In Billings and the rest of the country, auto dealerships are going green as a way to cut consumption, save cash and more accurately reflect the fuel-efficient vehicles they sell.
Deb Young, an Efficiency Plus program manager for NorthWestern Energy, has witnessed the trend firsthand.
“We’ve seen an upturn in car dealerships where they seem to be more interested in sustainability than in the past,” she said.
The program Young manages, also known as E+, offers businesses incentives like rebates to complete energy efficient projects.
Young said utility companies are able to do this because it means savings for them, too.
Rimrock Auto Group participated in the program recently when they
installed LED lights at one of their dealerships.
Co-owner Steve Zabawa said the rebate they received cut the project’s initial cost of $30,000 in half, making it much more palatable.
It took about three years for the investment to pencil out, he said. But now, because the new LED lights consume 60 percent less energy than their predecessors, it’s like money in the bank.
In 2012 and 2013, dealerships in Billings completed 14 of the 44 similar projects in the state, Young said, collectively saving enough energy to power as many as 112 homes for a year.
Financially speaking, that’s $72,780 worth.
If all dealerships were to do the same, by even cutting 10 percent from their total energy consumption, they could save $193 million in energy costs, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates.
Why so much?
A big factor is that dealerships — as structures — consume more energy than almost any other type of commercial building, according to statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Agency.
Along with malls and gas stations, they consume 12 percent more than hotels, 11 percent more than hospitals, 7 percent more than schools and 3 percent more than office buildings.
Randy Point, vice president of Denny Menholt Chevrolet in Billings, said dealerships face unique energy challenges.
“Office buildings don’t have to deal with having six garage doors going up and down all day long,” he said.
Expanding on those challenges, an EPA spokesperson pointed to the large parking lots, numerous buildings and 24-hour demand for light that dealerships often have.
Bill Underriner, owner of Underriner Motors, estimates that electricity accounts for as much as half of his energy bill.
To combat that, along with LED lighting and special building materials, he installed 41 skylights.
Now, if you were to walk into his Honda dealership on a sunny day, there wouldn’t be a single light on, he said.
He also left part of his Honda lot unpaved, where he places cars on pods that double as drainage spots.
Underriner could be paying twice as much in energy costs.
He said his downtown dealership, though half the size of his Honda building, has the same energy costs.
The green energy trend for dealerships, Underriner said, is something that started about 10 years ago.
When he was building the Honda dealership in 2010, it was the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified building of its kind in the Northwest, he said.
He sees the trend as a reflection of the cars he sells, which are becoming increasingly more fuel efficient.
Underriner said he thinks all dealerships should go green.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “I think anybody who builds a dealership today should have an environmentally friendly dealership.”
In addition to the financial savings for dealerships, the EPA estimates that it could also eliminate 1 million tons of greenhouse gases from the air.
An EPA spokesperson wrote in an email that consumers are increasingly expecting businesses to “do the right thing” by saving energy and reducing carbon emissions.
“Some may not realize that going green — by starting with energy efficiency — is a relatively easy and cost-effective step. Sometimes it’s as simple as turning off a light,” the spokesperson writes.