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The Optimistic Futurist: Investing in energy savings

By Dr. Francis Koster

One of the largest contributors to making a community poor is to spend big dollars on energy created elsewhere. A dollar spent on coal or oil or natural gas leaves the neighborhood forever and therefore cannot pay for local labor or local services — an exported dollar that hurts everyone.
A strategy some communities have used to reduce the outflow of money used to purchase energy is to invite private investors to invest in public buildings in exchange for a share of the energy savings achieved.
One example of private money investing in not-for-profit buildings can be found at Wellesley College located outside Boston in Wellesley, Mass. It contracted for a private investment group to replace the college’s parking garage lights and saved $26,536 the first year without spending a penny.
The project was completed in two weeks, without any disruption to the parking operation of the garage.
The retrofit project reduced energy consumption by 57 percent, increased light levels by 32 percent, and doubled the fixture’s lamp life, which reduced maintanence costs. Light bills went down $26,536 annually, and maintanence costs were reduced almost $4,000. Because the private investor could take advantage of favorable tax treatment that the school could not, the actual net investment was less than $40,000, resulting in an 81 percent return on investment split between the investor and the school (which put in no money).
To imitate these success stories, the host school, or city hall, or bus system negotiates a business arrangement with a local investor, who pays for new windows or air conditioning equipment, or updated engines — all of which save a lot of money this year, next year, endlessly. Since the taxpayer and the investor split the rate of return from the savings in energy costs, everyone comes out ahead.
As a rule of thumb, almost any mature building can achieve a savings of 25 percent in energy costs by installing “low hanging fruit” energy conservation. This creates the opportunity for a private investor to realize a negotiated payback rate of, let’s say, 15 percent for a fixed period of time, and the taxpayer the other 10 percent (with no outlay of money) until the investor has achieved their return, after which the taxpayer receives the full 25 percent.
Additional incentives which are available to private investors exist in the form of federal and state tax incentives which public institutions financing their own improvement cannot take advantage of. However, the same investment made in the same building by a private investor can qualify under some circumstances, and bring many sound investments into the exciting range. All of these investments return more than the bond market is likely to pay for the foreseeable future.
A useful reference book is “Climate Capitalism,” by L. Hunter Lovins, and the work done by the Climate Corps of the Environmental Defense Fund (which identified cost effective investment opportunities in the range of 46 percent reduction in energy use in public buildings!), found at http://www.edf.org/page.cfm?tagID= 60252.
One thing that you could do is ask your elected officials how much taxpayer money is spent on energy for public facilities, including schools. If the total number is attention getting, (and I bet it is) the officials could issue a Request For Proposals offering local private investors the opportunity to participate in a win/win/win/win (lower taxes/jobs created/money staying in the community/lower pollution).
Many cities and towns have adopted this method of financing energy conservation. For a very long list of further information, simply google “shared savings energy conservation”.
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Francis Koster got his doctorate at the Program for the Study of the Future at the University of Massachusetts. You can find more information and read success stories at his website, TheOptimisticFuturist.org. Email: Fran@FrancisKoster.com.

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