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Economy stifles efficiency projects

Sean Ryan
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Energy efficiency is taking a backseat to the basics as building owners pare down their budgets in a bad economy.

Those owners are instead improving lighting in their buildings, or they are training tenants or employees how to use less water and electricity when in the office, said Darryll Fortune, public relations director for Johnson Controls Inc., Milwaukee. As a result, expensive heating or air-conditioning projects are getting pushed back, he said.

“Year over year, it is down but not significantly down,” Fortune said. “What we’re finding is that it should be going up.”

Johnson Controls and the Houston-based International Facility Management Association on Wednesday released a survey of facilities managers and chief executives, predicting a 10 percent drop in efficiency projects between 2008 and 2009.

“As the economy starts to thaw, we’ll likely see some of that money coming back for capital energy projects and other construction projects,” said Shari Epstein, director of research for the association.

Energy efficiency projects dipped earlier this year, but already there are signs the market is rebounding, said Allan Skodowski, senior vice president and director of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and sustainability for Transwestern Commercial Services Wisconsin LLC, which manages 1 million square feet of commercial office space in Milwaukee. Some projects — such as heating, ventilating and air-conditioning work — that were sidelined are now going out for bids because contractors are offering such low prices, he said.

“It looks like people are moving back to some of the smaller projects and re-pricing some of those efficiency projects,” Skodowski said.

Corporate budgets in 2009 are not including much money for efficiency projects, but lowering utility payments is a priority for projects in the planning phases, said Cindy Finstad, construction executive at M.A. Mortenson Co., Milwaukee.

“Construction overall is down and there are smaller companies closing, and work out there — if you are getting some that is great because it is in short supply,” she said. “But I think more now than ever, companies are looking at energy efficiency.”

Wisconsin can generate more efficiency projects by requiring such work in building codes and limiting companies’ greenhouse gas emissions, said Keith Reopelle, senior policy director for Clean Wisconsin Inc., Madison.  A draft state report released Tuesday said Wisconsin could generate 7,000 to 9,000 jobs through efficiency improvements, and many of those jobs would be in construction, he said.

Yet uncertainty over the potential for government regulations is slowing efficiency work in private buildings, Fortune said. On the other hand, there are many public projects on the sidelines waiting for federal money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, he said.

Skodowski said the market might be sagging now, but there is more work on the way for improving the efficiency of existing buildings.

“Hold on tight,” he said, “because that’s where I think the opportunity is going to be.”

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