How Google, Facebook and Verizon uncover huge energy savings

How Google, Facebook and Verizon uncover huge energy savings

Many companies have good intentions: They want to cut down on their energy use. But figuring out how best to do so isn’t always easy. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) aims to ease the process with a fellowship program that helps companies identify and overcome barriers to successful energy saving. The program, called Climate Corps, has, since its inception in 2008, uncovered more than a billion dollars in savings at companies like Google, Facebook and Verizon.

“We’ve seen that there’s a pretty clear set of common barriers that can stand in the way of smart people making good decisions,” said Gwen Ruta, EDF vice president, during a recent GreenBiz webcast.

To boost energy performance, it’s vital for a company to understand how these barriers function, and how best to overcome them, she said.

That’s where EDF Climate Corps comes in. Each year, EDF trains around 100 graduate students on the fundamentals of energy efficiency, then places them in summer internships at organizations around the country. The students help the company or institution calculate the financial and environmental benefits of energy saving projects. They also help develop an energy strategy, set corporate goals, evaluate renewable and other alternative energy sources, and look at innovative funding opportunities.

“The program is powered by our future leaders,” Ruta said. “They are dedicated energy problem solvers.”

Ruta likened a company’s energy performance to a series of cogs in a machine. Cogs include such areas as executive engagement, resource investment, and sharing experience. If these cogs are working in harmony with one another, it creates what Ruta calls a “virtuous cycle.” Oftentimes, however, one or more of the cogs get stuck, she said, which can affect the smooth running of the machine. If an executive loses interest in an energy saving project, for example, he or she may cut the budget, which means there would be fewer energy projects for managers to get excited about. This could lead to the cycle stopping all together, Ruta said.

“We see these challenges at every organization where we’ve worked,” she said.

But the right practices implemented together can go a long way to overcoming barriers to energy saving, and therefore keep the cycle moving, she said.

Next page:  The Climate Corps program

The Climate Corps program can help with this process, Ruta said. EDF reports an 80 percent implementation rate by companies of interns’ energy savings strategies. Companies are required to cover the interns’ salary, as well as travel expenses to EDF’s training program prior to the start of the internship. In return, companies could save big. Since its inception, the program has identified around $1 million in energy savings at each participating organization. 

At Adidas, the fellows have identified energy saving projects that could save the company millions of dollars, said Elizabeth Turnbull, senior manager for environmental affairs at the Adidas Group, during Tuesday’s webcast.

“The fellowship is positively impacting our business practice,” said Turnbull, who was a Climate Corps fellow in 2010. “Some of the recommendations…did have a capital cost, but many were free, and fellows helped us access those resources.”

The fellows are engaged with employees across the organization, from executives to maintenance staff. For Turnbull, their energy and willingness to look at all the possibilities is key to success.

“Part of the beauty of fellowship experience, is that often your best ideas are coming from the guy who stands in facility for 20 years,” Turnbull said. “They’ve never had anyone ask them what they would do, or the improvements they would like to make.”

The fellows also helped Adidas build a credible collection of case studies that showcase the benefits of a particular energy saving measure to the company, as well as the risks, said Turnbull. Those case studies are now helping to inform similar projects at other sites, she said.

“We were lacking a credible pipeline of fully hardboiled business cases,” said Turnbull. “Their business cases have become case studies for our company around the world.”

For industrial giant Ingersoll Rand, the fellowship helped the company enhance and professionalize its existing energy program, said Scott Tew, executive director at the Center for Energy Efficiency and Sustainability at Ingersoll Rand.

The creation of a roadmap that made a business case for energy savings by laying out goals and solutions was especially helpful, Tew said.

“The very best thing that sets these fellows apart is that they speak the language of business,” he said.

In 2012, Ingersoll Rand asked its fellows to look at what barriers were inhibiting optimal energy savings within the company. The interns identified four major challenges throughout the enterprise, and offered solutions on how best to overcome these barriers. One intern, for example, found that the company had an insufficient measurement and verification scheme. This led Ingersoll Rand to develop a new organizational capacity plan to tackle the issue more systematically.

“We asked them to turn the mirror on ourselves,” Tew said. “Sometimes it helps to have someone externally make that presentation.”

That approach also helped with another challenge to energy management: a lack of motivation within the organization, Tew said.

“Climate corps helps bring in an outside view,” he said. “It’s put a positive spotlight on solutions people are willing to listen to.”

Next page:  Another common barrier

Another common barrier is financing, said Turnbull, noting it's crucial to engage early with the CFO about a facility or market, she said. 

“It’s giving them a heads-up about what’s coming,” Turnbull said. “Let’s make sure we’re protecting the capital for that now.”

The Climate Corps program also helped companies implement advanced technology such as sensors and demand response (DR), tools that are considered to be the future of energy efficiency.

At Adidas, such technology has made sense in some markets but not in others, Turnbull said. The company is currently experimenting with a daylight-harvesting project, which gently ramps up the lighting in a building in response to demand.

“This involves sophisticated analysis that I would love to do but don’t have the time,” she said. “The interns dig into that.”

While technology certainly plays a big role in energy saving, human behavior is also an important factor. At Adidas, the fellows put flags in the elevators of one building that let people know how much energy their ride was consuming, as well as how many calories they would have burned if they had taken the stairs.

“Our fellows have provided some great insight for us, and have the time and space for finding creative ways of engaging employees,” she said.

For companies faced with the daunting task of cutting down on energy, Turnbull suggests first carrying out an energy audit. An audit helps a company identify where the energy saving opportunities are, and what is creating barriers and problems, he said.

“Many companies still lack an energy audit,” Turnbull said. “It’s like being sick for a long time but never getting diagnosed.”

Photo of a farm gate in New Zealand provided by ChameleonsEye via Shutterstock.