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How one small business cut its energy use and costs

By Tom Bowman - posted Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Would enlisting millions of small companies in a national response to climate change be worth the effort? Their prominence in political rhetoric suggests that it might. Small business owners are attractive political icons - entrepreneurs personify American ideals of free enterprise, innovation and self-reliance. But their individual contributions to greenhouse gas emissions are small, and in practice, getting millions of entrepreneurs to agree about anything is like herding cats; we are a diverse, independent, and competitive group. This leaves the value of a small business response to climate change unclear.

Actual evidence is scarce. New technologies and LEED-certified buildings dominate the news, but the majority of small companies are neither clean-tech start-ups, nor likely to build new facilities. Experiments with my own company, which fits this common profile, suggest that we can reduce greenhouse-gas emissions rapidly and cost-effectively, and that some of the barriers to action are misunderstood.

I own a design firm, and my work on climate change exhibitions for the Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences and the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography earned me the nickname “the closet climatologist” and provided an education about the potential consequences of unchecked global warming. These experiences engendered a sense of urgency about finding practical ways to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Like many Americans, I felt compelled to act and, because I am a business owner, I had the opportunity to try.


My company’s frustrating search for effective, affordable opportunities eventually led to a surprising discovery: cost-saving opportunities to reduce carbon emissions are ever-present in the normal course of business operations.

My test bed is a small creative services company located in Southern California. Our 10 employees occupy a two-story, 2,000-square-foot, commercially-zoned residence that was built in the 1930s and upgraded during the mid-90s. Our facility has fairly good natural light and ventilation, but suffers from enormous heat gain. Owning this facility provided the flexibility to consider making long-term investments in the property, but we have not actually implemented them yet. Our experiment indicates that smaller, less-expensive steps can be extremely effective.

I began with an observation from Daniel Esty and Andrew Winston’s Green to Gold that successful sustainability programs are usually built upon extraordinarily ambitious goals. Green business plans that set impossible targets force people to look at problems in new ways. I found a suitably improbable goal in California’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32). AB 32 requires California to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and to 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050. Since our company does not employ long-lived capital equipment, I reasoned that we should try to accelerate this timeline.

We joined the California Climate Action Registry in early 2008 to take advantage of its low-cost emissions verification program, and we submitted our 2006 data to establish an emissions baseline. We set aggressive emissions targets: a reduction of 10 per cent by 2010, 20 per cent by 2013, and 80 per cent by 2020, with similar goals for water use and landfill waste. One employee asked whether I was crazy, but our frequent conversations helped establish a green-conscious culture within a few months.

I traded the company’s small SUV for a Prius because it offered the highest mileage available at the time, and because the merits of biodiesel were in dispute. Next, we took our electric utility company’s advice and called them for an energy audit. In a pattern that is typical for service businesses, our air conditioning, computers, and other office equipment dominate our energy usage. The utility re-lamped our building - a $300 saving. We signed up for a program that lets the utility cycle our air conditioning during peak demand events, and we eliminated “vampire power” by turning power strips off at night. Unfortunately, the utility could not offer incentive programs for solar PV, cool roofs, weatherisation, or low-E windows to businesses of our size, so we were left to rely on our own research and financial resources.

In setting a budget, an energy consultant told me that many companies invest three times their annual utility costs in efficiency upgrades. While this number is fairly arbitrary, it suggested that we might spend about $10,000 on carbon abatement. As a point of reference, a solar PV array, plus a carport structure we would need to build in order to aim solar panels southward, would have cost nine times that amount.


Unfortunately, government incentives on solar power were small in 2008, and our type of corporate structure disqualified us anyway. These barriers have since been lowered, but our experience suggests that we can benefit from improving energy efficiency, as a first step toward going solar. In fact, an architect recommended that we improve the passive efficiency of our building so that we might eventually invest in smaller, less expensive air conditioning and solar energy systems based on reduced demand. He recommended a highly reflective metal roof with additional insulation, which would have cost a prohibitive $40,000. Finding heat-gain data for less expensive roofing options proved to be impossible, so we were back to square one.

Then events took us by surprise: The lease on our copier expired, and we chose an energy-efficient, multi-function machine that allowed us to decommission two other laser printers, a laser fax, and a scanner. The print quality is so good that we reduced our large-format plotting by 75 per cent.

Over the summer, our air conditioner broke down. We replaced it with the most energy efficient model we could afford, and took the opportunity to improve airflow through some of our ductwork. The total cost was $7,000.

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First published in Yale Environment 360 on October 7, 2010.

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About the Author

Tom Bowman is founder and president of Bowman Design Group, a California-based company that creates exhibitions for corporations, museums, and event organizers. In 2009, the company received a Small Business of the Year award from the California Air Resources Board. He also established Bowman Global Change, which helps organizations develop sustainable strategies.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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