March 1 2017 01:04 PM

South Lansing businesses targeted in door-to-door energy-saving drive

Guillermo Diaz (right), director of Consumers Energy’s Helping Neighbors program, talks about the new South Lansing energy efficiency drive with Theresa Lark, director of the Mid-Michigan Environmental Action Council, and Lansing City Councilman Adam Hussain at a meeting last week. The team will visit every business in the project pilot area by the end of March and will begin visiting residences in April.
Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse

A grass roots drive in a South Lansing neighborhood is starting with old-fashioned knocks on doors, but the modest investment in shoe leather could change the city’s energy future.

Energy efficiency isn’t as glamorous as shiny solar arrays or vast wind farms, but this month’s targeted push has the potential to expand throughout Lansing, taking pressure off the city’s energy load and affecting strategic decisions on whether to build more power plants.

Lansing Councilman Adam Hussain, one of the door knockers, has visited over 20 businesses so far, coaxing them to agree to free energy audits and take advantage of incentives from Consumers Energy and the Lansing Board of Water & Light.

“I’m having a blast,” Hussain said. “I’ve lived in southwest Lansing my whole life, 35 years, and there are businesses I didn’t even know were there.”

Despite the best intentions, years of touting free LED bulbs, rebates on appliances and other energy efficiency incentives haven’t penetrated to busy residents and business owners.

That’s the conclusion reached last fall by Board of Water & Light Commissioner Dennis Louney and a coalition of civic, environmental and community leaders.

It’s a shame, Louney said, because energy efficiency is one of the easiest, cheapest and most effective ways to reduce energy demand.

Taking a military, building-by-building approach, a self-styled “SWAT team” (for “stronger when acting together”) has started visiting every business in a section of South Lansing bounded by Holmes Road to the north, Wainwright Avenue to the west, Mary Street to the south and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to the east by the end of March.

The team includes the city of Lansing, the Board of Water & Light, Consumers Energy and the community group Rejuvenating South Lansing.

In April, the team will begin visiting private homes in the pilot area.

Lynette Wilkes was a bit flabbergasted to see a City Councilman march into Munchies, her 25-year-old fast-food chicken and fish restaurant at 4100 S. MLK.

“It was nice to see somebody willing to help,” she said. “You’ve got these big, multimillion-dollar companies that get all the tax breaks in the world, and you’ve got Mom & Pop — me — who the city does nothing to help.”

At Hussain’s urging, Wilkes agreed to an energy audit and is reaping the fruit already. Last month, BWL staffers put in long-lasting, energy efficient LED bulbs free of charge. “I’ve got 32 bulbs just up here in the lobby,” she said. The day we talked, Wilkes was heading to Battle Creek to shop for a badly needed food warmer, spurred by the prospect of a $200 rebate from BWL.

“That’s a nice piece of money for a small business,” she said. She also plans to switch to LED lighting in the parking lot.

Her restaurant needs a new outside sign, a purchase she has been dreading. The SWAT team tipped her off to rebates and zero-interest financing over 24 months, and she has more energy-audit-inspired plans.

“This may be the deciding factor on me replacing my HVAC system,” she said. “If I can pay for it over two years instead of paying $11,000 up front, that’s a big difference.”

Knocking on doors usually ends in a certain amount of rejection, Hussain said, but so far, he hasn’t met a single business owner who wasn’t interested.

“I had no idea these programs existed,” Wilkes said. “The city councilman is the one who came in and told me, and I can’t thank him enough.”

Elaine Womboldt, of the community group Rejuvenating South Lansing, has also knocked on a lot of doors.

“We didn’t know what to expect, but we are surprised at the enthusiasm of many of the businesses when we walked in,” Womboldt said.

At a SWAT meeting last week, Guillermo Diaz, director of Consumers Energy’s Helping Neighbors program, said the SWAT project was “refreshing” and “well organized.” He called the project “a force multiplier to help build credibility.”

“People aren’t too fond of utilities,” Diaz said. “They are extremely skeptical of these kinds of programs — ‘Is there going to be a fee on my bill? This can’t be free.’”

The SWAT team has set a goal of persuading 90 percent of the businesses and residents in the pilot area to at least agree to a free energy audit.

After the audit, program participants get a laundry list of programs and upgrades that might save energy for them.

The SWAT team will capture data on participation and energy savings over the next three years, and that’s where it gets interesting.

Hard data on energy efficiency savings is hard to come by. Near-perfect participation in a limited geographic area will help turn guesswork into science.

“We can show that we’ve lowered our [energy] load at the Board of Water & Light, with the actual data to prove it,” Louney said.

In time, the data could affect strategic decision making at BWL, Louney said.

“We were the first city to eliminate lead pipes,” Louney said. “Maybe we’ll be the first to say we’ve knocked on each door and become energy efficient.”

The utility plans to retire its aging, coal-fired Eckert power plant by 2020 and the coal-fired Erickson plant by 2030. The debate over what comes next is about to go into full swing.

“The numbers right now support building two new plants,” Louney said. The SWAT team wants to push the numbers down. “I think we can, and this is one way to do that,” Louney said.

Louney said the utility is studying the feasibility of building small co-generation units for new developments as part of the city’s future energy mix.

“Instead of building one big power plant, maybe we build some smaller units,” he said.

Energy efficiency is a yawner to some folks, but the possibility of building one new plant instead of two is worth knocking on a few doors.

“If you can’t get jazzed up about that, I don’t know what you’re going to get excited about,” Hussain said.