This Man Wants to Dim Your Lights

Oakland is about to embark upon an ambitious energy audit of commercial buildings thanks to the Obama stimulus money. It should save businesses money while jump-starting an industry.

On a recent afternoon, Derrick Rebello was walking in downtown Oakland when he peered in the window of Lee’s Barber Shop at 1410 Webster Street. “That thing is horrible,” he said, pointing to a bank of fat, old-fashioned fluorescent lights. With just a few changes — better bulbs, lights on different circuits — he said Lee’s could cut its energy consumption in half and still have more light.

Zeroing in on how buildings could improve their energy costs is what Rebello does for a living. Oakland’s entire downtown will soon get the Rebello treatment with the “Downtown Oakland Targeted Measure Saturation Project,” a cumbersomely named endeavor to make Oakland’s downtown buildings — particularly the less high-end ones — more energy-efficient.

In the next two years, Rebello’s company Quantum Energy Solutions & Technologies (QuEST), in partnership with other firms as well as business and community groups, will target a 120-square block area in Oakland that stretches roughly from Jack London Square to Grand Lake Avenue and from Lake Merritt to Interstate 980. The goal is to reduce the energy consumption in 80 percent of the buildings by 20 percent through the installation of advanced lighting and improvements in the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, including the use of wireless technologies.

This project, which is supposed to begin this summer, will be made possible by a $4.9 million federal stimulus grant tentatively awarded by the California Energy Commission to QuEST and its partners. It is one of five grants funding energy projects that the city will be a part of, Oakland leaders announced in February. The others include a pilot retrofit program for multifamily affordable housing and help for local governments to improve energy efficiency in public buildings. In the Bay Area, the grants total $40 million and equate to roughly 4,000 jobs using a Department of Energy formula that assumes that every $90,000 spent equals a job created or saved.

It is too early to know how these projects will stimulate the East Bay economy, where Oakland’s unemployment rate hovers at 17 percent and Berkeley’s stands at 11 percent. But one thing that becomes apparent from talking about these grants with Rebello, as well as local and state officials, is that the money is allowing them to enact ambitious projects they only could dream of before. In a typical year, the Energy Commission spends about $3 million on its state energy program, mostly to support staffing for building and appliance efficiency work, said Susanne Garfield, a spokeswoman with the California Energy Commission. The QuEST grant is part of a package of $110 million to be doled out this year. “This amount of money is the record for us,” Garfield added.

Thanks to the stimulus money, the state will take a step closer to reaching its environmental goals. But what about the chief purpose of the stimulus funds, which is to revive local economies and get people working again?

Job creation was one of five criterion for sorting through the 104 proposals the commission received, Garfield said. Yet economic development isn’t as straightforward as pouring money into a community. Another key is what is happening in the local economy before the money arrives and after it dries up.

Recently, the commission found itself in the hotseat over the issue of job creation. Earlier this month, Democratic Senator Alex Padilla, chairman of the state senate’s energy committee, called on members of the commission to explain how Portland Energy Conservation Inc. from the state of Oregon was slated to receive $18.8 million, more than half of the $29.6 million awarded in one set of grants. The commission defended its grant by noting that the company would be training and employing young people in the California Conservation Corps to do energy-efficiency work such as audits of refrigeration units, creating as many as 117 jobs in the state.

But Senator Padilla pooh-poohed the jobs, some of which would pay $8 an hour. “To think that the California Energy Commission, for all its history of being on the cutting edge of policy, is giving huge sums to a firm outside the state I think is unconscionable,” the Los Angeles Times quoted him as saying.

Putting aside the specific number of jobs any one grant may create, the stimulus grants may serve to accelerate the realization of economic development centered around green jobs and training already underway. The East Bay Green Corridor, a consortium of most East Bay cities and other entities such as UC Berkeley, have pooled resources to jointly market the region and finance green job-training programs. Environmental policies such as Oakland’s aggressive goals to reduce carbon emissions serve a double purpose in gaining the attention of businesses thinking of locating here.

City officials appear ready to lend a hand to such companies. For example, when Sungevity was considering moving to Oakland’s Jack London Square from Berkeley, Oakland helped attract the company by talking about its forthcoming shuttle from BART stations to Jack London Square and Uptown.

In the case of QuEST’s downtown saturation project, about 77 jobs are expected to be created. “It’s not a lot of jobs; it’s more than zero,” said Rebello of QuEST. The numbers don’t include jobs preserved from reducing costs or from training contractors on advanced technologies that will help their businesses, he said. In addition, QuEST and its partners will tap into the Oakland Green Jobs Corps, a consortium training low-income people for so-called “green-collar jobs.” Graduates will be introduced to installation contractors, and internships will be provided to those who are thinking about two- or four-year college programs.

QuEST will work with Energy Solutions, a municipal energy retrofit assistance program in Oakland; Renewable Funding, an energy financing firm; and Kema, an energy consulting firm. Other than saving Oakland businesses $1.1 million annually in energy costs and reducing greenhouse gases by 2,600 tons, the goal is to introduce emerging advanced technology that the energy commission wants to make standard, such as advance lighting controls, which are generally more expensive, said Rebello, the company’s president.

The plan involves a coordinated approach to building owners, offering them a comprehensive energy plan that would include lighting, heating, financing, and other resources. Half the money will finance operations and half will go for incentives to owners who upgrade their buildings. Although high-end commercial buildings will also be eligible for the audits, the project targets second- and third-tier commercial buildings, which tend to be older and have been largely ignored by the energy-efficiency industry. When Rebello asked the commission why his plan was awarded the grant, they told him, “saturation.”

The project faces some challenges. A team of people, some of whom don’t know each other well — environmental consultants, Pacific Gas & Electric, community groups, merchant associations, chambers of commerce — will have to work together. And there will be some general resistance. Many building owners have had to hunker down to get through the past few years, and may not have resources to put toward energy efficiency. That’s why how building owners are approached is critical, Rebello said. “We’ll have one, maybe two, shots at them,” he said. “We have to get it right.”

If 80 percent of the buildings participate, building owners will have to shell out roughly another $2 million for renovations, although Rebello believes that these contributions will typically be offset by energy savings after two years. “When people have a reason not to do it, we’ll find a resource,” Rebello said. Financing the work will involve a variety of options, such as incentives or property tax payments, as well as third-party financing, said Susan Kattchee, Oakland’s environment services manager.

The ultimate aim for Rebello, who has a Ph.D in economics, is what happens after the project. If the Oakland plan works, it can serve as a model to other cities seeking to reduce energy costs and greenhouse gases, he said. “If we can’t do it with the resources we’re throwing at it, then what?”

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