advantage for small business owners is that they can see the cost, the financial assistance and the annual savings before committing to new lighting or a new heating and cooling system.

IN THE NEIGHBORHOODS

The Lake Street Council has been particularly active in speaking to local businesses. Allison Sharkey, the executive director, said the council has overseen 18 energy assessments of local businesses by Energy Smart. Of those, seven business owners received bids for projects the last week of November.

The majority of businesses involved are in retail, she said. Not all the businesses have a personal Xcel representative helping them reduce energy costs, she said, so the council saw an opening to help.

“We’ve developed strong relationships over the years with these folks and often worked with them on other problems they had,” Sharkey said. For example, the council has a city-sponsored façade improvement program that was discussed as part of a conversation on energy efficiency measures.

The cost of the proposed projects has been fairly modest, with most falling under $1,000, she said. The largest potential project, for a gas station, would cost $3,390, but the owner would pay just $1,130 for an estimated energy savings of $1,661.

The suggestions from coaches usually include new lighting, a programmable thermostat, new heating and air conditioning systems (or repairs of existing ones) and window replacements, she said.

On occasion a coach may see an opportunity for a simple behavioral change. For example, the council suggested a liquor store pay closer attention to opening and closing doors in its refrigerated section, Sharkey added.

The Hub Bike Co-op, at 3020 Minnehaha Ave., also has worked with the council but hasn’t committed to upgrades yet. Development coordinator Benjamin Tsai said energy coaching “is a great idea” and that the council has been a good partner in “helping facilitate the process of finding out what options are out there” for reducing energy costs.

Despite significant energy savings that accrue over a number of years, small business owners can still be a tough crowd, Sharkey concedes. It remains to be seen how many of the seven will pull the trigger and pay for an upgrade after they receive project bids, she said.

In the case of the Los Hornos del Rey bakery, the owner favored the council’s approach because it had no ties to larger interests. Pelaez said she knew Xcel had staff assigned to small businesses but she preferred using the council because of its independence and familiarity.

Coaches also can find themselves bewildered – even after all the training they receive — by the array of energy efficiency organizations and information available, said Kathryn Nelson, a coach who volunteers with the Longfellow Business Association.

Many nonprofits offer energy audits, she explained, leaving her wondering which works for a particular business. The energy coaching manual is rich in content. “It’s confusing because there is so much information and so many routes to go with a business,” said Nelson. “I’m really leery of giving people the wrong starting point.”

For her population on Minnehaha Avenue and East Lake Street, around 10 percent of business owners “are comfortable grabbing hold and going with” an investment in energy efficiency, she said. The rest see the process as too time-consuming.

“When you have to stop what you do to look at energy programs, that means you’re not doing all you’re supposed to be doing,” Nelson said. “It’s a tough sell.”

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