Affording Green Design: Rebates and Incentives

Rudy Fabiano, a registered architect and interior designer, is president of Fabiano Designs, one of the country’s leading architects for fitness, wellness centers, sports and recreational clubs, as well as spa work. Fabiano Designs has produced more than 400 projects nationally in the past 20 years. Fabiano can be reached at [email protected].

There are so many articles on green building and design that I can’t blame anyone for getting numb about it. Given all the things that “green” can mean—recycling, conserving water, avoiding chemicals, being energy efficient, etc.— even trying to consider being a green facility can be downright overwhelming. One thing is certain: the green revolution is here to stay, and it will become an economic force, both as a national industry and as a way to reduce our out-of-control energy costs.

So what is our responsibility as a health-based industry to the green movement, and what are the incentives? While we are all for the environment, we are, after all, in business to make money.

So let’s take a step back and consider that thought. Fitness facilities use lots of energy to run—just take a look at your utility bill as proof. Running one inefficient light bulb for a year equals $100 wasted. You may have 500 light bulbs, so that’s $50,000 wasted. If you upgrade your mechanical systems, lighting and electrical system, you not only will be green environmentally, but you also will achieve real savings that will directly add to your bottom line. Being energy efficient is a profitable move for your company that will add real dollars to your profit column. However, given the realities of the economy, how can you afford the upfront costs to become energy efficient? More importantly, how can you afford not to upgrade?

That’s where incentives come in. Your local utility companies—as well as federal, state and local governments—have interests in conserving wasteful and inefficient energy usage since no one wants to build hugely expensive power plants. They will indeed give you money in the form of rebates, grants, tax credits and incentives so you can upgrade your facility. These incentives, worth anywhere from 30 percent to 100 percent of the total cost of the upgrade project, are free for the taking. No, it’s not too good to be true. With a little bit of homework and effort, you can be on your way to huge savings.

Literally hundreds of federal, state and local programs can help subsidize the cost of improvements. Most of these programs are based on improving your building’s overall energy efficiency. Efficiency is the operative word. In many instances, improving on your current or a standard efficiency factor will be the main requirement to receiving this money. Beware, however, so many programs are out there each with varying degrees of paperwork requirements and performance baselines that you may become confused or overwhelmed before you even start. Although at first glance it may seem like too much to handle, it does not need to be. Numerous agencies and entities can help you navigate the process. You can get direct rebates by calling your local utility company or third-party, nonprofit groups that will assist you every step of the way.

To help coordinate this process, I advise my clients to assign this task to one of their staff and treat it as an important revenue-producing project. My company also is adding this service to our offerings to help clients navigate the process, meet compliance and get these moneys.

So where do we find out what incentives and rebates are available? A great place to start is the Web. One of the best Web sites I’ve found is called DSIRE—the Database of State Incentives for Renewable & Efficiency. This site is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

DSIRE is a database of almost all available incentives in the country. Navigating through the search is really quite easy. A state-by-state grid on the site is simple to use. It dictates the type of incentives from local to state, federal and private, plus how many incentives, and from where the money comes. The incentives can be in tax credits, outright rebates, grants, loans, etc. Simply click on one of the incentive keys in your state and a detailed explanation will pop up, including how much is available plus any contact information.

Minnesota, for example has two state-sponsored sales tax rebates, one state-sponsored property tax incentive, two state rebates, 22 utility-based rebates, eight grants and two production incentives. In all, 740 financial incentives for renewable and efficient energy are available.

California, which has aggressive utility-sponsored rebate incentive programs, has one that will provide up to $150,000 for system costs and $50,000 for designer costs, up to 50 percent of the total cost. However, to get this, your desired efficiency must be at least 10 percent better that a baseline criteria.

If the Web is a start in your journey to be green and profitable, consultants can make the process even easier.

Marina Rose, an energy-efficiency specialist for Ecology Action, a nonprofit environmental consultancy delivering program implementation for the San Francisco area, helps companies evaluate, document and contract for upgrades. Essentially, her organization will review your usage, equipment and bills—not only to recommend an action plan, but also to make it happen. Rose will control your project from start to finish.

“All the owners have to do is sign the paperwork and allow the contractors access to the work. It’s essentially free money with a payback of usually under a year,” she says. “You’d be surprised that my biggest barrier to doing this for people is that they think it’s a scam. That’s when we bring in the utility company to assure the business owners [that] it’s not, and it is money that they are entitled to, and have essentially paid for through their taxes.”

Ecology Action will help with all the paperwork and facilitate the work from calculating the potential energy savings and rebates, to getting quality contactors to do the work. For example, Rose worked closely with a large Bay Area health club to retrofit its old inefficient lighting package. The cost to do the work was $18,000. The rebates totaled $14,500. So the club owner’s out-of-pocket expense was $3,500. The annual savings for the club in energy cost was $33,000. In five years, that club will make a profit of $161,500. Keep in mind that was just for lighting upgrades. Some business owners have saved well over $20,000 a month for whole building efficiencies.

As they say, there are two ways to make money in business—by adding profit or by cutting expenses. Any way you look at it, being energy efficient is a long-term money maker. With all these available resources and incentives, being green has never been easier or smarter.