After a balky start, due in no small part to the budget uncertainties in the first half of the year, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is on the verge of launching its first major energy efficiency initiative.

Called Lead By Example–a name not uncommon around the nation for energy conservation programs–Connecticut’s is designed to address a long and longstanding list of inefficient and otherwise outdated energy components in state buildings and other properties.

Some of the energy retrofit projects involve performance contracts, a process that pays for energy efficiency upgrades with the cost savings achieved by making them. Others are being paid for outright with state funds, starting with $15 million approved by the state Bond Commission last month.

Action on these projects is being spurred by a provision in the energy legislation passed this spring that requires energy usage in state buildings to be reduced by 10 percent by Jan. 1, 2013.

“That’s really soon,” laughed Alex Kragie, a special assistant to DEEP commissioner Dan Esty. “I kind of regret that date now.

“That’s a big order.”

The plan is to start with three of the many projects, some of which have languished for years, and using bond money to get them done.

“After these three we will know the process,” Kragie said. “We’ll know how to do this, and then we’ll draw into our deeper pool of projects.”

The biggest of the three is to replace all the incandescent lights and guidance signs at Bradley Airport and the five general aviation facilities run by the Department of Transportation with LEDs. The cost is $540,000. With a projected annual savings of just under $160,000–including maintenance–payback would take less than three-and-a-half years.

A $400,000 project will replace the HVAC and lighting systems in the library at Eastern Connecticut State University with state-of-the-art automated controls–a five-year payback. And the third would upgrade the roof HVAC unit at Cybulski correctional facility in Enfield for $187,000 with about a six-year payback.

“It’s an investment,” Kragie said. “Not just 15 million flying out the door.”

Roger Smith of Clean Water Action said that the state was finally taking action on these projects was a pleasant shock. “It’s something they’ve been talking about for years, but never were serious,” he said. “I think 15 million is a great place to start.

“It’s important to get projects up and running because it helps to get building managers excited.”

And that’s exactly the point of Lead By Example said Jonathan Schrag, DEEP’s new deputy commissioner in charge of energy, on the job only a couple of weeks.

“It’s a perfectly named program that is leading by example: Small amount of money, show it can be done, and then let others follow in sort of a ripple effect,” said Schrag, expressing the hope of many that the ripple gets down to the municipal level and beyond. “State government’s role is to set targets, to identify barriers and overcome them, and to lead demonstration projects.”

Lead By Example jelled quickly over the summer after DEEP was approached by a coalition that included the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, the Common Sense Fund and the Hampshire Foundation. All three address energy and environment as at least part of their missions. Tremaine, the leader among the three and a supporter of The Connecticut Mirror, has for some time advocated a lead-by-example approach to energy efficiency in public buildings.

Tremaine’s goal was to form a partnership with state government to help do that, though its president, Stewart Hudson, said it’s not yet clear how that partnership will work.

“We’re figuring out the details of what that might be right now,” he said. “Sometimes it’s about marketing, access to people or experts you might not otherwise have.”

Pulling together a list of projects was relatively simple. DEEP got the word out to state agencies along with a template for an application that could be returned by email. Ninety to 100 projects were proposed.

Two committees–one technical, one financial–reviewed applications and came up with a list of 67. An initial group of 17–state universities, prisons, transportation facilities and office buildings–including the first three, would use up roughly the first $15 million. Those chosen are projects that have already been bid or are close to it. The University of Connecticut will use its own bonding authority for its projects.

Included in the calculations are how many jobs each project would include. Among the first three, the airport project is expected to require 22, the work at Eastern 16 and the prison project eight. The goal is not so-called green jobs said both Schrag and Kragie–it’s just jobs.

“We do need to make sure we are tapping into the Connecticut labor force,” Kragie said “It’s not just a bunch of folks driving down from Massachusetts to do work and going home. “

Eric Brown of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association said Lead By Example has great potential to create jobs and lower energy rates, though it’s unclear how much of either will occur. It depends on how many additional projects will be spurred by this first wave.

“The key thing is the process for selecting projects,” he said. “It’s an area that will deserve some attention and commitment to make sure it’s open and transparent and substantive and gets some scrutiny.”

Another calculation in choosing bonding projects was whether a single facility needed so many upgrades that bonding would be too expensive, making a performance contract a better option.

The performance contract route, however, has not been developed as quickly as the bonding plan. While the energy legislation required the state to establish standards and guidelines for performance contracts in state facilities, that process is only getting underway in earnest next week.

As part of it, the U.S. Department of Energy is providing a consultant to work with a group from the state. DEEP expects to have everything ready to go by the end of the year–a fast pace made possible in part by the fact that a similar process to draw up performance contract materials for municipalities has just been completed.

That document – lengthy, technical and complex, complete with sample contracts–has been submitted to the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority. But many of those lauding Lead By Example, and expressing hope that it will result in municipalities taking the same sorts of action. worry that the lack of an outreach plan to tell communities about the performance contract document and assist them with technical and other resources, will keep it from being used.

Clean Water Action’s Smith led the working group on outreach for the municipal performance contract document. His committee’s language on how to roll out the program, was eliminated from the final report – a mistake, he felt.

“It should be a state branded program with the state’s name behind it,” he said. “DEEP and the energy efficiency fund literally should be able to go out and do presentations.”

He and others feel the absence of an outreach plan could undermine some of Lead By Example’s long-range goal to get cities and towns on board.

“Unless municipalities know what the state has to offer and unless they know how much the state is committed to assisting municipalities,” Tremaine’s Hudson said. “There will be little value to this work.”

Jan Ellen is CT Mirror's regular freelance Environment and Energy Reporter. As a freelance reporter, her stories have also appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Yale Climate Connections, and elsewhere. She is a former editor at The Hartford Courant, where she handled national politics including coverage of the controversial 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. She was an editor at the Gazette in Colorado Springs and spent more than 20 years as a TV and radio producer at CBS News and CNN in New York and in the Boston broadcast market. In 2013 she was the recipient of a Knight Journalism Fellowship at MIT on energy and climate. She graduated from the University of Michigan and attended Boston University’s graduate film program.

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