A bright idea saves energy—and jobs
April 27, 2012
The answer lies in an innovative new Los Angeles County program that will not only upgrade more than 25,000 lights in county buildings, but also preserve the jobs of nearly a dozen county employees while generating an ongoing source of money for energy efficiency.
The initiative—a revolving fund that will pay in perpetuity for energy retrofitting in county buildings—is the fruit of a $5 million state grant underwritten by federal stimulus money and accepted this month by the Board of Supervisors.
“We’ve been trying for years to set up something like this,” says Tom Tindall, director of the county’s Internal Services Department. He says that, while the county has undertaken hundreds of energy efficiency projects, most have been essentially one-offs, paid for with California Public Utilities Commission grants, departmental savings, specified grants or other one-time revenue sources.
“This will let us do energy projects essentially forever by setting up a fund that will replenish itself,” Tindall says.
For all its conservation, Los Angeles County remains one of California’s most prolific energy consumers.
“Put it this way: We’re Southern California Edison’s biggest customer,” says Howard Choy, general manager of ISD’s Office of Sustainability.
Choy says the county spends well over $150 million a year to power the multitude of office buildings, hospitals, jails and other facilities that make up its vast holdings. The bill for electricity at the Sheriff’s Department alone is about $20 million a year, he says.
Consequently, even a small improvement in efficiency can yield big savings, which is why Tindall, Choy and others were eager to create an ongoing pool of money for projects that would help lower the county’s utility bills.
Despite the county’s financial straits, the Chief Executive Office had planned to earmark $2.2 million in seed money for the idea out of the general fund for the next fiscal year. Then, this month, the California Energy Commission stepped up. The $5 million grant the county received from the commission is expected to result in more than $18 million in utility savings over the next decade.
Under the plan, county departments will be able to “borrow” from the fund to make their buildings more energy efficient, then channel the utility savings back into it until the project’s initial cost is “repaid.” Staff from internal services will perform the work with existing county employees. Most projects, Choy says, will pay for themselves in two to four years.
“After that, the department itself will get to see the savings every year going forward, plus have a better building, and the fund will be replenished for the next project,” he says.
As a bonus, the fund will salvage the jobs of 11 Internal Services employees whose positions had been slated for termination after the state, which had been paying the county to maintain court buildings, decided to outsource.
“A lot of people out there were sweating bullets,” says Tim Braden, ISD’s general manager for facilities operations. “We haven’t been specific by name—we’ve just told them how many people would be potentially impacted—but I’ve got 32 years in this organization and I knew who they were, and know every one of them individually.
“They’re good people, family people, and there’s some who I know would lose their homes if this hadn’t happened. This energy revolving fund is a real lifesaver,” Braden says.
Choy says county department heads will have to sign off on each project, but he anticipates interest will be high. Already, he says, ISD has identified a first phase involving more than 20 county buildings in which a total of $530,000 a year could be saved just by swapping out older, 32-watt fluorescent bulbs for high-efficiency, 28-watt fluorescents.
Potential sites would include LA County+USC Medical Center and its ancillary buildings ($58,197 in potential annual savings), Twin Towers Jail ($44,067), the Hall of Administration ($37,306) and 19 other buildings. An additional pilot project, Choy says, would replace the old, dim, fluorescent lights at ISD headquarters and the county’s Lot 10 on North Broadway with 5,000 bright, energy-saving LED lamps.
A second phase of fluorescent bulb swaps, Choy adds, would yield an additional $500,000 in annual savings. And a separate round of “building tune-ups” aimed at maximizing the efficiency of air conditioning, heating and other energy equipment in a dozen buildings could shave as much as $1.2 million more from the county’s annual spending.
“Every way you look at it,” Choy says, “it’s a win-win.”