Promoting energy efficiency upgrades
Although NYC has some of the highest electric rates in the country, and businesses routinely cite high energy costs as a major headache, very few small businesses take advantage of government energy efficiency programs, because they are often confusing and difficult to navigate.
One of Con Edison’s Green Team programs (Small Business Direct Installation), rolled out in 2009, is more accessible. After receiving a free energy efficiency survey of their facility, business owners get a brief report of suggested upgrades for lighting, heating, ventilation and cooling systems. The report shows how long it will take for savings from the upgrades to pay for the discounted installation costs, almost all of which pay for themselves within a year. Con Edison offers a 70% discount on the installation costs of upgrades. Costs are instantly covered by grants, so clients do not need to fill out applications or wait for rebates. Despite widespread advertising and contractors promoting the surveys door-to-door throughout the City, many businesses assume it’s too good to be true. Contractors report that only 15% of businesses that consent to a free survey proceed to purchasing the recommended energy efficient equipment upgrades.
In 2010-2011, LIC Partnership, a local economic development nonprofit serving Long Island City in Queens, mailed, phone and emailed many of its business constituents about the Green Team program. LIC Partnership staff directly referred many individual businesses to the staff of Willdan, the Con Ed contractor assigned to the area.
Results from Con Ed's contractor with no community connections in LIC
Willdan staff surveyed a total of 868 business customers in Long Island City between January 1, 2010 and May 31, 2012, and 238 of those businesses (27%) proceeded to purchase some of the upgrades recommended in their survey reports.
Of the 654 of 868 surveyed businesses not contacted by LIC Partnership staff, 151 (23%) went on to purchase upgrades.
Results when LIC community group referred its constituents to Con Ed contractor
When LIC Partnership staff personally contacted and referred 214 businesses for surveys, 87 (41%) purchased upgrades. When LIC Partnership staff collaborated with Greg Meyer, a single Willdan employee, 23 of 51 businesses referred (45%) purchased upgrades.
"The main obstacle I encounter in this program is an endemic lack of trust. When cold-calling, I have found that customers generally sign up for energy efficient retrofits 15% of the time, and the few that do generally take 6-8 months to get the project going. In LICP’s warm market, I’ve found the majority of customers they directly refer me to elect for an energy efficiency retrofit, and they generally do so 1-2 months after initial contact. The end result allowed me to successfully navigate a high-efficiency network based off of mutual trust and respect with a high close rate instead of the more commonly used system of pavement-pounding, wishing and hoping."
- Greg Meyer, former Con Ed/Willdan contractor in LIC
These results clearly demonstrate that when a community organization reaches out its constituents on behalf of a program, participation will be much higher than if representatives of the program - who have no direct link to that community - do the outreach themselves.
Even though Con Edison encourages community groups to promote the Green Team program, they are not specifically required to. Whatever incentive Con Ed community support grants may offer is not tied to results. LICP's efforts, based on the environmental advocacy interests of its staff, are completely atypical.
To engage NYC's many community groups with limited resources, we looked for sustainability projects that might offer even a modest source of income. As NYC Councilmember Dan Halloran said, "You can't do anything without the .... money. Money is what greases the wheels, good bad or indifferent."
We didn't find any easy answers in urban agriculture and composting. The most promising project we found was promoting solar energy system installations for referral fees. Two of LICP's referrals installed systems, earning significant fees for the group. We are making our model available to the public, and encourage you to try it in your neighborhood.
But what about energy efficiency upgrades themselves? Promoting them would be a great project for community groups, but except for a few groups specifically funded to work on them, there aren't financial incentives directly tied to results.
Imagine what would happen if Con Ed were to offer nonprofits referral fees of 3% of the total cost of any commercial or residential facility upgrade project their referrals completed.
It's likely that the annual number of Green Team projects completed would rise, and energy consumption would decrease. Perhaps the most important outcome would be the recruitment of neighborhood leaders across the City as grassroots spokespersons for energy conservation.