DC Small Businesses Find (Wind) Power in Numbers

Featuring chili, chili dogs and the chili half smoke that locals, politicians and celebrities such as Bill Cosby have flocked to for 49 years, Ben’s Chili Bowl is one of those local dining institutions that seems to serve up as many legendary stories as it does orders.

images3.jpgBen’s remains an anchor for a revitalized U Street Corridor that teems with activity and, as the New York Times reported last week, “the Bowl” is now part of an effort to bring a very different type of energy and excitement to the Corridor.

When one thinks of the type of food Ben’s cooks up, it might be hard to believe that the restaurant is involved in a collective effort to reduce greenhouse gases. But Ben’s is in fact doing just that by “going green” and teaming up with nine other U Street Corridor small businesses to purchase wind power energy credits.

Wind power involves the use of wind turbines to convert wind energy into electricity and other useful forms (thank you Wikipedia for making it look like I know what I’m talking about). As the article points out, the shift to wind power has typically been the exclusive territory of large electric power companies because smaller businesses, individually, could not afford to make the transition. But thanks to the efforts of Clean Currents, a renewable power brokerage and consulting firm, the 10 U Street businesses were able to band together and make it work economically. Under the terms of the deal cut with Washington Gas Energy Services Inc., the U Street consortium buys roughly two million kilowatt-hours of renewable energy a year from regional wind farms. The service comes in through and is guaranteed by PEPCO.

While the story focuses on the effort to “go green,” it is as much about how small businesses – often locked out of these opportunities – effectively joined together in order to reap the same rewards that larger firms do. The Times’ story cites that under the three-year deal, the firms collectively save $21,000 annually – or about 9% of their current energy expenditures.

Now the efforts by Ben’s and the other companies do not guarantee that the energy they receive is wind powered. Instead, they in effect purchase “wind certificates” that cover a combination of renewable energy sources including wind, solar and geothermal power. They also guarantee that somewhere, somehow, the amount of those wind certificates will enter the power grid and an equivalent amount of coal will not be burned – helping justify further investment and legislation benefiting wind energy. For a great explanation on how all this works that even a lay person like myself understood, check out this link.

The efforts by Clean Currents are not the first in the Corridor. The story goes on to reference the formation of a coalition of small businesses last year by the Latino Economic Development Corporation to help them deal with escalating costs of operating a business. The coalition works with small businesses – including the 10 involved in the wind power deal – to negotiate better group rates for expenses ranging from insurance to marketing.

It becomes clear when you read the story that these group efforts are vital to the very survival of small businesses – especially in hot, desirable parts of the city like U Street where they struggle to keep pace with rising rents. While wind power has its advocates and critics, there is little debate over the value firms like Clean Currents provide to small businesses by enabling them to flex their collective muscle for economic, competitive and social gain.

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