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Small businesses are central to the health of local economies and are responsible for generating a significant portion of new private sector jobs. Often located in small- to medium-sized buildings, these businesses face a common barrier to maximizing economic growth – energy costs. The Department of Energy’s Commercial Buildings Integration program has set out to support small businesses through a project started in 2015 meant to help better link them to cost-saving energy-efficiency opportunities. The Boosting Energy Efficiency and Economic Development through Chambers of Commerce project, spearheaded by the Institute for Market Transformation (IMT) and supported by CBI, is working to provide local chambers of commerce with resources to guide small business landlords and tenants toward pathways to improve energy efficiency in their buildings.

The Small Business Energy Initiative (SBEI), launched by IMT and the Council of Small Enterprises (COSE) as a part of the project to close the gap between energy efficiency and small and medium businesses, is modeled after a previously successful project that resulted in 250+ businesses participating in green leasing consultations, energy-efficiency workshops, energy audit consulting, and energy improvement technical assistance. Recognizing that chambers of commerce and similar organizations are trusted thought leaders and primary connectors to small businesses and stakeholders around the country, SBEI  set out to engage these business leaders so they could help advance energy efficiency and save businesses money.

SBEI worked with chambers of commerce and similar organizations in the development and implementation of best practices and successful energy-efficiency models that lead to improvement in energy performance. During this engagement, four key themes emerged:

  1. Unique situations within every jurisdiction
  2. Trusted partnership with local chambers
  3. Business investment in energy efficiency
  4. Utility investment in energy efficiency

Unique Situations within Every Jurisdiction

As is the case with energy improvement strategies, solutions often vary based on the issue being addressed, available technical resources, guidance, and capacity. Participants reaffirmed that there is no silver bullet and that by working with small business owners each chamber must work to provide tailored assistance to support its members.

Trusted Partnerships with Local Chambers

Local chambers play a unique role as trusted intermediaries between small businesses, lenders, and energy industry actors, like utilities. This positions them as a central resource that connects small businesses to opportunities and programs that can help to navigate the clean energy space.

“As the leader of our chamber of commerce, I connect our members to resources they need to be successful. We’re working to be an energy-efficiency leader by example and also a coach and advisor to our members,” says Aaron Nelson, president and CEO, Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce.

Business Investment in Energy Efficiency

Investments categorized as those with longer payback periods, which some types of energy-efficiency projects would fall under, are usually last on the list of options for small businesses because of limited resources and interest in faster return on investment. Chambers have the opportunity to provide clarity and guidance in understanding the business case and the impact of energy improvements on overall business expenditures.

“Energy efficiency is great for our businesses because the vast majority are 50 employees or less. A big reason they become chamber of commerce members is to leverage incentives to save money, so efficiency helps boost their bottom line,” according to Leonardo McCarty, president and CEO of Howard County Chamber of Commerce.

One particular barrier small businesses face is the lack of autonomy to make energy improvements in their portfolios, which are often comprised of leased properties. To this end, resources like IMT’s Green Lease Library play an essential part in tenant-landlord engagement pathway. When both parties understand the value of structural and operational improvements, energy can be prioritized from the start. This process ensures that both tenant and landlord are on the same page and can enact mutually beneficial components through the “green” leases that help unlock energy saving improvements.

Utility Energy Efficiency Investment

Utilities also have a long history of incentivizing energy efficiency, including investments in building control systems that allow feedback and management to address peak power stresses and improve overall energy savings. Working closely with small businesses through local chambers allows utilities to better design programs that will more likely result in success.

The Small Business Energy Initiative continues to make progress toward helping small businesses identify and take advantage of opportunities to reduce energy waste and costs in buildings, while also supporting local job growth and improvements in those communities.