Monday, August 15, 2011

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:

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