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Energy efficiency is the cheapest and greenest power around, and in buildings efficiency often comes in the form of better lighting.  Most people these days know the curly compact fluorescent bulb used in homes, but most of us are less familiar with the vast opportunity for more efficient lighting in commercial buildings.  A wide range of innovative efficient lighting solutions are working their way into commercial buildings with the help of people like Cheryl Allen, President of Green Planet Lighting in San Diego, CA.   

Incandescent bulbs and old fluorescents waste a great deal of electricity compared to newer, more efficient lighting solutions.  Fluorescent tubes are ubiquitous in many commercial buildings, coming in a few different varieties called T12, T10, T8 and T5.  T12s are the older and less efficient variety, typically using 40 Watts for each bulb.  T8 bulbs use about 35% less electricity to produce the same amount of light, and T5 bulbs use about 45% less than T12s.  For some applications, one T5 can replace 2 T12 bulbs, providing even greater energy savings.

Unfortunately though changing from T12s to T8s and T5s is not as simple as snapping a new bulb into place.  Changing from T12s to T8s involves changing not just the bulb, but the ballast that the bulb plugs into.  The ballast controls the flow of power through the bulb.  Older bulbs like T12s used magnetic ballasts while newer more efficient T8s and T5s use electronic ballasts.  In some cases changing to T5s requires replacing or rewiring the whole light fixture, adding significant cost and complexity to changing over to more efficient lighting.

LEDs offer another opportunity to save in commercial lighting, consuming 90% less power than halogens in some cases, and lasting far longer. 

The improvement with efficient lighting can be so great that these investments can pay for themselves in a matter of months.  "Give me a dollar, and I’ll give you two by the end of the year," says Allen.  Allen has not always been in lighting; while playing cards in Las Vegas she ended up talking with a representative of EcoPower and was quickly hooked by the opportunity, signing up as a distributor of their innovative T5 solution.  While changing over to T5s in most cases requires changing the fixture or rewiring, EcoPower provides a retrofit solution that greatly simplifies their installation.  Reducing the time and labor involved in changing to T5s, and avoiding the cost of new fixtures, these T5s help more buildings go green and efficient.

Innovative solutions like the Ecopower T5 retrofit help to get around problems that can hold back efficiency measures, but selling efficient lighting in today’s economy can be a challenge even with a quick return on investment.  Some clients are so consumed with making ends meet that they only have attention for needs of the immediate moment, not even a few months from now.  People are busy and money is tight.  For these clients, Allen has found that the key is not just taking orders but providing solutions.  "Everyone wants to go green," says Allen, "but it’s not the only thing on their list."

Some of the solutions are financial, while others are technical.  Rebates are available in many areas to help pay for part of the cost of more efficient lighting, and in San Diego a new program called "on-bill financing" offered through SDGE is helping small businesses to perform energy efficiency upgrades without paying for the improvements up-front, paying for them instead over a longer period of time through their utility bill.  Allen is also exploring other creative solutions, looking for ways to provide efficient lighting with no up-front cost to the client, getting paid instead through a portion of the savings achieved. 

One of Allen’s clients has been the Las Vegas Hilton, working with OB Chaidez, the Chief Engineer there.  Casinos may not use fluorescent tubes out on the gambling area, but their back area can contain large numbers of these tubes for lighting.  "We are receiving incentives through Nevada Energy to change to more energy efficient lighting," says Chaidez. "One way we are saving money is with Green Planet Lighting’s new ‘T5 fixture in fixture’ whereby we were able to retrofit to a T5 fluorescent light without having to change the existing fixtures.  It is quick and simple.  Cheryl at Green Planet Lighting truly gave us a great product for an easy retrofit."

Small green businesses are another type of customer that is a great fit for easy energy retrofits like this.  They are highly motivated to green every aspect of what they do, to demonstrate the authenticity of their commitment to going green.  "One of the top priorities of our hair studio is to be ‘green’," says Dawn Ellinwood, Owner of Ubuntu Hair Studio.  "The new LEDs we installed achieve this goal.  We expect over a 75% percent savings related to lighting costs in our hair studio.  Additionally, it is much cooler in the studio and we don’t have to run our air conditioning as much.  Cheryl provided a great solution for us."

Working closely with clients, Allen identifies their needs, the opportunities to save them money, and ways to remove the hurdles that sometimes stand in the way of moving forward with a project.  For others seeking to venture into lighting, the key today will be to follow models like this, not just taking orders, but consulting closely with clients to provide solutions that work. 

Glenn Croston is the founder of, helping entrepreneurs and small businesses to start and grow greener businesses, and delivering the Green BizBlast to connect those seeking and selling green products, services, events, and opportunities. He is also the author of "75 Green Businesses You Can Start to Make Money and Make a Difference", and the author of "Starting Green", a nuts and bolts guide to starting and growing a successful green business (Entrepreneur Press, September 2009).