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Improve your lighting efficiency now, pay later. That's the idea behind an innovative program of Taunton Municipal Lighting Plant (TMLP), 30 miles southwest of Boston. TMLP audits local businesses, and offers to provide energy-saving lightbulbs and other conservation measures. Although these businesses stand to gain from lower electric bills, they may not have enough cash flow to pay for the improvements. So TMLP foots the bill for labor and materials.

The businesses pay for TMLP's program marketing and administrative costs through their monthly bills over a five-year period. Of the 250 businesses TMLP has audited for the year-old ``Lightwaves'' program, 95 percent joined the program.

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Joe Desmond, TMLP's marketing administrator, says the program's goal is to minimize risk to participants, and remove cash flow as a deciding factor. ``Whether you rent, lease, or own, you still have incentive to participate.''

A Rand McNally book plant in Taunton saves $2,510 per month on its electric bill, while it pays $376 per month for the program.

TMLP amortizes its costs over 10 years, as it might investment in new plant. It also plans to increase generating capacity.

Armond Cohen, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, a Boston environmental group that helped start utility conservation programs, approves of TMLP's aggressive financing methods. ``We've urged utilities away from a rebate focus,'' Mr. Cohen says. Unless conservation is financed in the same way as a power plant, he says, ``it doesn't really happen.''

The TMLP program's $1 million first-year budget is small compared to what bigger utilities spend, but this is 37 percent of the company's net earnings, Desmond says.

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