Downtown Cleveland. (Photo by Emily Bell via Creative Commons)
Downtown Cleveland. (Photo by Emily Bell via Creative Commons)
Downtown Cleveland. (Photo by Emily Bell via Creative Commons)

©2013 E&E Publishing, LLC
Republished with permission

By Evan Lehmann

Cleveland’s chamber of commerce is ready to launch an unusual program to help businesses get loans for energy efficiency retrofits. In Salt Lake City, the local chamber is promoting “clean air” to reduce gasoline use.

These out-of-the-ordinary pursuits by local business associations are increasingly being used in regions where the politics of climate change might not fly, but profits from clean energy do.

Local chambers are devising ways to reduce the travel time of big trucks, swap gas guzzlers for natural gas haulers and erect wind turbines in conservative states.

Business officials there say it’s all in the message — and the messenger. Chambers tend to be trusted allies of hometown companies and are known to advocate for business interests more than environmental benefits.

As it turns out, many local business groups are seeing that environmental benefits are good for business.

“It comes down to the bottom line for small businesses,” said Nicole Stika, senior director of energy services at the Council of Smaller Enterprises in Cleveland. It is a division of the Greater Cleveland Partnership, which is the name of the local chamber. “They’re focused on retaining jobs and being successful. Climate change is not necessarily part of their everyday vocabulary.”

Her group is about to launch a program that will help small businesses, which might not qualify for an energy efficiency loan, receive upfront capital for retrofits. Stika says it might be the first time that a chamber has gotten so involved in financing projects to replace outmoded lighting, heating and cooling systems.

The program is expected to provide about 150 loan guarantees to small companies over the next three years. The chamber is essentially cosigning the loans. It marks an expansion of the group’s full-service energy efficiency repertoire, which provides businesses with energy assessments, advice on energy rebates and project designs from start to finish.

Clean energy, not climate policy

Stika says the loans will be provided by a local bank and range from $5,000 to $50,000. The chamber designs the retrofits so they attain enough savings to cover a project’s cost. In other words, the energy reductions will provide the monthly loan payments.

Other consultants and contractors provide similar services. But Stika says the chamber has an advantage: It’s trusted. That can accelerate the pace by which businesses commit to efficiency projects, she said.

“They don’t know who to trust, which is really the biggest thing that it comes down to,” Stika said. “As a chamber, especially in a region that’s known for coal and oil, our focus and our goals is on saving these businesses money.”

The local pursuits in clean energy come as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is seen as an opponent of past climate policies. Former Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) tenaciously sought the chamber’s support during the debate on cap and trade in 2010. The best they came up with was the chamber’s pledge to withhold a public attack campaign.

The chamber’s opposition to climate policies has been, at times, a cause of concern for some of its business members. In 2009, four high-profile members, including Nike and Apple, ended their affiliations with the group or stepped down from its board.

Its climate positions have also been exploited by tricksters. A group called the Yes Men convinced some news outlets in 2009 that the chamber supported a carbon tax rather than cap and trade because it would benefit businesses. The hoax wasn’t discovered until a chamber official interrupted a Yes Men conference call with reporters to set the record straight.

Still, the chamber has at times put its support, if not its weight, behind clean energy initiatives. Last year, Tom Donahue, the group’s president and CEO, described energy efficiency as “the most economically viable alternative energy.”

And in 2007, Donahue flirted with the idea of a carbon tax as a good source of revenue for infrastructure improvements in the transportation sector. The chamber did not respond to requests for comment.

‘Ambassadors’ to the future

But it’s increasingly in local communities, and not in Washington, that policy debates result in real changes. More than 300 local chambers are involved with Chambers for Innovation and Clean Energy, a hub for information and planning that helps local business groups pursue clean energy programs. The national group released a report Wednesday that highlights 10 locally tailored programs that reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a profit to companies.

“We focus on the economics,” said Diane Doucette, executive director of Chambers for Innovation and Clean Energy. “If something pencils out and it’s good for the members of local chambers and it’s good for the economy, that’s what we focus on. For us, it’s all about the economic development opportunities.”

Manik Roy, vice president of federal government outreach for the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said these local companies are “ambassadors from our technological future.”

By that, he means they’re on the frontier of an energy and climate landscape that’s able to show others that turning a profit need not be exclusive of reducing emissions.

“Even if these companies aren’t standing up and saying, ‘We want [climate] policy,’ they give us an example of the kind of business activity we want to see more of,” Roy said.

In Salt Lake City, the local chamber’s Clean Air Champions program has gotten commitments from 57 businesses to reduce their gasoline use. Things like no-idling policies, smarter route planning for trucks and letting employees work from home are saving companies money and reducing the smog that sometimes gets trapped in the mountain-formed basin surrounding the city.

“We’ve really tried to keep our focus on that economic impact,” said Ryan Evans, vice president of business and community relations at the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce.

“How does it affect the bottom line at your company? How does it affect the Utah economy?” he added. “And because we put that at such an emphasis, we’ve been able to skirt any such push-back on, say, climate change.”