It has been a long, cold, seemingly endless winter for Eastern Massachusetts, and at the same time, electric rates have soared this winter for many New England homeowners and businesses because of the region's increasing dependence on occasionally scarce naturally gas for electric generation.
Some lucky businesses, however, are finding problem one -- the cold -- is helping them solve problem two: Soaring power bills.
One of the latest examples is Curtis Liquors in Cohasset, Mass., a big package store with a big selection and big electric bills that just got nearly 40 percent bigger when National Grid's rates soared late last year.
Having paid $40,000 in electric bills last year, owner Rick Curtis was eager to zap his rate shock. "I like anything free, believe me,'' Curtis joked when we spoke to him Friday afternoon.
What he just installed to lower electric costs exploits something free and all too abundant in New England this winter: Cold air from outside, which a Freeaire system just installed by Freeair/MV3 LLC brings into his walk-in beer cooler to offset the need for electrically generated refrigeration.
As MV3's Ken Strachan demonstrated the system, it was 19 degrees outside, and 38 degrees inside the beer case, and the cold air coming through filtered vents was providing just about all of the artificial refrigeration.
Linked to a "smart sensor" that cycles cooling on and off, the Freeaire/MV3 system doesn't replace any of the electrically powered condensors and fans and cooling apparatus. Rather, it enables Curtis Liquors to use free cold air 80 to 90 days a year to offset the operations of the giant, energy-sucking fans.
They wanted to keep exact numbers confidential, but Freeaire/MV3 and Curtis said that what Curtis is paying for the new system it will save on electric bills in less than a year. Of course, that is thanks in big part to a big subsidy from the utility, National Grid. "I couldn't refuse,'' said Curtis, who owns a second store in Weymouth and has been in the spirits business for nearly four decades. "I mean, National Grid is paying for 70 percent" of the total cost.
That funding comes from the little renewable energy and energy efficiency tax that all Bay State customers now pay on their electric bills, typically about $5 to $12 for most homeowners each month.
National Grid spokesman Jake Navarro said the company's support for Freeaire/MV3 installations extends what's been a 30-year commitment to energy conservation and efficiency. "We offer our customers incentives on a wide range of tools and technologies, from LED light bulbs to efficient furnaces to smart thermostats. We also enable our customers to utilize technologies that take advantage of using cold outside air during the winter to allow their refrigeration systems to work less frequently, which saves energy. This makes a great deal of sense for our customers - especially during a winter like this one - so we're proud to make it a more cost-effective option.'' Navarro said ngrid.com/ma-ee or masssave.com have information about dozens of other ways homeowners and businesses can get support for energy efficiency.
Beyond the utility subsidies, Freeaire/MV3 said many businesses can get low-cost financing for their share of the cost of an installation, so that they save money immediately. "In many cases, we can actually offer our clients positive cash flow on day one" because the monthly savings on electric bills exceeds the monthly cost of the installation owed by the business, Strachan said. Freeaire/MV3 also handles all the paperwork with the utility and provides round-the-clock monitoring and maintenance of cooling systems in case they ever break down.
Today, the system is cost-effective only for cooling areas of at least 1,000 cubic feet, and aimed at use by cold-storage warehouses, convenience stores, package stores, and others with large areas they're keeping cool.
But it's reasonable to wonder if this might ever become workable on the scale of a home refrigerator or freezer.
"You never say never in technology,'' Freeaire/MV3 president Dave Mac Isaac said. "But if you see what's going on out there today, the system would be very hard to make work that from a cost-benefit perspective'' because of the cost of ductwork and controllers to manage the flow of suitably cold air into a small home fridge. Of course, computers have shrunk in size from filling rooms to fitting in your palm, so Mac Isaac doesn't rule anything out. "In the future, if i can actually bring that down to the home, that would be a home run for everybody.''
Curtis just knows for now he's saving a lot of money and loves getting something -- cold air for his beer -- for nothing.
"Energy is at a premium. It costs a lot of money,'' Curtis said. "When you can save money and conserve resources, I think it's a natural.''
With videographer John J. Hammann and video editor Lauren Kleciak