PLAINVILLE — In 2008, when the recession caused a widespread pullback in spending, retailers fought to keep their businesses in the black, many by canceling expansions or renovations.

“They were protecting their existing businesses at that point,” said Lisa Fekete, president of Modern Woodcrafts, a wood paneling manufacturer that made wall panels and display cases almost exclusively for retailers back then. Tiffany Co., Nieman Marcus, Bloomingdales are among their customers, as are flagship stores for designers like David Yurman, Milly and Mikli.

“People stopped shopping, so retailers stopped putting up new stores,” Fekete said. And the company’s sales

The result was a close, line-by-line look at the business’ books, eyeing what could be cut or improved. The company adopted lean manufacturing practices to be more efficient. Employees took across-the-board salary cuts. The company, founded in 1959, closed its other plant in Maine. It laid off workers, sinking to 55 employees from a peak of about 130.

Modern Woodcrafts, like many manufacturers in Connecticut, then looked at its energy bill.

Through one of its efficiency contractors, the manufacturer heard of a small-business efficiency program sponsored by the Connecticut Energy Efficiency Fund, with Connecticut Light & Power and United Illuminating. Modern Woodcrafts went though the process, and it worked.

“Your story writ large is the story that we’re trying to bring about throughout Connecticut,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Thursday as he toured the facility with state and company officials. Malloy has pressed the importance of success stories like Modern Woodcrafts’ as he markets an energy plan to the state that, efficiency aside, aims to expand natural gas availability.

Malloy and other officials often say energy efficiency is the cheapest energy source. Borrowing a phrase from the Rocky Mountain Institute’s chief scientist, Malloy said in a July speech that “we need to think in ‘negawatts’ — the amount of power saved through increased efficiency and reduced consumption.”

About 3,500 businesses get energy audits through the utilities each year.

About $100 million in state funds go toward efficiency programs annually, including audits for businesses, municipalities and homes. Malloy hopes to double that number.

“This is part of a long-term strategy to allow businesses to recover and begin hiring again by going after some of the large costs,” the governor said.

Modern Woodcrafts worked with people from Connecticut Light & Power and an energy efficiency contractor to designate about $134,000 in efficiency investments that ended up knocking out about a third of the company’s energy use, according to Joe Legere, vice president of manufacturing.

“There was a little apprehension in the process, of whether it’s too good to be true,” Legere said.

The upgrades were financed through a $52,000 incentive and a zero percent loan that was put on the company’s utility bill. The loan payments and energy cost savings balanced out, so in the company’s 29-month repayment period, there are still net savings. Annually, after the loan is repaid, Modern Woodworks will save about $35,000 in electric costs a year.

Contractors installed new air compressors, thermostats, curtains to block air near loading docks, compact fluorescent bulbs, and motion-sensor-controlled lights in the warehouse. A variable-speed exhaust system was added to the finishing room. Not even the exit signs were spared, swapping in LED models.

Then there was the ventilation system. With wood paneling, there’s a lot of cutting and sanding and sawdust, necessitating a vast system of ventilation. At Modern Woodworks, most of the machines have air ducts traveling up to the ceiling where they meet other, larger ducts and finally, a 50-horsepower ventilation motor. When it was on, it was on for the entire system.

“It’s like if you were in a car and put your foot to the floor every time,” said Thomas Phillips, president of Efficient Lighting & Maintenance, which handled the efficiency work.

The answer was a gated system that opened for the machines that needed ventilation and closed for the ones that were off. That way, the motor didn’t need to run at full all the time. “Now you can ramp it up,” Phillips said.

“When you came in here before the work, you couldn’t talk,” he said. “You had to scream.”

Approaching energy efficiency for businesses from this angle is a rather new thing.

“The old way was looking at lighting only,” said Dan Esty, head of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, who also toured the facility. “The new way was lighting, insulation and windows. And the super-new way looks at manufacturing system efficiency.”

Legere, the manufacturing head at Modern Woodcrafts, said the process isn’t over. He keeps thinking about the other air compressors that could use replacing and wonders whether a solar array would be right for the roof.

“Now that they see how it works, they seem comfortable with deeper changes,” said Ron Araujo, head of conservation and loan management for CL&P, who worked with the company and contractor on the project.

Posted on this website by Gaffney Bennett Public Relations, New Britain, Connecticut.