Utilizing Utilities: EDF Climate Corps Fellow leverages rebates and finds savings

By Jessica Berger, 2010 EDF Climate Corps fellow at Sunrise Preschools, MBA candidate at Jones Graduate School of Business, Rice University, Member of Net Impact

As one of the 51 MBA students participating in the EDF Climate Corps program this year, I am tasked with finding financial savings for the Phoenix-based company, Sunrise Preschools, by seeking out energy efficiency solutions. At Environmental Defense Fund's training last month, we discussed our goals for this summer as fellows. One fellow explained that he would like to discover savings that would pay back the costs of his summer salary, which seemed like a modest goal since last year's 33 Climate Corps fellows had identified almost $90 million in potential savings.

This seemingly "modest goal" quickly turned looming when I arrived for my first day of work and was confronted with an ominous stack of energy bills waiting for me on my desk. I grew nervous questioning how I would analyze the stack of bills and turn it into real savings during the mere 10 weeks of my fellowship.

From what I had learned at the boot-camp-like training, which EDF provided earlier this summer, I remembered to look for kWh usage and kW demand figures on the bills. But what were all the other charges, and how were they calculated?

I spoke with a representative from the local utility and carefully reviewed the rate plan on its website. I was then able to separate the usage and demand charges, which were of particular interest to me - service charges, meter reading, etc. Finally, I could determine areas of the bills that could be trimmed down if I were successful in uncovering some alternative energy efficiency solutions.

After a couple of painstaking weeks, I was able to translate that stack of bills into meaningful data – showing me where to look for energy waste.

Once I met with the company president and several school directors, my urgency to find energy savings, which could translate into lower operational costs, quickly grew. I realized that my presence as a new member of the corporate staff represented one thing to some employees – more costs, not less. The pressure was on and the clock was ticking.

I set my sights on lighting. Thanks to my trusty EDF Climate Corps Handbook, I learned that lighting is the second biggest energy hog in education buildings. I also knew lighting retrofit projects are one of the most cost-effective means to saving energy. Plus, most utility companies offer rebates for replacing old, energy-hogging T12 fluorescent lamps that have magnetic ballasts with newer, efficient T8 fluorescent lamps which have electronic ballasts. Depending on the rebate program, contractors may only charge the difference between the total project cost and the rebate, saving even more upfront. Once the rebate check comes, you sign it over to the contractor.

The best part about all this? Reduced project costs result in notably short payback periods, pleasing the CEO and CFO. When it comes down to crunching the numbers, I found it most useful to speak with the company that administers the rebate programs for the utility. Representatives at these organizations can explain how the sometimes dizzying rebate programs work.

After meticulously filing through old energy bills and speaking to numerous representatives, it happened. I found the savings. It is only week four, and I have barely scraped the surface of the lighting improvements by analyzing just five of Sunrise's 27 preschool sites. Today I discovered that the implementation of the lighting retrofits will more than cover my salary in energy savings in just one year. In terms of the value of these projects over their lifetimes, I have calculated savings of over six times my salary at those five sites alone. The letters ROI come to mind.

Now I can't wait to find more savings. With just over six weeks to go, I'm thrilled to see what other nuggets are out there for me to find.

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