By Bill Kirk
LAWRENCE — "Energy-efficiency" may not sound as sexy as rooftop solar panels, wind turbines and geothermal heating and cooling systems. But don't tell that to the 26 area businesses that have already signed up for a new program to have their buildings audited by a local firm that specializes in finding energy- and cost-saving solutions.
On Monday morning, approximately 100 local business and political leaders gathered at Sal's Function Hall on Merrimack Street in Lawrence for a presentation by the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce and Nexamp, a North Andover clean energy company, regarding implementation of a $500,000 federal stimulus grant.
The grant was issued to both organizations, with about $70,000 going to the chamber of commerce for outreach and administration, and the rest going to Nexamp to conduct energy audits.
The audits are intended to show businesses how they can save money on heating and electric bills by doing anything from changing light bulbs to installing new and improved heating/air conditioning systems.
Dan Leary, president of Nexamp, said the grant will be used to create a customized Clean Energy Road Map, which includes a detailed audit of a building, followed by a Web-based software program showing where and how a business can save on a particular building's energy costs.
"We will create a map for the 26 members who have signed up for the program," Leary said.
Once the areas of energy savings have been identified, he said, it is up to the company to decide whether to make investments in energy saving technology.
While the grant covers the road map and ongoing energy-use monitoring, it does not cover what Leary called "deep energy retrofits," or "retro-commissioning," which could include a variety of options, from new light bulbs to new boilers.
Alex Sherman, a Clean Energy Fellow with the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, said the state was enthusiastic about the grant application because of the partnership approach.
"When they applied, it was compelling for having an advocate lead the charge," he said, referring to the chamber of commerce. He said the Clean Energy Road Map allows companies to look at "all the options" up to and including "retro-commissioning."
"We are hoping" companies take advantage of that next step and go on to make changes in the way some of their buildings operate, Sherman said, adding that there are numerous financing options and state and federal incentives that make such changes financially feasible.
Further, he said, this program — the only one of its kind in the state — will create valuable data on energy efficiency that can be used as an incentive for more companies to take part in the future.
"Energy efficiency is a good idea," Sherman said. "But an idea is a hard sell when it's just an idea."
Joe Bevilacqua, president of the Merrimack Valley chamber, said the program is being viewed as a "pilot program" by federal authorities who see it as a way to spur investment in green building technology.
"We've been asked to speak at a national energy efficiency conference in July in Washington, D.C.," he said. "That's validation from someone outside our group that shows we are making an effort that makes sense."
He said the local buildings being studied by Nexamp are diverse — in five different cities and towns, of varying ages, and with a variety of uses, from manufacturing to retail.
"It's going to save businesses money and make them become more competitive so they can hire more people," Bevilacqua said.
One local company, Ozzy Properties of North Andover, has already made use of Nexamp's services. Ozzy Properties manager Ellen Keller told the crowd the company has already shaved more than 50 percent off its energy bill due to changes made at the Osgood Landing building, including more energy efficient boilers and a solar array on the roof.
Congressman John Tierney told the audience the grant was a good use of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or ARRA, because it saves energy and creates jobs.
Congresswoman Niki Tsongas said "ARRA was designed to address the greatest challenge to our economy since the great Depression, and set the stage for the future, which includes putting money into energy independence."
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