Businesses can cut Hydro bill 20% or more: consultant

It takes some investigation to find that so-called low-hanging fruit - relatively easy ways to cut a business's energy bill.

Rob Klovance

Relatively easy ways to save energy – that so-called low-hanging fruit – aren't quite where you may think they are.

Changing a T12 fixture to a T8 is not what this story, or Brian O'Donnell's workshops, are all about.

"Yes, lighting is typically a big piece for these businesses, because it represents a pretty big slice of the pie," says O'Donnell. "But we go back a step and say, 'Let's look at things from the meter right down to the end uses. Let's start at the end uses and say, where is energy going and when is it being used?"

That will be a key theme again this year as O'Donnell returns to the Power Smart Forum with the NRCan Identifying Energy Savings Opportunities workshop for small and medium businesses. Some of the best opportunities to save are more about processes than products.

"If you start taking a closer look at things, it's not unusual that you can reduce that cost by 20% or more," says O'Donnell.

Where the savings are found

A former engineer-in-training with BC Hydro's Energy Use Engineering Department, O'Donnell is the co-founder of Prism Engineering, which acts as an energy consultant for businesses small, medium and large. His typical investigation into a customer's energy use starts with a look at how utility bills vary from season to season, and often continues with use of temporary metering to examine the pattern of weekday, night time, weekend and holiday usage.

"We look at the energy profiles at different times of the day and week," he says. "And that is often a real gold mine of opportunity...

"Just by doing this temporary metering, we will often find operational issues that will produce low-hanging fruit. It's very common, for example, that overnight a facility may use 40, 50% or even more of what they use during the daytime when they're in full operation. And when you ask them why that's happening, you get a lot of shoulder shrugging, like "I don't know, I'm not here at that time of the day."

O'Donnell will dig into that usage, ask why certain systems are running the way they are, and present energy-saving solutions.

"When you pursue the why and find out if things really need to be done that way, you find out there's a lot of things that aren't getting turned on and off that should."

O'Donnell says that common process issues include the use of too much overnight lighting, ostensibly for security or emergency evacuation but not required or effective. Other areas to save include compressors, pumps, exhaust systems and small exhaust fans. "People may think that an exhaust fan is such a small unit, that it's really not worth bothering with, but it actually is a big deal," he says.

Energy spikes are costly

O'Donnell's investigations sometimes unearth significant demand spikes, perhaps once a day or in some cases once a week. It's here that an understanding of what's causing the spike, and how that spike impacts a BC Hydro bill, that can lead to significant savings.

"We try to find out why that spike is happening at that particular time, whether it's justified and whether, if it was done two hours earlier or later, perhaps it wouldn't have the same impact at all," he says.

Why is an energy spike so costly?

"With most small and medum businesses, once their over a certain size, they're charged electrical consumption and electrical demand," he says.

"They're paying based on the highest 20-minute period throughout that billing period. It may have only occurred once, and it may just have occurred by chance, but if it happened, that's the demand level you pay throughout the entire month."

One of the sessions offered at this year's Power Smart Forum – albeit for industrial customers – is Understanding Your Electricity Bill and Where You Use Energy" Not surprisingly, it's run by fellow Prism consultant Robert Greenwald.

The case for savings

Sometimes, convincing a business to look into its energy use is the toughest challenge of all.

"A lot of small and medium businesses are still looking at utilities as, basically, a fixed cost," says O'Donnell. "So they won't look at it as a great area for savings potential."

Other businesses figure that they've taken care of the obvious, changed the requisite number of light bulbs and saved all they can. The next step, they feel, would be too costly and probably wouldn't survive a cost-benefit analysis.

O'Donnell believes customers must properly equate savings to their bottom line, specifically to how much revenue would be required to equal those potential energy savings. He provides an anecdote about his work with a big business to illustrate the type of analysis that can sway customers.

In trying to convince Air Canada to launch an initiatitive to get its thousands of employees to start paying attention to the small things, such as turning off lights and closing hangar doors, O'Donnell was intially told such savings would be "a drop in the bucket" in the airline's energy bills.

"We told them that for every $100 you save in energy use, that's like adding seven extra people on a flight between Vancouver and Toronto," said O'Donnell. "All of a sudden we were talking about this in terms of their core business. Getting them thinking about how many things they'd have to sell in order to have the same impact as an energy reduction started to open eyes."

Rob Klovance is managing editor of