In an economy that relies on stable sources of energy to remain fiscally sound, calling to question energy policy that addresses both energy supply and demand is expected to be contentious. Fortunately, sustainable thinking is capable of transcending small-minded politics by concentrating on higher goals that include conservation and affordable environmentally responsible sources of energy.

We've all heard it. Not only can turning off unnecessary lights save money, but changing bulbs to the more efficient kinds can diminish bills as well. The average incandescent light bulb costs $.01 per hour, while the equivalent compact fluorescent bulb costs $.01 per four hours. While the fluorescent bulbs are more expensive (to purchase), an incandescent bulb lasts two to six months, while a fluorescent bulb lasts 60 months.

It is not uncommon for office buildings to convert incandescent spot lights to fluorescent spot lights (with minor aesthetic differences) to realize a payback in less than one year with savings more than doubling over the next three to four years.

Similar gains can be realized on a larger scale. Recently, the State of Tennessee performed a study to investigate energy conservation opportunities at 14 State buildings in downtown Nashville, encompassing 3.7 million square feet of conditioned space. These buildings receive chilled water and steam from a municipally owned district heating and cooling system, and include high-rise office buildings, academic buildings, museums, theaters and the State Capitol building. Estimated annual energy consumption and demand cost savings resulting from the recommended energy conservation measures totaled $2,265,780 (or $161,841 per building on average) for a 35% reduction in operating costs. Implementation of the suggested energy saving measures and tune-up activities were estimated to cost $5,883,837, for an estimated simple payback period of 2.2 years.

While the formula for an energy audit varies, in most cases it covers the topics proven to have interest to energy users and value to managing their use. According to Nexus Energy Software, a typical energy audit should provide the sponsor answers to the following ubiquitous questions:

Is my bill too high? Energy bills provide no basis to gauge their reasonableness. Particularly when rising, energy consumers wonder how they compare with neighbors or competitors. Most energy audits therefore should produce a benchmark comparison by examining the energy bills on a normalized basis, taking into account demographic factors, such as home size or commercial sector. In addition, local weather severity (often measured in degree-days) is considered. In many cases, the appliances used and the fuel choices are considered.

What am I getting for my money? Most energy audits then proceed to disaggregate the energy bill into the costs of individual end use services, such as the cost of heat, air conditioning, light and hot water. The end use service components of cost provide the consumer with understanding of the value of energy in relation to cost and a starting point for considering changes to purchase decisions or behavior.

What can I do to improve end use services and lower costs? All energy audits evaluate the costs and benefits of bill-reducing options, which continue to grow in variety and complexity. Options evaluated can include behavioral or maintenance improvement, equipment replacements, facility improvements, rate options or fuel options. In addition, audits are often used to propose bundled solutions with financing (the Energy Service Company or ESCO market) or with deregulated energy (retail supplier market). Finally, audits often identify program opportunities such as utility efficiency and demand response programs, government incentives and tax credits.

How do I get my choices implemented? Often, the energy audit provides a path to implementation. The answers to the consumer's questions provide both the consumer and the economy with a valuable outcome. The knowledgeable consumer makes educated decisions: as a result he/she is more likely to substitute technology for energy, resulting in lower total costs as well as improved end use services, with less energy used. And the economy draws benefit from this substitution by reducing energy demands resulting in lower prices, mitigated environmental damage, and improved security.

There are a number of on-line energy audit packages that are particularly useful for home and small company use. Larger companies may want to consider forming a cross-sectional energy conservation committee that also includes representation from local utility suppliers. Most importantly, if you haven't completed anything in this area, it is time to get started. IH