Maria Serret walks into the container making plant. She ignores the dizzying array of flattened cardboard boxes towering around her. 

Instead, her eyes rise to the exposed ceiling of the plant and the fluorescent lights. They are the original fixtures installed when the building was built in the 1970s.

“How about changing your lighting?” she asks the owner. “This is very antiquated. You can get much better lighting at a better rate.”

The owner nods, saying that is the reason he called Southern California Edison’s (SCE) Business Solutions Energy Efficiency Outreach Team. He says he just purchased the container company and is looking for ways to save money on his electric bill.

Serret — one of six SCE representatives on the Business Customer Division’s Energy Efficiency Outreach Team who work with small business customers on energy efficiency — pulls out a brochure and begins explaining the various incentive programs and the possible options he might consider.

She emphasizes how important it is for companies to look into energy efficiency now because of the new time-of-use rate structure that was phased in for small businesses over the last 18 months.

Instead of charging a business the same electric rate all day, state policy changed so utilities now bill commercial customers based on what time of day they use electricity. It is particularly important from June 1-Sept. 30 because electric rates spike from noon-6 p.m. on weekdays — the height of the typical business day — to discourage use during peak demand in the summer.

Serret advises the plant owner to go to SCE.com/MyAccount where he can review his company’s usage broken down into 15-minute increments throughout the day. She says it can be really helpful to see when the customer’s usage spikes so a business owner can consider how to adjust usage to avoid the higher “on-peak” rates.

She then moves on to look at the plant’s machines to see if there may be more savings by replacing the motors on the old equipment to something more energy efficient.

The plant owner looks encouraged and says he will be sure to follow up with Serret to determine what changes would be most cost-effective.

Serret will repeat the routine at two more companies that day — a real estate firm and a Mexican restaurant. Since the real estate firm is mainly offices and doesn’t have machinery, she concentrates on energy savings with the building’s lighting.

At the Mexican restaurant, there are other challenges. Refrigeration can be one of the biggest costs.  There is indoor and outdoor lighting that might be replaced, and there may be opportunities for savings with the restaurant’s air conditioning and thermostat.

For many years, SCE’s Energy Efficiency Outreach program has been very popular with small businesses, which appreciate any edge they can get to cut costs. Last year, SCE received 1,184 Small Business Requests that come when a small business customer calls the Call Center to get help with energy efficiency. On average, small businesses that participate in the energy efficiency incentive programs save $1,100 a year.

Saving about $90 a month may not seem like a lot, but Serret knows better. She owned a pizzeria for four years.

“An electric bill can be a big deal,” she says.

As a result, Serret, a native of Cuba who speaks Spanish fluently, pursues her job with a particular passion.

“It’s anything we can do to help that customer,” she says. ”I try to do something for somebody that I would like them to do for me.”

Her visits with customers aren’t limited to checking out lighting or looking at motors and air conditioning. She also talks about safety around downed power lines and alerts them to utility telephone scams.

Serret also advises the business owners that SCE will be having scheduled maintenance outages to upgrade the grid so they need to pay special attention to mailings telling them when power will be shut off in their area.

“We don’t just talk about energy efficiency,” Serret says. “We try to make the most of it.”

Members of the Energy Efficiency Outreach Team can also help businesses in several other languages, including Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese and Korean. For more information on energy-efficiency programs for businesses: www.sce.com.