Energized for savings: DTE works to get bigger biz spark for efficiency program
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“We got into this to save money,” said Victor Ansara (left), president of Ansara Restaurant Group, shown with Vice President Alex David. But DTE's energy audit eventually “got us thinking about sustainability” and the environment.
Photo: JOHN SOBCZAK
DTE Energy Co. is trying to get the word out to businesses about its energy efficiency audits and rebate program, but so far only about a third of the company's 160,000 business customers have participated in the 3-year-old program.
And many of those are larger companies. So even though business participation has been growing at a 30 percent annual rate, small businesses are being left behind.
The company is now taking steps to try to attract more small businesses to available conservation programs, said Irene Dimitry, DTE's executive director of energy efficiency and renewables.
DTE's business and residential energy efficiency program emerged from 2008 legislation that requires utilities to produce 10 percent of total energy through renewable energy sources by 2015. The program provides rebates for energy-efficient lights and equipment that can lead to lower electric bills, Dimitry said.
Provisions of Public Act 295 also require utilities to reduce electrical retail sales by 1 percent and gas sales by 0.75 percent annually through energy efficiency programs.
Last month, DTE started a pilot program to make available energy audit teams to recommend efficiency improvement programs to a variety of businesses, including restaurants, gas stations, barbershops, salons and convenience stores.
Dimitry said DTE also is forming agreements with associations that include the Michigan Restaurant Association, the Building Operators of Michigan, the Small Business Association of Michigan and the Michigan Business and Professional Association to promote energy efficiency.
Victor Ansara, CEO of Farmington Hills-based Ansara Restaurant Group, has used the program and said energy efficiency is now part of the business culture and cost-containment strategy. The group operates 22 Red Robin restaurants in Michigan and northern Ohio; 12 of them are in Southeast Michigan and purchase energy from DTE.
"We got into this to save money in the restaurants, but it got us thinking about sustainability" and the environment, Ansara said. "In the grand scheme of things, it is not going to make us that more competitive with our peers."
However, Ansara said, if the company's energy efficiency efforts save each restaurant $3,000 per year, "it will give us additional money to use in marketing and advertising, help us be more profitable, hire more people and avoid some price increases on the menu."
Alex David, an Ansara vice president in charge of energy efficiency, said he attended several DTE seminars on energy efficiency in 2010 that helped the company identify areas of savings.
"It is a tremendous program that I don't think is being used to its fullest extent by businesses," David said. "We are offering to work with DTE or other utility companies to show some examples of what we have done."
Over the past year, the Southeast Michigan restaurants have added central lighting controls that turns on lights in staggered formations, replaced hundreds of halogen and incandescent lights with energy-efficient LED lamps and air conditioning units, ice machines and programmable thermostats.
"When they first came out, LED bulbs were bluish and harsh, and we didn't want to use them because they would drown out all the color in the restaurants," Ansara said. "They are much better now, and we haven't had any negative reaction from our customers."
Ansara's Red Robin restaurants that purchase electricity through DTE have saved 826,310 kilowatt hours and received more than $55,000 in rebates. The company spent more than $200,000 on the more efficient lights alone.
"We are fairly confident we have crossed that point (and recovered the investment in lower energy bills)," Ansara said. "We are not 100 percent there. We are working on exterior lighting."
Over the past two years, Dimitry said, DTE has been ramping up its energy efficiency program.
DTE offers conferences for businesses to learn about energy efficiency practices and encourages companies to participate in audits that help identify areas for savings, she said.
In 2010, a pilot program began to help grocery stores reduce their energy costs. More than 70 supermarkets are participating, with 40 of those installing new equipment, which earned $300,000 in equipment rebates.
Over the past several years, DTE has invested more than $25 million in energy efficiency programs and to help customers with energy bills.
Jacob Corvidae, green programs manager with Warm Training Center in Detroit, said the types of rebates to businesses have narrowed the past few years to utility companies. Fewer rebates are available under federal and state programs, he said.
Warm Training Center, which has worked with DTE on energy projects, conducts audits for businesses and residential users, advising them on a range of improvements from changing lightbulbs and installing zone-control lighting systems to weatherization.
"Some business folks get how this helps their bottom line, but you need to have the capital to step it up," Corvidae said. "There are a lot of businesses struggling in the economy, and it is hard to make the investment."
But, he said, simply changing lighting can pay off in lower energy costs in a short period of time and improve employee productivity and job satisfaction.
DTE also is working with the Engineering Society of Detroit on a program that encourages companies to innovate with energy efficiency products, materials, systems and processes.
Some 37 companies have submitted ideas in the "E" Challenge for Innovation in Energy Efficiency. DTE will award up to $250,000 for one or more ideas in energy efficiency.
"(DTE) is providing funding to help companies and entrepreneurs move into the development phase for these ideas to be realized," said Chris Webb, co-director of the ESD Institute. "They want to offer the lowest-cost energy to help businesses get back on their feet."
Jay Greene: (313) 446-0325, firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jaybgreene