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Ron Butler column: New report shows efficiency benefits to Virginia small businesses
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Ron Butler column: New report shows efficiency benefits to Virginia small businesses

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As Virginia works to recover from the COVID-19 recession, lawmakers and local leaders should pay particular attention to our small businesses.

Small business is the lifeblood of our commonwealth, but many small establishments, like local restaurants and convenience stores, operate on narrow margins. That’s made them particularly vulnerable to rising prices and fluctuating demand.

Thankfully, when it comes to electricity, there’s a cost-effective way for small businesses to save money: energy efficiency. As the old adage goes, the most affordable electricity is that which you don’t use.

The fastest way to save money when it comes to electricity is by reducing the amount we use. In our daily lives, we use electricity to light our homes, cook our food, cool our offices and operate our businesses, but there are many ways to save electricity.

Some are obvious, others are more sophisticated or require an upfront investment to realize. But all of them can help Virginia families and small businesses save money.

Unfortunately, small businesses face a number of hurdles when it comes to energy efficiency. Many small-business owners like myself simply don’t have the time to do efficiency upgrades. They’re spending 15-plus hours a day simply trying to keep their businesses afloat.

Many don’t own the spaces in which they operate, instead renting from a property company, itself potentially a small business. That means they might not have a say over the lighting or HVAC systems they’re using.

Even if small-business owners have the time, are aware of their energy use and can control it, navigating the complexities of energy efficiency sometimes requires an advanced degree. A local restaurant owner or grocer might have a tough time calculating how saving energy helps their bottom line.

That is why a new report and tool from the Energy Futures Group — “Pathways for Energy Efficiency in Virginia” — particularly are encouraging. These resources look at the energy efficiency programs that Dominion Energy currently offers and compares those with programs at similar utilities in the South and Midwest.

It finds that there are a lot of energy efficiency opportunities of which Virginia’s largest utility has yet to take full advantage. For example, Dominion can expand incentives and hire contractors to help small businesses install high-efficiency heating and cooling systems for offices, modern lighting controls that automatically dim or turn off the lights, and custom assessments of their facilities to help identify unique energy-saving opportunities.

That’s good news for Dominion, which starting next year will need to meet energy efficiency benchmarks established through legislation, which was passed by bipartisan majorities in the General Assembly just about one year ago.

More energy efficiency is good news for all of Dominion’s ratepayers, because managing our energy use helps reduce the need for new power plants and infrastructure — costs that get passed on to all consumers.

It’s good news for energy efficiency-related businesses, which make up the largest sector of the clean energy economy at more than 70,000 Virginia jobs. And it’s particularly good news for small businesses, which can use every dollar they can save.

The report and tool lay out a series of “pathways” the utility can follow to help achieve new energy savings. Each pathway is a cluster of energy efficiency programs the utility can offer to help all consumers save electricity and money.

For example, one pathway is focused specifically on small businesses. By having the utility provide these programs, rather than hoping individual small- business owners stumble upon them, we can overcome many of the barriers to otherwise sensible, cost-effective efficiency upgrades.

Small-business energy efficiency improvements aren’t the only option — the report identifies lots of cost-effective efficiency programs Dominion can offer to low- and middle-income homeowners, renters and big businesses, too.

Moreover, the authors have made their underlying model simple and open to the public, so anyone can use it to analyze efficiency options and propose new Pathways. I would encourage everyone to try it out.

As Virginia recovers from COVID-19’s economic impacts, Virginia small businesses need all the help they can get. This report highlights one way that our largest utility, as well as the policymakers and regulators who oversee it, can help.

Ron Butler is the director of Conservatives for Clean Energy — Virginia and has owned and operated a small business in Richmond for 23 years. Contact him at: ron@cleanenergyconservatives.com

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