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Saving energy may generate billions, study says

By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / October 2, 2009

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What does energy efficiency do for you?

According to a report from researchers at the nonprofit advocacy group Environment Northeast, all the money that government agencies, utility companies, and others are spending on efficiency programs not only saves energy, it pumps cash back into the economy - from $6 to $8.50 for every $1 spent.

And that helps businesses grow, creates jobs, and spurs more spending.

The report speculates that if $27.2 billion were spent in New England on such programs over the next 15 years, $180 billion would be reinvested in local economies as a result. Nearly three-quarters of that would be returned to workers in increased income, and an average of 38,000 jobs would be created annually.

“The return numbers are really impressive,’’ said Derek K. Murrow, one of the authors of the report, which was released yesterday. “A lot of states, and especially Massachusetts, have made a significant commitment to capturing energy efficiency . . . [and] moving forward with those opportunities is a real need, especially in a time of economic downturn.’’

Energy efficiency - replacing older technologies with ones that require less energy to perform a function such as lighting a room - is a key priority in Massachusetts. State legislators last year passed the Green Communities Act, mandating that utilities offer consumers incentives to upgrade inefficient appliances and invest in energy efficiency improvements to meet demand when doing so costs less than generating power.

“Making the transition to a clean energy future will require technology and innovation,’’ Governor Deval Patrick said in an e-mailed statement. “But some things are simple. We can reduce energy use, cut greenhouse gas emissions, and save money at the same time by becoming more energy efficient.’’

In keeping with Green Communities Act mandate, the utility National Grid recently launched a campaign challenging customers to use 3 percent less energy every year for the next decade.

“If we all save a little energy, together we can effect huge positive changes for the environment, the economy, and our wallets,’’ said Jackie Barry, a National Grid spokeswoman.

The state’s efforts contributed to a 40 percent increase last year in the number of people employed by local energy efficiency firms, according to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. And that number is expected to rise again this year.

One firm that will probably benefit is Conservation Services Group, a Westborough nonprofit that runs energy efficiency programs. And company president Adam Parker said that because firms like his already are helping people here become more energy efficient, any further investment is likely to pay off more quickly because programs won’t have to be created from scratch.

“We’re best positioned, I think of anybody in the country, to take advantage of energy efficiency investments,’’ Parker said, because of the attention local officials, utilities, and others already are giving to such efforts.

Educating people that energy efficiency does more than lower bills is one of the most important issues the Environment Northeast report addresses, according to Nick D’Arbeloff of the New England Clean Energy Council.

“They’ve gone further to establish that the dollars returned stay within the region, spurring the local economy,’’ he said.

Robert Rio, senior vice president at the trade group Associated Industries of Massachusetts, said he “believes in energy efficiency’’ but also sees some challenges.

“Cost is obviously a hurdle. Somebody has to pay for all of these investments, ’’ Rio said, adding that many often have to be persuaded into implementing efficiency measures. “The key is, it’s not sexy. People like to put windmills up, people like to put solar panels up, but in reality, dollar for dollar, energy efficiency will get you more kilowatts.’’

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com.

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