Let there be light (but not too much)

Standing 25 feet above Central North Carolina, I finally had my enemies in sight: two hulking, rusting rooftop air conditioner units that, like me, date back to the early Reagan Administration. It was late June, and the relics were doing everything in their (severely diminished) power to cool the office building beneath them during the latest East Coast heat wave. In the process, they were consuming twice as much energy as they should, costing their owner an extra $25,000 a year and wasting as much fuel as it would take to power over 30 homes.

And that’s just the tip of the (rapidly melting) iceberg.

In its landmark 2009 report, McKinsey & Company concluded that U.S. building owners could save $1.2 trillion over a 10-year period by upgrading lighting, cooling, and other building systems. As a fellow with the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate Corps -- which places specially trained MBAs and MPAs with companies, colleges, and cities to make a business case for energy efficiency -- I spent my summer helping Grubb Properties, a real-estate firm based in Charlotte, N.C., claim its slice of that growing pie, while learning how to make a meaningful difference in business.

Over 10 weeks, I helped develop projects that could shave $75,000 off of expenses -- and roughly 800 megawatt-hours off of energy consumption -- per year at two office parks and three apartment communities in the Carolinas. Recommendations ranged from installing low-wattage office lighting to replacing swimming pool pumps to retrofitting those ancient AC units. Some are free, such as reprogramming thermostat schedules. Some will take an investment, but all will pay for themselves in anywhere from a few months to seven years.

The EDF Climate Corps appealed to me because, as a former journalist and political aide hoping to advance urban revitalization efforts, I saw an opportunity not only to learn about real estate, green building, and clean energy, but also to test my ability to make and justify complex financial decisions in real time.

Next page: Not all profits are created equal