Towson-based Zeronet USA is among the energy-efficiency firms that have sprung up locally in recent years, finding a vibrant market for their services. It started in 2008 as a one-man operation inside a recession-buffeted architecture and construction firm. Now it employs more than 40 people.

"Energy efficiency is a public good," said Kurt Pfund, co-owner of Zeronet. "It benefits everyone to not have to build new power plants."

The company has conducted about 160 energy audits for commercial clients this year and an equal number on the residential side, through its Zerodraft Maryland division, Pfund said. Also this year, the company has done 11,000 of the "quick home energy checkups," the ones that BGE customers can schedule for free to get compact fluorescent lights, a low-flow shower head and other energy-savers installed in their homes.

Pfund said Zeronet's biggest growth comes from commercial business. The owner of a midsize office building can cut energy costs by about 30 percent just by replacing old lights with high-efficiency LED lighting, he said.

Among business clients, "we're finding virtually all of our efficiency projects are cash-flow positive," he said.

Spice maker McCormick & Co. has shed energy costs for several years by finding ways to be more efficient. Its Hunt Valley plant has cut energy use since 2006 by more than 40 percent per unit produced, and the company is racing to reduce consumption at sites around the world.

Jeff Blankman, sustainable manufacturing manager at McCormick, said two factors pushed the company to go full throttle: growing attention to environmental sustainability by businesses and "a huge increase in our electricity rates over about an 18-month period." (Everyone felt that: BGE bills spiked in 2006 and 2007 after residential rate caps put on during the deregulation process expired.)

McCormick got big savings from replacing its lights — the new ones use half the energy consumed by the old — and by putting motion sensors on fixtures, allowing unoccupied areas to go dark. McCormick swapped out 1,100 light fixtures in its Hunt Valley manufacturing and warehouse complex alone, Blankman said.

Other projects included higher-efficiency motors, using box adhesives that require less heat and therefore less energy, and contracting with Constellation Energy to build and operate a new air-conditioning system because the old one was obsolete.

Efficiency improvements enable the solar panels on McCormick's Belcamp distribution center to produce all the energy the facility needs and then some, Blankman said.

"Energy efficiency is actually more effective than renewable energy," Blankman said. "It's easier to cut your energy consumption than it is to make energy in a more sustainable way, so it's actually a more powerful way to reduce your impact on the environment — and it's more cost-effective."

Still, not everything that can reduce energy use is cost-effective, TerraLogos' Van Buren warned. Replacing windows in a home, for instance, is an expensive proposition that might not pay off. But he's a big proponent of insulation and sealing, saying they cut down on more than energy consumption. They also mean fewer allergens and pollutants getting in, and fewer areas in the home that resist air conditioning and heating.

"Money is not the only reason to do this," he said. "Comfort is pretty important."

JoAnn Allis was one of his customers, and she used to have a chilly spot by her bed. She couldn't figure out why — until TerraLogos discovered that there was no insulation in that section of the house. Other uncomfortable places — hot in summer, freezing in winter — were revealed with an infrared camera to be leaking air.

"It was like, 'Oh dear Lord have mercy, no wonder I can't even sit in my living room,'" said James Allis, a retired longshoreman.

The work cost about $5,400, partly offset by the $2,000 rebate the Allises received from BGE's incentive program.

More states, utilities and people are zeroing in on such energy-efficiency work, said Rodney Sobin, director of research and regulatory affairs for the Alliance to Save Energy. He hopes to see more.

"There's a lot going on, but there's a lot more that could be done," he said. "Energy efficiency is really our cheapest resource."

Energy savings

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers looking for ways to reduce energy use and costs can check out the incentives offered through BGE's Smart Energy Savers Program, Homeowners, renters and businesses can qualify.