A no-granola case for energy efficiency

I attended a green energy conference nearly a decade ago in Washington, D.C., where several speakers expressed astonishment at the audience’s clothes. People were dressed in business attire. Where were the ponytails? The Birkenstocks?

The event marked a new age for green energy, the beginning of its migration from counter-culture to corporation.

Today green energy is, well, more like conglomeration. But still the industry carries remnants of its former self, the occasional speck of crunchy granola spilling onto the power point presentation. At these times, the industry comes under attack for making its case by using moral or social arguments rather than business fundamentals.

How to solve this problem? Enlist an army.

That’s what the Environmental Defense Fund is doing. It’s called the EDF Climate Corps and its recruits are MBA students.

EDF set up the program four years ago to demonstrate to large companies the business case for becoming more energy efficient. Climate Corps has a dual benefit. The MBA students get the chance to serve as summer interns at major companies; the companies get the benefit of their training in energy efficiency and business.  Dozens of big name companies have since participated, among them AT&T, McDonald’s, Facebook, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft, Dow Jones News and Procter & Gamble.

EDF starts by training students in the basics of energy efficiency, providing enough background, so that with their knowledge of business and finance, they can investigate a corporate setting and find ways to improve the bottom line through energy savings.

Emily Reyna, who is now the Climate Corps project manager for corporate partnerships, started as one of the interns four years ago. She was assigned to Cisco, where she sought savings in the company’s 1, 500 data centers or “labs.” She spent the early weeks of her internship touring the labs and investigating energy efficiency initiatives already underway at Cisco.  In her investigation, she discovered that one lab manager had reduced energy costs 25% in six months by installing a kind of smart plug that allows remote control of outlets. The plug can be programmed so that when the outlet idles for awhile, it sends a message to the user. This serves as a reminder to shut off equipment plugged in but not in use.

The smart plug was a good idea, but not one that had been shared across Cisco. Reyna spread the word.  Her analysis showed that use of the smart plug could save Cisco $8 million annually. “I wasn’t an expert in energy savings, but by talking to all of these different lab managers, I was able to identify a best practice,” Reyna said.

Other interns have recommended improved lighting, occupancy sensors, dimmers, variable frequency drives on motors, demand-control ventilation, and a range of other energy efficiency measures that total $439 million in net operational savings.

“Even more exciting, we actually check in with the companies six months and 18 months after the fellows have gone. What we’ve seen is that projects accounting for 86% of the energy savings are underway or completed,” she said.

The program has grown substantially, from a handful four years ago to 49 companies with 57 students this year. Half of the companies are repeat participants. Some of the businesses have offered students full-time jobs upon graduation.

“What we found is that there are a lot of barriers that companies face to implementing energy efficiency – knowledge barriers or organizational barriers or maybe the IT guys aren’t talking to facilities managers,” Reyna said.

The Climate Corps program introduces “an external force” to overcome the barriers, one that can “crunch the numbers” and “speak the same language as the financial people,” she said.

In short, rather than receiving a finger wagging, the companies are shown in their own tongue at their own facility the value of green – and there is no granola left on the power point.

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