Biggest Energy Loser Contest: And the Winner Is

REGION – The Biggest Loser is the biggest winner.

Not just on the tacky NBC reality show about people losing weight, but right here in northern Michigan, where three companies took on the challenge of lessening their energy consumption: the Betsie Bay Inn in Frankfort, the law firm of Olson, Bzdok and Howard in Traverse City, and the Cherry Republic's Stomp House Winery in Glen Arbor.

The winner? Olson, Bzdok and Howard. Their energy consumption was down an average of 22 percent.

"It's a reminder of things we all should know," says Colleen Mulligan, business manager at Olson, Bzdok and Howard. "We're an environmental law firm. This is something we should be doing anyway.

"We needed to put our money where our mouth is."

The other competitors felt the same way.

"We thought it was very important. Not enough people understand the monetary difference it (saving energy) can make," says Lesley Perkins, owner of the Betsie Bay Inn.

"It's about awareness-raising. We've got everybody yelling at everyone else to turn off that faucet or turn off that light."

TJ Ewing of Empowerment Energy Analysts was in charge of collecting and analyzing the data and suggesting ways in which the companies could reduce their energy consumption.

"When we looked at this contest, it was a relatively short time frame, and we wanted to see what a business could do that is simple, low cost and immediate," says Ewing.

Ewing said the typical energy analysis will look at three levels. Level One includes an audit and suggestions for how a company can immediately reduce its consumption. Level Two includes more in-depth analysis, including looking at the heating and cooling systems and the building's envelope, leakage around windows and doors, and maintenance logs. Level Three is a complete engineering analysis as well as suggestions for retrofitting and a cost analysis.

The Level One analysis immediately spelled out some opportunities for savings. At Cherry Republic, one of the first and best was to reprogram the building's thermostat.

"We found the thermostat was set to begin heating up at 5:30 in the morning," says Todd Ciolek, the chief operating officer for Cherry Republic and the point person there for the contest. "That didn't need to be turned on until 9 or 9:30. We were heating the building when no one was there."

The most common strategies among the participants involved the use of electricity: Turning off the lights, turning off computers and other appliances when they were not being used, and in the case of the Betsie Bay Inn, managing water use as well.

"There are several common areas where the lights were on all the time," says Mulligan. "There were a couple computers that were typically left on all night. And we turned down the temperature on the water heater."

Typically, one of the most popular and highest-profile means of reducing electricity usage is switching from incandescent lights to compact fluorescent bulbs. All three contestants had already switched out a number of them, but in the case of Cherry Republic they were able to go a little further.

"We already had CFLs, but we went through and saw where they were in use," says Ciolek. "We were able to pull a few out. We found about ten that were unnecessary."

Even though the contest is over, the participants remain excited about the prospects of further reducing their carbon footprint and saving money and resources.

"Each time we replace an appliance we use one that is Energy Star rated," says Perkins.

"We would like to get better insulation in the exterior walls that's non-toxic," she adds. "And I'd like to be able to put in new windows."

Ciolek agrees: "Where we would see some more substantial savings was outside the scope of the contest. We want to insulate the building a little better."

"The entire building is electric, and the main draw (on the electricity) is heating in the winter," he says. "We want to do the basic things, like seal the windows, but also add some insulation in the ceiling and down below. The payback from additional insulation is pretty quick."

Mulligan says she expects the benefits from the contest to endure.

"There are always areas we can improve upon," she says. "It was absolutely a good thing to do." BN