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US funds to boost energy savings

Area businesses vie for share of project

By Katheleen Conti
Globe Staff / December 2, 2010

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More than two dozen Merrimack Valley businesses will benefit from federal stimulus funds to improve their energy emissions in what could be a statewide model for mobilizing the private sector to increase participation in efficiency initiatives.

Energy audits of buildings will be provided for up to 25 companies selected by the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce, funded with $500,000 of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money recently awarded to the chamber through the state Department of Energy Resource’s High Performance Buildings initiative.

The proposal was among 11 approved statewide to share $16.25 million in stimulus funding. When the Department of Energy Resources announced the availability of the funds last fall, it received 114 proposals worth more than $250 million in projected costs.

Proposals that received stimulus funding were those demonstrating that the planned modifications would reduce a building’s annual energy use by 50 percent. Other requirements included the ability to mobilize large sections of the community to achieve greater emissions reductions, and create new jobs.

Joseph J. Bevilacqua, president and chief executive of the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce, said the funding, which runs until April 2012, has attracted applications from myriad local business owners interested in saving on energy costs to help their bottom lines during this slow economy. In partnership with Nexamp Inc., a North Andover renewable-energy consulting company, the chamber already has filled half of the slots, while other proposals are still being considered, Bevilacqua said.

“This is moving very quickly, we didn’t think it would,’’ Bevilacqua said. “We’re going to have one of our companies who will complete their energy improvements by the end of the year, which is remarkable because of the time frame. We started the program in early August.’’

Bevilacqua declined to name the companies participating in the program, saying he had not yet obtained permission from all of them, but said they will be announced at a meeting later this month.

“We think we’re going to be a pilot program not only for the state, but for the nation,’’ Bevilacqua said.

Nexamp is providing the participants with “energy road maps,’’ master plans focused on identifying inefficiencies and proposing solutions, from changing light bulbs to replacing heating and cooling systems, as well as cost estimates, said Jonathan Abe, a senior vice president at Nexamp.

Many of the companies also will make enough immediate changes to qualify for end-of-year rebates from utility companies, he said.

“We estimate that the work that we do through this program . . . will stimulate these businesses probably up to $25 million over the life of the improvements, which is 10 to 20 years,’’ Abe said. “It’s unique in that it’s the first time that the state has teamed up with the chamber, a clean-energy solutions company, and the utilities to streamline the process in which you help businesses understand what opportunities are out there, and then implement those opportunities right away.’’

Abe said a Lawrence company expected to complete its improvement plans this month could eventually save more than $1 million by making about $350,000 worth of capital investments.

The businesses in the program range widely in size, employing from 10 to 1,000 people, and encompass areas from Lowell to Salisbury, according to Abe and Bevilacqua.

Eric Friedman, director of the Leading by Example program under the state Department of Energy Resources, said this initiative is in line with Governor Deval Patrick’s 2008 challenge to the building industry to move toward zero net energy use in residential buildings by 2020 and commercial by 2030.

A zero-net-energy building generates the same or more energy with clean renewable resources than it consumes annually.

“We’re relatively pleased with the progress we’re making,’’ Friedman said. “It’s a lot of moving parts, not just new technology, but new strategies and behaviors that come into play.’’

The ultimate goal is to “stamp out energy waste in our homes and businesses,’’ said Frank Gorke, director of the Division of Energy Efficiency at the Department of Energy Resources, who was involved in the creation of the program that awarded the federal stimulus funds to the 11 projects.

“Some of the stuff . . . can take some time and money and some investment, so what we are hoping to do is use partnerships with organizations like the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce to encourage local businesses to take a look at their energy usage,’’ Gorke said. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t walk by a building in the Commonwealth that’s left an opportunity to save energy on the table,’’ he said, such as “leaving an AC in the window in the winter.’’

Bevilacqua said that as the program gets underway, he also has reached out to the local division of the US Small Business Administration, financial institutions, and local banks to form partnerships that could help participating businesses with the costs associated with potential energy improvements.

“It’s part of our efforts to assist members with issues during the recession,’’ Bevilacqua said. “We’re doing it to make companies more competitive, reduce their cost of operations, hire more people, and put people back to work.’’

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com.