"Energy Efficiency is at the heart of energy affordability." Tony Earley, Chairman, CEO and President of PG&E Corporation

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Dig It: PG&E Helps Historic Gold Mine Museum Improve Its Lighting

By David Kligman

GRASS VALLEY — There may have been a time when California’s largest, richest and longest operating gold mine didn’t have to worry about the cost of a light bulb.

True, the Empire Mine produced more than $8 billion in gold by today’s standards. But those days are long gone.

Jennifer Greenfield, who works in the Empire Mine gift shop, is thrilled with the new lighting and assistance from PG&E’s Shane Lopez. (Photo by David Kligman.)

The mine, located in Nevada County in the western Sierra Nevada 50 miles from Sacramento, operated from 1850 to 1956. Today the California State Parks oversees the old mine and works with the nonprofit Empire Mine Park Association for maintenance and improvement of some facilities.

So when Jay Hansell, a volunteer with the group, was asked to investigate better and more energy-efficient lighting for the gift shop and museum exhibits, he did what a lot of people would do. He went online.

He found LED lighting, but it was costly — about $20 for each LED lamp — and the more affordable equipment was of poor quality and not adequate for the job. The association began buying lights, but Hansell ultimately wasn’t thrilled with what they got. He mentioned his frustration to one of the park’s board members, who suggested he get in touch with PG&E.

Museum takes advantage of PG&E rebate program

Enter Shane Lopez, who works with small- and medium-sized businesses of all kinds to find ways to reduce their energy. This summer, Lopez performed an energy audit of the museum and through PG&E’s local Energy Watch Partnerships program was able to get the same high quality lighting for about $5 a light bulb.

California State Parks tour guide Glen Boire shows a steel ring made at the Empire Mine blacksmith shop, still in operation today. (Photo by David Kligman.)

“Here the customer was trying to do LED lights themselves,” said Lopez, an Auburn-based customer relationship manager, during a recent visit to Empire Mine. “But when partnering with PG&E, we’re able to get them top-of-the-line lighting for a fraction of the retail cost.”

The new lighting made all the difference, especially in the gift shop where lights are on 10 hours a day.

Working with PG&E, the nonprofit group replaced 35 50-watt halogen track lights with 30 7-watt LED lighting as well as new flood lights. The group paid $391 for the lighting, saving $875 in rebates. The energy savings are nearly 5,500 kilowatt hours a year or monthly cost savings of $77.

“We’re really pleased,” said Jennifer Greenfield, volunteer coordinator for the gift shop, which is popular with many of the 100,000 tourists who visit the old mine every year.

Some of the items sold include vials of 24-karat gold leaf for $8 to a piece of benitoite — the California state gem found in San Benito County — for $200.

New lighting generates less heat

The energy savings also had a positive, unintended benefit. The new lighting produces less heat, which means the air conditioner runs less frequently, further reducing the museum’s energy bill.

Another benefit is the longer lifespan of LED lighting, which leads to less frequent replacing of the bulbs. That’s important in a museum with valuable pieces like its 23-ounce piece of California gold encased in quartz that’s shown in a secured glass display in the Empire Mine’s gold vault room. Changing light bulbs requires armed security to stand watch during the difficult-to-access replacement.

The Empire Mine shut down in 1956, though its museum and grounds attract thousands of visitors every year. (Photo courtesy of California State Parks.)

“We won’t have to go in there again for a long time,” Hansell said. “If you own a business, that’s a huge, huge appeal.”

Personally, Hansell said, there’s another reason he wanted to replace the lighting.

“I’m a big believer in reducing the energy footprint,” he said. “We should be cutting down our energy consumption.”

But ultimately it’s the quality of the light that’s most important to the nonprofit group.

“Everything sparkles,” Hansell said. “That wasn’t happening with our old lighting. Everything was diffused.”

It’s a story that might have made one man proud if he were alive today. The Empire Mine was managed in its heyday by William Bourn Jr., an entrepreneur who at the turn of the 20th century also led the merger of gas and electric companies in San Francisco.

That new company?

PG&E.

Email David Kligman at David.Kligman@pge.com.

This story originally appeared on pgecurrents.com.