Climate Corps 2010: Climbing to the Peak of Energy Efficiency

Climate Corps 2010: Climbing to the Peak of Energy Efficiency

In rock climbing, both muscle power and endurance training make up a successful climb. An accomplished climber can climb for extended periods of time without forgoing efficiency. That same level of endurance is needed for a successful climb to a stable, organization-wide energy efficiency program.

Each company that hires an EDF Climate Corps fellow through Environmental Defense Fund is at a different point of its energy efficiency climb. I am currently completing my EDF Climate Corps fellowship at Cummins, an organization that is quite far along in implementing energy efficiency as part of its policies and forward-looking strategy.  The participating companies of EPA’s Climate Leaders program formalized these efforts with a commitment to reduce 25 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2010.

Over the past few years, Cummins has implemented a solid, self-developed employee training program called “Energy Champions” and created a number of initiatives to promote an energy efficient mindset among its employees. Frequent awareness campaigns target the entire employee population with top leadership presenting ideas on topics from water conservation to DIY building envelope evaluation. There is currently an ongoing process to transfer localized success into the broader scope of company culture.

To continue churning out energy efficiency projects, the organization must be on the lookout for effective ways to incrementally engage more of its employees. These folks tend to be most aware of efficiency opportunities in their immediate work areas, having a direct influence over their particular area’s energy usage and, in turn, the carbon footprint of the building.

Looking back at Cummins’s endurance through its climb to energy efficiency, the organization clearly knows these initiatives must be more than annual image-boosting activities with corporate photographers ready to snap pictures of engaged employees for shareholders' reports and company websites. There is a much bigger potential of generating consistent returns from these initiatives through committing a company’s most precious resource, the time of its people.

Cummins provides a 12-week-long employee training course, in which cross-functional teams spend an hour per week learning about energy efficiency concepts and the costs of energy waste. After the training, the participants are well-equipped to seek out these savings for themselves during a “treasure hunt,” which enables groups of enthusiastic employees to set out on all-day hunts for energy savings.

Employee groups are typically successful in finding savings and are even encouraged to question the absolutes. No questions are off-limits. While many of these questions naturally have answers that may be cost-prohibitive to solve immediately, some employees strike big with very basic questions.

Question: Why is the production equipment on all the time?

Answer: It has always been on, and the employee operating it has been trained that way.

The answer may be simple, but it has the potential to stimulate an examination of current practices. Further investigation reveals that 75 percent of the equipment can be turned off at the end of the shift without a major shutdown procedure and still powered on quickly the next day. The savings can be enormous. One facility has saved $35,000 annually in energy costs and 335 metric tons of CO2.

In subsequent phases of the endurance climb, the Energy Champions Training is rolled out to new facilities. However, the questions Cummins and many companies ask at this point are:

  • How can we maintain momentum and avoid reverting to old habits?
  • How do we make sure that when equipment is up for replacement, efficiency is part of the criteria used when evaluating its costs and benefits?

I am thrilled to be involved in the process of laying out these next steps and can’t wait to see what new savings these trainees will find during treasure hunts to come. As for the organization, the climb to the peak of organizational change requires many helpers and much training throughout. I’m happy to be a foothold along the way.

Margaret Rudolph is an 2010 EDF Climate Corps fellow at Cummins and a Net Impact member. She is an MBA candidate at Mason School of Business, College of William and Mary. This content is cross-posted at the Environmental Defense Fund Innovation Exchange Blog. Further coverage of the Climate Corps program is available

Image -- The National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Solar Energy Research Facility, courtesy of NREL.