Energy Exchange

Selected tag(s): Envision Charlotte - 2012

Saving Energy One Crab At A Time

Imagine the embarrassment of leaving your office lights turned on and returning to find a giant fiddler crab sitting on your desk.  This fishy situation is happening in office buildings all across Charlotte, North Carolina –the crabs are plastic, and the fiddler variety is used for their notorious attraction to light.  It is all part of a fun, social experiment happening in uptown Charlotte office buildings to remind employees to shut of their lights when leaving the office and power down their computers when headed home.  If employees leave their lights on, coworkers will place crabs in the offending employee’s office to remind them to turn off their lights. In order to rid themselves of the burdensome crab, that employee must covertly “tag” another absent minded coworker by leaving a crab on their desk – all in the name of energy efficiency.  

And the amazing thing is that the playful reminder works!  After “Crab, You’re It!” was introduced in one of Mecklenburg County’s office buildings, 26% more lights were turned off when not in use, leading to significant energy savings.  

The “Crab, You’re It!” game – now adopted as part of the Envision Charlotte project – is just one of several innovative employee behavior change experiments that are leading to real energy reductions in office buildings in this entrepreneurial North Carolina city.  The creators of the game – the County of Mecklenburg staff – knew that most office employees are not motivated to save energy solely out of the goodness of their heart.  We are all busy and saving energy in the office is not always top of mind.  The key was to find a way for employees to actually get excited and have fun while saving energy.  And, let’s be honest.  Nobody wants to be crabbed.

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Envision Charlotte Meets Pecan Street

Last week, I, along with several other Envision Charlotte Board Members travelled to visit the Pecan Street smart grid project in Austin, Texas.   We hope this will be the start of a recurring “exchange program” between the two cities for sharing of information and best practices related to smart grid deployment.  There are significant differences between the two projects.  Pecan Street is focused on the residential sector; Envision Charlotte on commercial office buildings.  Envision Charlotte is deploying innovative behavior change, social networking and employee training to reduce energy use, while Pecan Street is heavily focused on technology solutions. 

But, there is also a lot in common.  Both organizations desire to reduce energy use and find alternatives to our outdated energy system.  Both believe that smart grids and energy efficiency can be cost effective and drive economic development.  Finally, both groups are rigorously measuring the impacts of their actions. 

What we saw in Austin was very cool.  We started by visiting a home in the Mueller neighborhood, a playground for testing the latest in home energy management and appliances.  In one house’s garage was a wireless energy monitor that connects to the home’s circuit breaker box and allows homeowners to view real time energy use from different appliances and lighting systems in the home.  Residents now know exactly how much it is costing them to make coffee each morning – or power up their flat screen TV. 

Also in the garage was a Chevy Volt, along with four charging stations from different manufacturers (according to Pecan Street staff, they all perform roughly the same).  Up on the roof was a series of solar panels, whose every watt is being recorded to learn important things about installation location, potential for offsetting peak generation, and storage solutions.  Although each of these technologies are impressive on their own, only when operating together do they represent the next generation of home energy management where consumers have complete knowledge and control over their energy choices.  It’s pretty empowering.

This innovative project didn’t happen accidentally.  It came about through lots of perspiration from their Executive Director and former Austin Council Member Brewster McCracken; design recommendations from hundreds of folks in the private sector, local community and NGOs (including EDF); prodigious fundraising; and hard work from staff, board members, and participating companies.  Some of my key takeaways from the trip are as follows:

Residential Technology Still a Wild West – Unlike the commercial building automation universe, where users have more experience integrating energy management and building systems to speak the same code and talk to one another, residential systems are still in their infancy and competing languages make it extremely difficult to get different pieces of hardware to talk to one another.  Pecan Street will often need to write new code or develop other workarounds to get vendor equipment to work as described.  This is one of the reasons why EDF has joined the OPEN network, to help ensure that smart grid investments in different states maximize interoperability.

The Incredible Power of Data – Pecan Street collects a data point from each home circuit every 15 seconds.  With dozens of circuits per home and hundreds of participating homes in the Mueller development, the Pecan Street project has rapidly approached billions of discrete pieces of data that can be captured, sorted and analyzed.  Although a challenge to work with data sets this large, once properly harnessed, they provide incredible insights to consumers, utilities, researchers and policymakers on energy use.  Pecan Street can see exactly what happens to the grid when someone opens their refrigerator or micro-waves dinner, and use that information to develop strategies for homeowners that will reduce energy use and improve reliability.   

