Berkshire Eagle Op-Ed written by Sen. John Kerry.

When I toured the Colonial Theatre with Mayor James Ruberto a few months ago, I was amazed at the restoration efforts underway. But this winter, returning the theater to its former glory isn't the only thing on Executive Director David Fleming's mind. As the curtains rise at the Colonial Theatre, so do its monthly energy bills. Fleming has watched as electric and gas costs have soared to over $10,000 a month, almost 10 percent of the theater's total operating costs. Despite creative and sincere efforts to improve energy efficiency, the theater has been forced to spend nearly twice as much as projected.

The Colonial Theatre isn't alone feeling the squeeze of skyrocketing gas and electric bills. In a recent survey of small business owners in Massachusetts, 56 percent of respondents said that they have lost profits due to higher energy costs. Massachusetts and the New England region have some of the highest electricity costs in the nation, according to the Energy Information Administration.

All of Massachusetts is feeling the crunch, but small businesses like the Colonial Theatre and shop owners like George Garivaltis, who owns West Street Wine and Spirits, are getting hit twice over: First, they're forced to pay more to keep the lights on. Meanwhile, their customers feel the same crunch and spend less. Without the massive resources or economies of scale that the biggest corporations enjoy, high energy costs often force small firms to cut employees or even close their doors.

Local communities have taken great initiative working to mitigate these energy costs. Taking the lead to help ease the burden on small and medium sized firms, the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce helped organize the energy consortium for Central Berkshire area businesses. By banding together they'll have the leverage to negotiate lower energy rates and are not as beholden to Big Oil's dictatorship. It's a start, and a model other communities across the Bay State and America can follow for some immediate relief.

But local communities shouldn't be left alone in this struggle — help is on the way from Washington. The president just signed a comprehensive energy bill passed by the Democratic Congress that marks the first significant increase in fuel efficiency standards in 30 years. The bill, which also funds alternative energy research and development, contains key provisions I authored with Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) that empower small businesses. We increase low-interest loan amounts available to small firms to provide up-front help with investing in energy efficient technologies. We direct the federal government to reach out to entrepreneurs about the tools and information available to them and create an energy audit program. And we promote incentives for utility companies to establish affordable financing agreements with small businesses that increase their energy efficiency.

But the energy bill alone isn't all Washington must do. For a long time now, I've been fighting to empower small business owners and provide them with resources to help reduce their energy expenses. By conserving energy and creating incentives to invest in alternative and renewable sources that don't pollute our air and don't depend on foreign oil, not only will our energy costs go down, but we'll create a cleaner, greener country. I introduced legislation that, should fuel prices spike again, would allow heavily fuel-dependent companies to expect help in exchange for their commitment to a plan to become more energy efficient. In addition, we need to start rewarding people for choosing cleaner energy sources. That's why I proposed legislation to grant tax credits for alternatively fueled vehicles, energy efficient homes and commercial buildings.

Our state's legislature did its part by encouraging the use of bio-fuels and alternative energy. But while Massachusetts is ahead of the curve in our response to global warming and the energy crisis, we have miles to go before we can say we've done our all to make sure that small businesses do not fall victim to rising energy costs before the curtain falls for good.

John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, is chairman of the U.S. Senate's Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.

To read this Op-Ed on the Berkshire Eagle's website, please click here.