Stimulus could energize green firms

Marketplace Staff Jan 22, 2009

Stimulus could energize green firms

Marketplace Staff Jan 22, 2009


KAI RYSSDAL: Environmental officials at the United Nations said today they’re hoping for an upside out of the global economic downturn — more spending on environmentally friendly projects. South Korea and Japan have already added green to their stimulus packages.

The plan Congress is considering includes a chuck of money for the same, including about $25 billion for energy efficiency. It could pay big dividends, but it’s not the sexiest line-item in the world — things like retrofitting federal buildings and insulating houses. A lot of the stimulus money could go to companies that have quietly been pushing energy efficiency for years.

KUOW’s Deborah Wang reports for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk.

JIM ATWOOD: So, watch your step when you come up here. . . .

DEBORAH WANG: The attic of Wellington Elementary School is not a place that most people here ever see. But this is where a sophisticated system of ducts and fans and heaters keeps the school warm.

ATWOOD: So these go into each of the rooms. . . .

Building custodian Jim Atwood says in the old days this school in Woodenville, Wash., had a terrible heating system that made hothouses out of some classrooms and left others cold. They were called squirrel cages.

ATWOOD: They do sound like squirrel cages. And they oftentimes . . . they’ll start making noises and hissing and howling and whatnot.

The new system regulates the temperature evenly and cuts the noise dramatically. But the biggest selling point is the school has slashed its energy use by about 10 percent. That saves about $26,000 a year, which buys a lot of needed school supplies.

Evan Ujiiye is director of capital projects for the school district.

Evan UJIIYE: The more money that we can save on our side is more money we can make available to the teachers in the classroom. And right now, given all the pressures that K-12 is facing, you know, it’s critical that we do that.

McKinstry Company installed the system. The Seattle firm specializes in big construction projects. But years ago they started marketing themselves as energy efficiency experts to ride out building downturns. They would retrofit old buildings and make them more energy efficient.

Ash Awad is vice president of energy services for McKinstry. He says it was intially kind of a hard sell.

ASH AWAD: In the early days we had to get out there and beat the street. We had to talk to a number of folks and try to get them to embrace this idea of making their buildings very energy efficient — you know, keeping in mind that in Washington State we experienced some of the lowest utility costs in the nation.

But now energy prices are higher and efficiency has become all the rage. Experts argue the U.S. could cut energy use by 20 percent, simply with existing technology. Consumers are looking to save money, businesses are trying to cut costs, and worries about global warming are increasing.

A host of companies, including multinationals like Honeywell and Siemens now upgrade heating, lighting and air conditioning systems, and weatherize buildings. And the industry has a powerful new ally in Washington.

BARACK OBAMA: Hello everybody! Hey, how are you?

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama toured McKinstry’s headquarters, met with workers, and even played basketball in the company gym.

OBAMA: Well, you know, if this president thing doesn’t work out, I may come work here.

Then in his half-hour campaign infomercial, Obama singled out McKinstry.

OBAMA IN INFOMERCIAL: Recently, I visited the McKinstry Company in Seattle. They’re retrofitting schools and office buildings to make them energy efficient. As president I’ll use companies like McKinstry as a model for the nation.

The House stimulus plan sets aside more than $25 billion for energy efficiency projects.

Stan Price is executive director of the Northwest Energy Efficiency Council. He says the plan could be an enormous commercial boost.

Stan Price: Particularly with credit markets the way they are, it’s more and more difficult for property owners to be able to make that investment right now. So these federal stimulus funds are coming at a really appropriate time.

But that could also lead to an embarrassment of riches. Price worries there aren’t enough workers to do all that work.

In Seattle, I’m Deborah Wang, for Marketplace.

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