For small businesses operating in one of the most severe economic downturns in more than a generation, any opportunity to save money is one worth taking.

It was just this type of thinking that led Lee PapaGeorge to participate in Plan-It-Wise, a pilot program of the Connecticut Light & Power Co. (CL&P). Initiated during a three-month period over the summer, the study tested customers' interest in and response to peak-time-based energy rates and smart technology.

PapaGeorge, the owner of Oscar's Delicatessen on Main Street in Westport, was not the only participant. Nearly 3,000 CL&P residential and commercial and industrial customers took part in the voluntary program -- a sizeable number for a case study, yet still a mere fraction of the utility company's 1.2 million customers in Connecticut.

The bottom line, according the study's findings, is that customers will use significantly less energy during times of peak electric usage when clear pricing signals are provided.

PapaGeorge will readily attest to the study's findings and the effectiveness of the so-called smart technology.

He was equipped with an "orb" that monitored Oscar's electricity usage and provided warnings to him when electricity rates were rising due to increased demand. When demand was minimal and rates were low, the orb -- a globe-looking structure that plugs into the wall -- would turn green. As demand increased periodically throughout the day, with rates rising in sync, the orb's color would change to yellow, orange and red.

When PapaGeorge saw the orb change to red, he would walk downstairs to his basement and turn the power off on a generator that keeps the deli's soda coolers at a refreshing temperature. An hour or so later when the orb was back to green, he'd flick the power switch back on, with an unnoticeable effect on the temperature of beverages.

The real effect was on his electric bill. In the three months the program ran, PapaGeorge said he saved nearly $1,000, "which is serious money," he noted.

A true businessman -- he has been working at Oscar's since he was 16 and owned the deli for 38 years -- PapaGeorge is quick to point out that while he may have "saved" nearly $1,000, that doesn't mean his savings account increased by that much. The money was simply put to use elsewhere in the company -- rent, insurance and other operational costs.

"Times are tough and this is just one thing that you can do to spend money other places," said PapaGeorge, who has instituted other energy-saving practices such as cleaning air filters regularly on compressors and opting for the longer-lasting fluorescent bulbs. He is also looking into other energy saving programs.

According to Kevin Hennessy, an attorney with the Connecticut Business and Industry Association (CBIA) who specializes in energy, many small businesses are looking at energy alternatives as a way to potentially save money.

"They have realized energy can be a big cost," he said. "The better they can manage it, the better they can manage costs."

"Energy is complex, but if you take the time then you can start to learn it and begin to manage it," Hennessy said.

To this end, he recommended businesses owners and residents visit www.ctenergyinfo.com, a site where consumers can compare electricity rates.

Other programs worth a look, he said, are the state's energy efficiency fund and clean energy fund - the programs receive approximately $90 million and $30 million in funding annually, respectively. Electricity providers have information on the funds, as does www.ctcleanenergy.com

Hennessy said a sign of positive news on the energy front is that natural gas prices have stabilized, and a massive reservoir of natural gas in Pennsylvania has great potential to help meet the region's energy needs. He explained that natural gas is used at power plants, so when its price goes up, so too do electricity rates. "They tend to be pretty much parallel lines," Hennessy said.

Looking to the future and referencing CL&P's Plan-It-Wise program, he added, "Technology is going to play a big role."

Mitch Gross, spokesman for CL&P, agreed. "It's absolutely vital," he said. "The question is: What's the right technology? What will really sell and what will bring results?"

Despite PapaGeorge's success with the "orb," Gross said the results of the study showed that the device did little to change customer behavior. Further, he added, smart meters and smart technology like the orb are in its "infancy" right now.

That's why pilot programs like Plan-It-Wise are so critical, Gross said, so that CL&P can determine if the technology is practical and effective.

While CL&P is still in the process of reviewing the results of the program -- which will then form the basis of a series of recommendations that will be made to the Connecticut Department of Public Utility Control (DPUC) in March -- Gross said the technology used "has tremendous potential."

"They do have some compelling data," Hennessy said.