Test Technology, Scale, Inform Policy – Pecan Street is unique in its approach in several ways, but one of the most significant is that it enables a technology to policy pathway.  Pecan Street’s test labs experiment with the latest in home energy management technologies, present those solutions to homeowners in the Mueller neighborhood for adoption and enable EDF to identify regulatory or policy mechanisms that can further accelerate smart grid investment.  As an example, last year EDF was able to help secure provisions in a Texas energy bill that enable demand response programs and payments for utility customers.  This technology to policy approach is something that Envision Charlotte will need to reach our ambitious 5-year, 20% energy reduction goal.

All in all, it was an incredible trip.  Over the coming years, as Envision Charlotte develops more programs and scales its impact, we hope to repay the warm hospitality of Pecan Street by hosting their team in Charlotte and sharing what we have learned.  We’ll promise good conversation, great BBQ and a continued devotion to collaboration.

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Cities And Universities Join EDF Climate Corps To Save Money And Energy

Cities and universities know the value of saving a dollar and saving a kilowatt, and EDF Climate Corps gives them a plan to do so in a just few, short months.  This summer, EDF Climate Corps is celebrating its fifth year in action with even more energy efficiency savings for cities and universities around the United States.  Joining EDF Climate Corps are returning and newcomer hosts who are eager to pair environment stewardship with smart business practices.

Newcomer host organizations for EDF Climate Corps include the Smithsonian Institution, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Port of Oakland, San Diego State University – Imperial Valley, City of Los Angeles, City of Cleveland (Ohio), Envision Charlotte (North Carolina), Housing Authority of the City of El Paso, City of Atlanta, and Texas A&M University – Kingsville.  Returning hosts include the New York City Public Housing Authority and Howard University (D.C.).

2011 NYCHA EDF Climate Corps Fellows

Since its inception, EDF Climate Corps has recommended energy-saving opportunities and developed custom energy efficiency investment plans that could save $1 billion in net operational costs over the project lifetimes, and avoid over $1 million metric tons of CO2 emissions annually.

It’s not too late to host an EDF Climate Corps fellow – the application deadline for 2012 summer hosts is February 23. Cities and universities are encouraged to apply at  For more information and a list of 2012 hosts, please contact

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Envision Charlotte is Making the Queen City a Green City

Charlotte is North Carolina’s largest city, nicknamed the “Queen City” after Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, queen-consort of King George III (okay, I’ll admit that I had to look that up).  I grew up nearby and over the years, I’ve watched in awe as the city has grown both upward, with high-rises housing the corporate headquarters of Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Duke Energy, and outward, as the suburbs expand to accommodate the ever-growing population. 

Today, efforts are underway to make the Queen City a green city, as part of a major sustainability initiative announced last year.  Envision Charlotte was launched in September 2010 as part of the Clinton Global Initiative; partners include Duke Energy, Charlotte Center City Partners, the City of Charlotte, and many other corporate citizens.  This unique public-private partnership comprises volunteers from 28 different organizations, including EDF, that have come together to make Charlotte the most sustainable urban core in the nation.  The program focuses on four pillars to achieve this goal:

  1. energy efficiency,
  2. air quality,
  3. water reduction, and
  4. waste reduction. 

Last week, my colleague Michael Regan and I attended a public event in Uptown Charlotte to celebrate the installation of interactive displays, provided by Cisco, in almost 70 buildings.  These displays show how much energy is being consumed at any given moment in the city’s center, and provide tips on how to reduce that load.  The idea is to provide information to building workers and visitors on what they as individuals and collectively can do to use energy more wisely, and at no cost. 

It’s estimated that simple behavior changes, like turning off lights and computer monitors when not in use, can reduce 5% of the energy being used in the participating buildings. 

That’s impressive, but the overall energy goal for Envision Charlotte is more ambitious: to reduce energy by 20% in five years.  And that will require investments in building energy management systems, smart grid technologies and aggressive education efforts.  Making these investments will ultimately allow companies to save money by reducing what they spend on energy. 

And making these energy-saving improvements will save money for taxpayers too, since several local government buildings are participating in Envision Charlotte. 

EDF has contributed to this effort, by providing two Climate Corps fellows to Mecklenburg County (where Charlotte is located) this summer to identify low- and no-cost energy savings in county-owned buildings.  In reviewing three buildings, they found measures that could save the county more than $500,000 in five years. Imagine the impact of identifying and implementing similar energy efficiency measures in all city and county owned buildings! 

EDF will continue working with Envision Charlotte to make the energy savings goal a reality.  I have served for the past year on the Envision Charlotte steering committee, which is now a board of directors for the newly created non-profit entity.  And we will document the actions taken so that they can be replicated in other communities around the country.  Stay tuned!

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