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An Energy Newsletter for Local Governments

Ecology Action Helps Small Commercial Customers Slash Utility Bills in Five California Counties

Over the past two years, the nonprofit Ecology Action has helped more than 1,100 businesses achieve tremendous energy and cost savings through its RightLights Program. RightLights provides small businesses with turn-key lighting upgrades that improve lighting quality while greening the bottom line. Most of the businesses served by RightLights are classified as “hard to reach” meaning that due to size, language, or other factors these customers typically do not participate in energy efficiency programs. This business segment has been hardest hit by rising energy prices, yet has the greatest opportunity for job growth and is a prime engine for local economic health. RightLights is funded by the ratepayers of California under the auspices of the California Public Utilities Commission.

RightLights is a cornerstone of Ecology Action’s business programs portfolio which recently drew the prestigious Governor’s Economic and Environmental Leadership Award for 2003. Based in Santa Cruz, and founded in 1970, Ecology Action designs and runs programs that advance sustainable energy, pollution prevention, solid and hazardous waste reduction, integrated pest management, and green building.

RightLights was rolled out in late 2002 with $1.9 million to serve businesses in Santa Cruz, Monterey, and San Benito counties. After serving more than 600 customers and achieving 180% of its energy savings goal, Ecology Action was awarded an additional $6.2 million by the CPUC to expand the program into Santa Clara and San Mateo counties for 2004-05. In the award process, a CPUC Draft Decision cited RightLights as “one of the most successful, impressive programs funded in 2003.” The program is on target to serve over 3,000 small businesses, nonprofits, schools, and government energy consumers by the end of 2005. “There’s been a real pent-up need for a program like this, based on the huge response we’ve seen,” observed Gene Thomas, RightLights Program Manager. “Give business owners a turn-key way to slash energy expenses and improve their facilities with better lighting at little out-of-pocket cost, and they’ll do it.”

Greening the Bottom Line

In its first year of full operation the program put approximately $1.5 million, through direct rebates and avoided energy costs, into the pockets of participating businesses. These businesses will continue to reap utility cost reductions of over $1 million annually thereafter. The electricity savings through 2003 was enough to power over 1,200 homes annually, and the resulting CO2 reduction of 3,426 tons per year was equivalent to taking nearly 500 cars off the road. “It’s especially gratifying to be able to improve people’s environmental and financial bottom line together,” observed Mahlon Aldridge, Ecology Action’s Deputy Director. “This is cost-effective energy savings and serves the customer group that is largely responsible for driving the economy.”

Local Economic Impacts

Every dollar spent on energy efficiency has an economic multiplier of 2.32 (i.e., a $1 million investment in energy efficiency yields $2.32 million in local benefits). This is significantly higher than the multipliers for electricity (1.75) and petroleum products (1.48)1. This high multiplier effect for energy efficiency is attributed to the fact that dollars spent on efficiency remain in the local economy longer than those dollars exported out of the community when purchasing electricity or petroleum. The efficiency investment also reduces future electrical expenditures which are then redirected into local operating expenses2.

The Nuts & Bolts of RightLights

Installing RightLightsRightLights is a totally turn-key process for the participant. Initial customer contact is typically made through an in-person visit by a RightLights Lighting Specialist. While on-site the Specialist performs a detailed analysis of the current lighting system (Lighting Survey) and installs a “Quick-Saver Package” of CFLs valued at up to $250 per business, all at no cost to the customer.

The Lighting Specialist then designs a retrofit project. In the process a computer program uses the customer-specific data to compute the utility bill savings and rebate as well as generate all necessary work orders, equipment lists, and contractor paperwork. The computerized report details project costs, rebate amount, out-of-pocket costs, annual utility savings, payback period, energy savings, and CO2 abated. The RightLights rebate covers much of the cost of the lighting upgrade (79% on average) and is calculated based on the amount of energy saved (kWh) and the facility’s electric rate schedule.

RightLights assigns the job to one of its pre-qualified private contractors who then schedules and performs the retrofit, contracting directly with the subject business. Each contractor in the RightLights pool has agreed to fixed labor rates and below-market markups on materials thus assuring fixed pricing with no surprises for the customer. Jobs are typically completed within three weeks from the initial contractor visit. RightLights staff audits a percentage of completed jobs to ensure quality and contractor compliance with program standards.

This arrangement succeeds so well because:

  • The process is totally turn-key for participants (free audit, no obligation, up-front low fixed pricing, local support, qualified contractors, no red tape).
  • It preserves the business owner’s capital (they get an “instant rebate” and can enjoy the savings immediately).
  • The rebates cover much of the retrofit cost (average of 76% for typical jobs).
  • The Quick-Saver Package yields energy savings even if the full retrofit is declined.
  • The program contractors are able to “close” their own self-marketed jobs more easily since the instant rebate allows a lower up-front price for the customer.

The core of RightLights’ work is comprehensive T12 to T8 fluorescent fixture conversions, compact fluorescent (CFL) replacement of incandescent lamps, LED upgrades of exit signs, and occupancy sensors. The program also provides recommendations and reference materials on HVAC and refrigeration efficiency measures, low-cost and no-cost strategies to reduce energy consumption, detailed recycling information, and links to other energy efficiency programs. Importantly, the program specifies 3100 lumen “third-generation” ultra low mercury T8 lamps, combined with the most advanced energy-saving electronic ballasts. By specifying these “Super T8” retrofits as the default standard, Ecology Action has placed itself in the forefront of lighting program implementers.

The program’s marketing efforts are directed through local chambers of commerce and community groups to help minimize costs. In its first 14 months RightLights reached approximately 3% of the estimated small business market in the Monterey Bay area.

For 2004-05 the expanded program adds common area lighting measures for multifamily buildings and a non-lighting measure for natural gas savings.

Customer Satisfaction

The program’s 2003 independently-conducted Evaluation, Measurement, and Verification (EM&V) Report noted that “customer satisfaction is very high due to the ease of participation, professional manner of installers, and significant realized energy savings.”

Customer surveys found that most of these small business owners had believed that energy costs were beyond their control, and 88% had never participated in other energy efficiency programs. In the process of upgrading their lighting, the program taught them how they can effectively reduce and contain energy expenses by installing cost-effective efficiency measures and through common-sense conservation. As a result of the positive experience and education received through the program (as well as the ongoing savings), they are more likely to look for other ways to improve energy efficiency and be receptive to similar programmatic efforts in the future.

Ecology Action and its original partners, Energy Solutions and Center for Energy and Environment, designed RightLights to respond very specifically to the barriers faced by the small business customer. By maximizing the owner’s decision-making confidence and minimizing the time, money, and effort required to install long-term energy savings, the program effectively reaches customers that have never been adequately served by traditional PGC-funded energy efficiency programs.


  1. Fact Sheet: The Economic Power of Energy Efficiency, ICLEI (BACK)
  2. The Jobs Connection: Energy Use and Local Economic Development, USDOE (BACK)

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