Larry Rulison writes in the Albany Times Union that Mark Siegal had everyone’s attention Friday morning at National Grid’s energy efficiency expo at the Albany Marriott.

Siegal is the manager of National Grid’s commercial and industrial energy efficiency programs, and he was explaining to a room full of business owners how a new program that targets small businesses works.
There was a reason for so much interest. National Grid’s Small Business Energy Efficiency Program, which targets businesses such as convenience stores, pizza shops, hair salons and auto dealers, pays up to 70 percent of the costs of energy efficiency upgrades. It’s available to small businesses that use 100 kilowatts of power or less.

National Grid also allows business owners to finance the remaining costs interest-free for 24 months.

“It’s up and running,” Siegal told the room. “This may be a great program for you.”

National Grid’s program was created through the state’s Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard, which is designed to reduce electricity usage in the state by 15 percent by 2015. The goal — also called “15-by-15” — was originally proposed under former Gov. Eliot Spitzer and continues to be supported today by Gov. David Paterson.

Last year, the state Public Service Commission approved the Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard, and it’s funded through a surcharge on all utility bills called the System Benefits Charge that also goes toward other energy efficiency programs in the state.

Up to $85 million is expected to be available through National Grid’s small business program, which includes a free energy audit. Typically, the greatest energy savings can be achieved through replacing light bulbs and changing controls and motors in walk-in or reach-in coolers often found at small supermarkets, convenience stores and florists.

Siegal says National Grid has completed 350 energy audits so far and installed $2 million in new equipment. The average project costs $6,000, which means that the typical out-of-pocket cost comes to $1,800, which can be paid off through the business’s National Grid bill over two years without interest.

In most cases, new high-efficiency lighting makes the biggest difference in energy costs. And in most cases, the lighting is actually better.

“You save a lot of energy and still get the same value for that lighting,” Siegal said.

National Grid has subcontracted energy efficiency firms to manage the small business program for them.

One of them is SmartWatt Energy Inc. of Ballston Lake, which is managing the program in the Syracuse area.

Chris Covell, the president of SmartWatt, said small businesses are perfect for energy audits because many of them make few changes to their operations.

“With a small business, the lights turn on, and that’s all they think about,” Covell said at the expo.

But the potential savings can be huge, he says. The typical retail business spends about half of its electric bill on lighting, and SmartWatt can cut that lighting portion in half with new equipment.

“Business has been good,” Covell said. “It’s been a good year.”

Read more: Albany Times Union