Shop owner Sarah Sweet
Sarah Sweet, owner of The Scrappy Elephant craft store, used a $450 grant to upgrade her lighting and learned to save money with her smart thermostat at the same time. (courtesy photo)

When entrepreneur Crystal Napier’s washer and dryer went on the fritz this winter, she feared the dual failure might short-circuit her home-based clothing boutique.

But the mounds of dirty laundry she anticipated never piled up due to quick action from a Charlottesville environmental nonprofit.

Being at the helm of a small, minority-owned business qualified Napier for a $2,400 grant offered by the Community Climate Collaborative (C3) that covered the purchase and installation of an energy-efficient washer and dryer.

“These grants are a tremendous service for a small business owner,” Napier said. “It’s a challenging world and we live in challenging times. It’s important for us to do more with energy efficiency and do our part to contribute positively to the environment.”

This is the third — and largest — round of clean energy grants that C3 has distributed to minority-owned small businesses since 2019.

Contributions from the economic development offices in both Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle County, combined with the generosity of an anonymous donor, upped the total award for this round to $20,000. Each qualified grantee applying between early December and late March can receive up to $2,500.

As director of corporate sustainability at C3, Coles Jennings oversees an array of programs of all shapes and sizes. The thrust of the mini-grant program is outreach, education, and providing tangible benefits.

He meets with owners to assess their requests and then lines up a local contractor to execute the plan.

“We’ll see some energy-cost savings, but this isn’t a carbon offset program like our Green Business Alliance is,” Jennings said. “What’s cool with this one is that we are meeting unique and specific needs for each business and they reap the benefits right away.”

In two prior mini-grant cycles, C3 distributed a total of $5,000 to nine restaurants, hair salons and other endeavors so owners could upgrade their appliances and replace inefficient bulbs with LEDs.

Spreading the word

Napier has operated the eponymous Renee’s Boutique — Renee is her middle name — since earning an MBA and exiting a career in banking almost nine years ago. She “inherited” a washer and dryer when she moved into her Ruckersville home, north of Charlottesville, in 2018.

“I have to do a lot of laundry to sanitize my inventory,” she said about requiring workhorse appliances to maintain her clothes styling studio. “I knew that dryer was on its last leg.”

Napier also rents shared office space in Charlottesville for consultations and rolls out fashion shows and pop-up shops at various area venues. It was during a fashion show at The Center at Belvedere — a nonprofit community gathering place for seniors — that she learned about the mini-grants.

Fortuitously, the Center participates in C3’s Green Business Alliance, geared for mid-size businesses and nonprofits. Together, the alliance’s 16 members pledged in spring 2021 to cut their carbon pollution by 45% by the end of 2025 to be climate beacons in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

Jennings is overjoyed when C3-affiliated entities refer others his way because his tiny but nimble nonprofit relies on word-of-mouth ambassadors to tout energy efficiency and savings.

“That’s when you start to feel like you’re doing something right,” Jennings said about those face-to-face connections. “If something is perceived as a hassle, that outreach isn’t going to happen.”

Napier said she was astounded when Jennings scheduled an on-site evaluation barely a week after she submitted her application in late January.

“I figured I’d give it a shot,” she explained, “but I wasn’t expecting results.” 

By early February she was filling a washer that doesn’t waste a drop of water and a dryer that shuts off when clothes are dry instead of relying on the guesswork of a timer.

“I have my fingers crossed about saving on my electric bill,” she said, thrilled to be rid of models at least a decade old “that were throwing off my personal efficiency.”

Relatedly, Jennings’ sustainability insights have inspired Napier to divert textiles from the landfill by creating a Career Closet for neighbors in need. It will be stocked with donations and pieces that have “aged out” of her boutique inventory.

“It’s a way of recycling instead of being wasteful,” Napier said. “Coles opened my eyes to things I had never thought about.”

Through late March, C3 had awarded $8,000 in mini-grants to half a dozen businesses. Jennings said he expects to continue reviewing applications and visiting business sites well into spring.

“We try to show applicants what is possible,” he added. “Our hope is that they talk to their friends about it.”

‘Every penny counts’

Sarah Sweet, one of 19 applicants thus far this season, received $450 to brighten the lighting in the crafts studio she operates where children and adults transform castaway paper, yarn, fabric and other supplies into art treasures.

“That was money I didn’t have to take out of my own pocket,” said Charlottesville native Sweet, who moved The Scrappy Elephant to her hometown from a neighboring county last summer. “Every penny counts so I jumped on the opportunity.”

The former high school art teacher launched her business at the height of COVID-19 in July 2020, choosing the name because of the matriarchal nature of elephant families.

C3 arranged for a contractor to not only install LEDs but also keep the lights on only in areas being used in her 1,000 square foot space. However, the savings from that switch were relatively minor when compared to what happened when Jennings offered to program Sweet’s smart thermostat during his walk-through visit.

Adjusting the settings — so she wasn’t overheating the building overnight — helped to lower her monthly electric bill to roughly $50 from between $120 and $140.

“That blew my mind,” Sweet said. “I couldn’t believe it made such a difference.”

What are her plans for those utility savings? She’s directing the dollars to a scholarship fund so a handful of local kids can attend her arts and crafts camp this summer for free.

“I want to be as efficient as possible,” Sweet concluded. “Now I’m trying to spread the love as much as I can.”

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press. Based in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia.