As fuel and electricity prices have ratcheted up, so, too, have the queries about what to do: where can companies, especially smaller ones, go for help?
On the one hand, that's a big, vague question. Where you go depends on what business you are in, where you're located, what you need, and how much, if anything, you're able to spend. On the other hand, there's a lot of help out there, much of it low-cost or free, if only you know where to look.
Below are just a few of the resources aimed at small and midsize companies. They will be of help largely to U.S.-based companies — apologies to those elsewhere, though there likely are analogs to these resources in other countries. This is by no means comprehensive; indeed, it probably only scratches the surface. But it points to a handful of approaches and resources that appear to be well-kept secrets for the vast majority of companies I hear from.
- Manufacturing Extension Partnerships. This is a national network with hundreds of specialists who understand the needs of manufacturers. The network sits within the U.S. Commerce Department's National Institute for Standards and Technology. There are 59 MEP centers in 443 locations in every state and in Puerto Rico, providing manufacturers with an array of services that focus on growth, productivity, and efficiency.
From the MEP site:
MEP center specialists provide an array of services to companies, from initial assessments prioritizing opportunities for improvement, to implementation projects guiding companies through process improvements, productivity increases, and growth. Centers provide companies with access to training resources as well as specific project assistance. Some engagements are short-term classes or basic projects. Other companies engage in multiple projects with their local field specialist — as one improvement project often leads to several others.
- Industrial Assessment Centers is another federal program, this one under the U.S. Energy Department, that provides manufacturers with an in-depth assessment of a plant site — its facilities, services and manufacturing operations.
The program is administered by Rutgers University, which coordinates teams composed mainly of engineering faculty and students from 26 participating U.S. universities. The teams conduct energy audits and provide recommendations to manufacturers to help them improve productivity, reduce waste, and save energy. Recommendations from industrial assessments have averaged about $55,000 in potential annual savings for each manufacturer, according to DOE.
- U.S. EPA voluntary programs include some 200 programs to help companies reduce their environmental impacts and costs; someone once told me that the agency doesn't know the exact number of such programs (only select programs are listed at the link above).
The best known among these are Energy Star, which helps companies measure their energy performance, set goals, and track savings; National Environmental Performance Track, which recognizes company facilities that have strong environmental programs and records; and Climate Leaders, which works with companies to develop comprehensive climate change strategies. Other programs cover everything from laboratories to landfills. BSR recently published a directory of EPA's climate-related voluntary programs (Download - PDF).
The programs vary widely in terms of what they do (and how well they do it), but several offer some kind of technical assistance or mentoring; for example, Performance Track's mentoring program allows participants to seek guidance from other members.
- State and county programs. Of course, it's not just the feds. Nearly every state, county, and large city has one or more programs to help companies, particularly smaller ones, reduce energy, waste, water use, and other things. Some, like the Green Business Programs in each of the nine San Francisco Bay Area counties, reward companies that have reached some level of environmental achievement and performance; many of these provide consulting to companies to help them reach those goals. Some of the programs are run by nongovernmental groups — for example, Minnesota Waste Wise, run by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which offers technical and informational services to help companies reduce waste.
A great number of these programs provide financial or technical assistance to companies to implement energy efficiency and renewable energy programs — everything from tax deductions to loans to subsidies to rebates. There's a comprehensive directory of them here.
- Local energy utilities. Last and certainly not least are local utilities, a growing number of which offer consulting and technical assistance to companies in their service area, including audits to identify opportunities for savings. For example, Seattle City Light, the city-run utility, offers facility assessments to help companies monitor, manage, and control their electricity and other utility costs. In the Midwest, Alliant Energy offers business energy audits that cover the full spectrum of energy-using appliances. Even smaller utilities are stepping up: tiny Muscatine Power and Water, which serves the Iowa town of the same name (population: 23,000) offers audits.
There are still other resources, notably the growing number of local green business networking organizations, such as those in Austin, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Rochester, San Francisco's East Bay, Washington, D.C., and the states of Colorado and Wisconsin, among many other places. These vary widely in usefulness. Some are loose networks aimed at providing fertile ground for job-seekers and consultants, others focus on strategies to help eco-entrepreneurs market their businesses, while still others have organized mentoring programs in which companies can learn from their peers. (A few, based on my experience, aren't much more than drinking clubs, though none of the ones mentioned here.) Some trade associations also offer peer-to-peer mentoring programs, too, though only a handful are aimed specifically at providing assistance on energy and environmental issues. (About a decade ago, I authored a guide to such programs, available here.)
And, of course, you can always hire a consultant.
Bottom line: When it comes to optimizing your company's energy use, there are fewer and fewer excuses for doing nothing.