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Joe Whitley watched his company grow, and as it did he bought more computers and better manufacturing equipment. But something else was growing right along with the company: its electric bill. "It was getting out of hand," says Whitley, CEO of Best Sign Systems, a $2.5-million interior-sign maker in Montrose, Colo.

Early last year Whitley called on his electric company, a nonprofit cooperative called Delta Montrose Electric Association (DMEA), for help. DMEA hooked him up with an online energy-monitoring program that it was testing. A company called MainStreet Networks Inc., in Morgan Hill, Calif., sells the monitoring system to utilities, which in turn offer it to their customers. Such monitoring services help companies spend less on electricity, simply by revealing how much juice companies are using -- and when.

Whitley logged on to a password-protected Web site and checked out the energy data on his 25,000-square-foot plant. He quickly noticed some anomalies. Power use spiked on Sunday afternoons, even though the plant was closed then. And every day after lunch, the plant sucked up a surge of electricity. The next Sunday, Whitley checked in and found the air-conditioning running. Then one day after lunch, he watched all the workers flip on their machines at the exact same time.

There are two ways to save money on an electric bill. The first is to consume less energy. Whitley reset the A/C so it wouldn't waste that refreshing cold air on an empty plant. The second way to cut costs is to lower your peak rate. Electric companies charge customers based on the 15-minute period in which customers use the most energy -- in Best Sign's case, the period right after lunch. Whitley now instructs workers to switch on their machines in phases, spreading out the demand. The payoff? Whitley reduced his consumption by 6% or 7% and lowered his peak rate by 5%. Those changes saved him several hundred dollars a month on a typical $4,000 bill.

Today dozens of utilities around the country provide monitoring services through MainStreet and its competitors. Charges vary from zero to a small increase in monthly rates to a fee of $30 to $100 a month. As a pilot customer for DMEA, Whitley isn't paying a dime for his monitoring service -- which is good, because he's already addicted.

"There's about a day's delay in the availability of information," Whitley says with some frustration. Now that he knows how much money he can save, he wants that information "instantaneously."

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