A generation ago, April's Earth Day festivities typically involved tree plantings, a neighborhood cleanup, an environmental protest (or six), and lots of pledges to be good stewards of the planet.

Lately, the "green movement" has been bolstered by the improving economics of conservation, recycling and alternative energy. Skyrocketing energy prices, waste disposal costs and climate change have changed the game. Here are a few recent examples at the growing intersection of commerce and the environment:

Jose Luciano, an account manager at Service Lighting in Maple Grove, just finished installing energy-efficient lighting at the showroom and distribution center of Becker Furniture World, virtually in the shadow of Xcel Energy's Sherco coal-fired power plant.

Becker invested about $49,000 and will save nearly $19,000 annually in energy costs. Moreover, the business is entitled to rebates of around $26,000 through a program sponsored by Xcel Energy and the Minnesota Center for Energy and the Environment. That's a payback in under two years.

"There are about five benefits, including improved lighting that saves energy and money, and no more 'orange or blue glow' as the old lighting ages," Luciano said. "These kinds of jobs are driving our business."

Xcel Energy has committed to reduce its retail electric sales slightly every year while it cuts carbon emissions by about 22 percent over the next 12 years and generates 30 percent of its juice from wind and other alternatives by 2025.

The utility will invest in new technology and customer-conservation incentives that it contends are the "cheapest source of energy" compared with the cost of adding generating capacity.

David Saggau, the CEO of Great River Energy, the state's second-largest power generator, just opened a 166,000-square-foot headquarters in Maple Grove that will use half the energy of a conventional building. Great River launched an initial $28 million loan program for energy-efficient construction, refurbishment and low-power equipment for businesses served by cooperatives to whom it sells energy around Minnesota and Wisconsin.

"We want to clutch our [peak-demand] growth so we don't have to add new generating assets [beyond wind]," Saggau said.

New base-load generation from a coal plant, for example, costs about 6 cents per kilowatt hour to bring on line as wholesale power. Great River's existing facilities generate wholesale power for about 2.5 cents.

Fly ash, generated from Great River's Coal Creek plant in North Dakota, replaced about 50 percent of the cement that normally would be used in the $45 million facility. The cement industry is a huge user of fossil fuels and a big carbon emitter. Saggau said Great River a few years ago spent up to $3 million annually to send to landfills up to 400,000 tons of fly ash generated by its coal-fired plants. He now sells it as a cement substitute for up to $3 million annually.

In northeast Minneapolis, growing Vast Enterprises sells lightweight pavers to landscapers and builders that it says are made from 95 percent recycled materials, including car tires and plastic jugs. The products meet construction-industry standards, won't crack, resist sand and salt, the company says, and are backed by a 10-year warranty. A typical 2,000-square-foot walkway will keep 1,000 scrap tires and 20,000 one-gallon jugs out of landfills.

Dianna Kennedy of Eureka Recycling, which has curbside service in St. Paul, commercial recycling services and used-goods markets online (www. Eurekarecycling.org), said at a business forum this week that many Eureka customers are recycling more than 50 percent of what was once considered waste. That material becomes the feedstock for building materials, steel, aluminum, paper, cardboard and fertilizer.

"We're part of a zero-waste movement," Kennedy said. "Waste costs money. ... It's an inefficiency."

The trend is spurred by garbage-tipping fees that range to $100 per ton at landfills and incinerators.

UponGreen.com, rolled out a fledgling business that uses a 14-point list of criteria developed by the Center for Energy and Environment to help businesses demonstrate their environmental commitments and give consumers a way to review them.

Andersen Windows of Bayport has cut the amount it sends to landfills annually by 85 percent since 1990. The innovations include a waste-wood-fueled steam plant opened in 2007 to power its operations, and super-insulated windows that contain some recycled content.

The University of Minnesota technical assistance program has worked with nearly 600 Minnesota firms through voluntary consultations to help reduce waste and cut energy and disposal costs. More information: www.mntap.umn.edu. And the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce reports great success with Minnesota Wastewise at www.mnwastewise.org.

Smart environmental stewardship also is smart business.

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • nstanthony@startribune.com