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LFA helps local businesses save money, energy

Instructor Virgil Jones, left, works on a piece in the Sonoran Glass School’s hot shop. (Courtesy Sonoran Glass)

This spring, 11 locally owned businesses began learning how they could become more sustainable through a Local First Arizona pilot program called SCALE UP, which stands for Sustainable Communities Accessing Lending and Expertise Upon Performance.

Representatives of these businesses met weekly for six weeks with local experts to learn techniques that could make their businesses more economically, environmentally and socially sustainable.

The 11 businesses are Borderlands Brewing Company, Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, Delectables Catering and Venue, The Gloo Factory, LeadLocal, Merit Foods of Arizona, Pop-Cycle, Sonoran Glass School, Surly Wench Pub, Tucson Thrift Shop and Wholesum Harvest.

The first weeks covered energy efficiency, water conservation, and transportation efficiency. The businesses had their current practices benchmarked through the EPA’s ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager, which will help them track improvements over time, based on data from their energy and water bills. By the end of the series, each business created a plan to reduce expenses in one or more categories including energy use, water use, waste reduction and transportation emissions. Completion of the series allowed them to access loans and other benefits to implement projects to improve efficiency and save money.

The Arizona Jewish Post recently had the opportunity to speak with participants from two businesses at opposite ends of the spectrum: Sonoran Glass School, which requires large amounts of energy to run, and Tucson Thrift Shop, which has very modest energy needs. Yet both businesses have found the program to be educational and eye-opening.

“We were really thrilled to be included,” says Lynn Davis, executive director of Sonoran Glass School. “We have a very special building and sort of unconventional facilities to be part of that sort of project.

“Both the work that we do here and our facilities are energy intensive, resource intensive,” she says, with inherent factors that make conservation challenging.

The glass school’s utility bills, particularly its gas bills, are very high because of the “hot shop,” the furnace glass blowing facility, Davis says.

“Our gas bill is close to $2,000 per month. That’s because we have a furnace of molten glass that’s kept at around 2,000 degrees, 24/7, 46 weeks out of the year,” Davis explains. “Then our other shops have kilns that are running much of the time, that have torches that are using oxygen and propane.

“There’s not much we can do without consuming resources,” she says. “We’re also in a very old building that was once a tire shop, so it wasn’t built to be energy-efficient. It’s drafty, it has concrete floors, it has a roof that leaks, so no shortage of challenges.”

But the timing of the SCALE UP program was fortuitous, as the school had already planned a significant remodel of the hot shop over the summer, Davis says.

“Through conversations and relationships made during SCALE UP,” she says, “we got to look at that project through a different lens and think about modifications we could make that will make that space both a little more efficient and a little more user-friendly.”

Considerations included how to make students more comfortable when they are working in front of that heat, she says, and ways to make the room more comfortable so it can be used for more of the year, “before it just gets too hot and unbearable.”

Improvements made during the remodel include giving the furnaces extra insulation so they will hold heat longer. 

In addition, “we insulated the rolling shields that the glass blowers work behind, so they have an extra layer between themselves and the heat source,” Davis says. “We put small hoods over the openings of all the furnaces that redirect heat back behind the façade, so it is not just spilling over into the room.”

The glass school has a bid to redo all the lighting on its campus with LED lights, which is expected to pay for itself in about 18 months, adds Davis.

The school was on a tight deadline for its remodel because they teach a class for Pima Community College and had to be ready before the fall semester, says Davis, explaining that it takes a week once the furnace is restarted to bring the glass up to temperature.

“It was a little bit of a nail-biter,” she admits, “but it’s beautiful, it’s amazing. I think it’s really going to make a big difference.”

Davis adds that the SCALE UP cohort was an added benefit. “You meet wonderful people who are running businesses or working for businesses in town that you may not have heard of,” and discover possible avenues for collaboration. “It was a great networking opportunity.”

Arlene Leaf, owner of Tucson Thrift Store, says her store is “pretty simple” compared with some of the other businesses in the SCALE UP group, such as a catering company that requires electricity to run big freezers,  and a  farm and a brewing company that both require large amounts of water.

The thrift store is “very primitive,” with swamp coolers rather than air conditioning and forced air heaters, says Leaf.

For Leaf, the foremost change will be swapping out the store’s fluorescent lighting for LED lighting. There’s a kit to transform the store’s existing light fixtures to support the LED lights, she explains. She expects to recoup the cost through energy savings in three years.  “In the long run, it’s a lot less energy use,” she says.

“I’ve always been recycling the cardboard and things like that,” she adds, but the program has made her more conscious of recycling methods.

“The class was amazing—I enjoyed it so much,” Leaf says, noting that every participant probably has “little things that they did that made a big difference.”

For example, one business was a fruit and vegetable importer that needs to keep everything chilled. “Just putting plastic lining between the rooms helps conserve the energy,” she says.

During the program, Tucson Thrift Store looked at converting to solar energy, Leaf says, but her electric bills are too low to make it cost-efficient.  Solar might make sense “to put in air conditioning in the future,” she says, but for now the experts “were surprised that my energy use is very much in line ­­— it’s very low.”

But Leaf believes that Arizona, with its abundant sunshine, should use more solar energy. She was shocked to learn Arizona gets a good deal of its energy from coal mined on the Navajo tribal lands.

“If any place in the world should be solar, we should be solar,” she says.

Along with Local First Arizona, SCALE UP program partners include Tucson 2030 District, Physicians For Social Responsibility, Community Investment Corporation, and the University of Arizona Office of Sustainability. The  program is funded through the Arizona Department of Administration State Office of Grants and Federal Resources. LFA member Kerie Seamans of Bostonia Business Solutions developed an exclusive financial analysis tool participants use to calculate their return on investment for potential sustainability upgrade projects.

For more information about SCALE UP, contact CJ Agbannawag, SCALE UP program manager, at