Climate Corps 2010: How a Natural Disaster Can Breed Efficiency

During the first week of May, much of Middle Tennessee experienced a prolonged torrential rainstorm which led to devastating flooding. One of the hardest hit areas was Nashville, home of my EDF Climate Corps fellowship host company, Gaylord Entertainment.

The floods wreaked havoc on Gaylord’s flagship resort and convention center: the 4-million-square-foot, 3,000-room Opryland. The overflowing Cumberland River was particularly damaging for the hotel’s energy infrastructure. Much of the HVAC and major electrical equipment lay under water for more than 36 hours, and the miles of support tunnels supplying Opryland with power were completely submerged.

Understanding that gaining operating efficiency would now fall secondarily to recovering from flood damage, I was hesitant about being able to help with meaningful energy efficiency projects. Then again, how could a facility of this size, operating 24/7, ever be able to revamp an entire energy system without disrupting its business? This was a golden opportunity.

And sure, Opryland could be rebuilt to pre-disaster specifications, but like other leading companies, Gaylord has made a commitment to sustainability. It also doesn’t hurt that many of the upgrades being considered would eventually pay for themselves through energy savings.

Where to begin?

Simple solutions to increasing efficiency, such as replacing older lighting technologies, are being implemented. However, the larger capital investments in infrastructure will reap more substantial benefits. It becomes much easier to make a case for these investments when a major disruption occurs, as it has with Opryland.

This summer, I had the chance to assist with rebuild projects that will have an immediate and sizeable impact. One project, for example, involved investigating the merits of combined heat and power (CHP). Sometimes referred to as cogeneration, this technology has been available for a long time. However, in the last few decades the adoption of CHP has really taken off.

The beauty of CHP is its use of electricity's main byproduct -- heat. The hot air used to rotate a turbine or engine can be recycled and redistributed as steam or hot water. While the turbine produces electricity through a generator, the heat recovery unit converts the exhaust gases for heating and cooling. Cogenerated power from relatively clean burning natural gas provides reliable energy with low emissions.

Here are a few of the benefits of CHP:

• Achieve far greater energy efficiency than conventional, utility-provided electricity because much of this efficiency is derived from on-site power generation
• Avoids the high transmission loss associated with central station power plants by using electric power from distributed generation units
• Increases energy efficiency by utilizing the simultaneous production of electrical and thermal energy
• Requires around 25 percent less primary fuel than separate systems
• Allows for better flexibility and control of power loads
• Provides versatility in the event of unexpected fuel markets price fluctuations


The economic outlook for CHP restoration at Opryland appears promising.

Barring any disproportionate jump in natural gas prices relative to electricity, this project’s payoff will be in the millions of dollars. Along with the aforementioned efficiency improvements over conventional electricity, natural gas emits close to half the greenhouse gases that are produced by coal-fired power plants. Many experts believe that natural gas is a necessary step in reducing carbon dioxide emissions, one which would abate the risk associated with any future climate change legislation.

Albeit a substantial reinvestment for Gaylord, Opryland’s CHP plant would quickly advance the goal of increasing energy efficiency by 10 to 20 percent -- and there is little doubt that this target will be met.

Of course, when I was chosen to assist Gaylord as an EDF Climate Corps fellow this summer, no one envisioned my being so heavily engulfed in infrastructure remediation. However, this natural disaster has accelerated the perpetual effort to reduce this company’s environmental impacts while improving the competitive advantage from sustainable practices. My apprehensions have been dispelled. Gaylord is poised to become a more financially secure and energy efficient company in the wake of this natural disaster.

Rob Powell is a 2010 EDF Climate Corps fellow at Gaylord Entertainment, an MBA candidate at the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University, and a member of Net Impact. Further coverage of the Climate Corps program is available at GreenBiz.com/edfclimatecorps. This content originally appeared on the Environmental Defense Fund Innovation Exchange Blog.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user Rob Lee.