Comment: Utility grants helping small business keep lights on

Snohomish PUD and PSE helped Habitat for Humanity with efficient lighting. Congress can help, too.

By Steven Li / For The Herald

While pandemic-era restrictions in Washington may have been lifted on June 30, it’s clear that for our region’s small businesses, permission to reopen doesn’t necessarily equal ability to reopen.

As of June 19, more than 37 percent of our state’s small businesses were closed, as compared to January 2020. Worryingly, the number of small business closures has actually increased in the past several months, despite falling covid-19 caseloads.

I was on the board of Habitat for Humanity of Snohomish County — where I now serve as executive director — when the first cases in the United States were reported just miles away. This has given me a front-row seat while overseeing our local Habitat stores to the challenges experienced by small businesses from the start of the pandemic until now. Our stores employed 10 people across three store locations, until we closed for three months and had to furlough them. Because of those closures, our stores lost more than $300,000 in revenue, in addition to decreases in donations and grant funding.

Because of the nature of our business model, these closures and losses have been especially devastating. We depend on our store sales to fund much of our work building affordable homes and providing home repairs to low-income families.

As we began to reopen under public health restrictions, our primary concern was as critical then as it is now: How can we widen our margins and cut costs, so we can get back to addressing Snohomish County’s dire housing needs?

Like many small businesses, initially we only saw two options. We could attract more customers, who were slow to return. Or, we could cut costs by cutting back operations; which is easier said than done. We were thankfully able to rehire all our store staff, but everyone is still stretched thin, and we couldn’t afford to reduce staff capacity in the slightest.

A third option, however, fell into our lap: cutting energy costs.

Our store in Smokey Point partnered with Snohomish County Public Utility District and Puget Sound Energy to complete an energy efficiency retrofit of our lighting. The high-efficiency LED lighting equipment installed will save our organization $7,538 every single year in electricity bills.

The best part? We didn’t pay a cent for it.

Through Snohomish PUD and PSE’s Small Business Direct Install program, the project’s cost was covered. Without the support of this program, we would have spent more than $20,000. This has enabled us to put the entirety of our energy savings into housing solutions for local families.

The experience has been overwhelmingly positive, and I would encourage more small businesses in the area to apply. These types of utility incentives aren’t available everywhere, and where they are, it’s common to require the business owner to pay some of the project cost. This puts efficiency upgrades out of reach for many who don’t have the capital upfront.

That is, unless we do something about it.

The introduction of the Main Street Efficiency Act in Congress would create a pathway to help more small businesses retrofit their buildings and reduce energy costs. This legislation would fund a federal grant program matching existing utility incentives, helping cover most, if not all, energy efficiency project costs for small business owners. Millions of small businesses across the country would become eligible to lower their energy expenses, often by around 30 percent. And because minority-owned businesses have been the hardest hit in the pandemic, the act would prioritize grants to utilities that serve diverse small businesses.

Seeing firsthand how something as simple as new lighting is helping our store’s bottom line, I’m excited by the possibility that many more businesses could soon have this opportunity, whether it’s a restaurant installing more modern refrigeration, or an office space getting a new layer of insulation. If the cost savings aren’t reason enough, this is also an incredible climate solution. Buildings account for 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Small business spaces are one of the hardest to decarbonize, because owners don’t have the same time or resources as corporations to consider or implement a sustainability plan. One analysis of the Main Street Efficiency Act found it would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 40 million metric tons over the life of the installed equipment.

Congress shouldn’t miss this opportunity to easily cut emissions and help small businesses achieve permanent cost savings. The Main Street Efficiency Act allows owners to think about long-term recovery and reinvesting in their workers and communities, rather than spending thousands of dollars a month just keeping the lights on. I hope to see our state’s congressional delegation support this act.

Steven Li is executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Snohomish County.

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