Posts from June 2011

America’s next generation of chief green officers

Recently, I attended the kickoff for an EDF Climate Corps training session in Boston. Sitting in a classroom full of disconcertingly young and bright MBA students, we were presented with this question:

Do you know the difference between energy conservation and energy efficiency?

Here’s a test: Which actions have to do with efficiency?

EDF’s Climate Corps fellows: They make things better
  • Installing solar panels
  • Using different bulbs for the same amount of light
  • Wearing sweaters
  • Using the best technology [check]
  • Making fewer copies of documents
  • Properly using existing equipment
  • Installing sensors for lights

There was a buzz as the students responded. Hands went tentatively up and down. But within 15 minutes, they (and I) were getting it — the key to one of EDF’s most innovative projects is helping companies maximize energy efficiency.

“You are creating a movement,” Victoria Mills, EDF’s managing director for corporate partnerships told the 57 new Climate Corps fellows. “Business is an important force for change, especially at a time when legislative activity around climate change is stalled.” (Read Victoria Mills’ reflections on three years of EDF Climate Corps results.)

Her message fell on receptive ears. “We need change,” said Esra Kucukciftci, who was looking forward to evaluating the energy efficiency of Facebook’s new headquarters in Menlo Park, CA, this summer. “We need to reach a tipping point on energy use. We need social momentum. What better place to get that conversation going?”

Being a change agent is a high-flown ambition. But at Climate Corps, that means getting down to the nitty-gritty. The summer program embeds MBA students, called Climate Corps fellows, at major corporations, where they ferret out opportunities for increasing energy efficiency.

As soon as they arrive at their sponsoring companies, the fellows dive into the daily, even hourly, details of heating and cooling systems, when and what lights are on or off, what sort of automated controls govern computer terminals.

They must find mentors, partners and guides on the inside, who will help them understand the infrastructures they are dealing with, and champion their cause with other employees. They are expected, at the end of their ten-week stint, to submit a formal report to their superiors, with a list of energy-efficiency recommendations and estimates for how much money and carbon pollution will be saved if they are adopted.

Now, back to our quiz.

Conservation involves using less energy: Wear a sweater so you can turn down the heat; make fewer copies so you use less paper. Efficiency means using less energy while maintaining or enhancing productivity — getting more bang for your buck.

Both approaches can be helpful to any company looking to cut costs and reduce its environmental footprint. But efficiency is key to doing that and growing at the same time.

It’s amazing how much money literally flies out the window in an inefficiently run building. As Gwen Ruta, EDF’s vice president for corporate partnerships, put it: “It’s as if companies across the globe were walking around with holes in their pockets, with coins dribbling out nonstop.”

In fact, the Corps slogan could be: Buildings Matter. (And there’s a lesson here for all of us as we look at our electricity bills.) Fellows pore over facilities’ spending records, but, like anthropological sleuths, they also pay attention to how people actually behave.

In 2009, for example, one fellow couldn’t understand why an area in the building she was studying was always very cold. Her supervisor had noted the mysterious deviation, but no one could figure out the problem, which was costing a great deal of money.

One evening, the fellow, working late, took a stroll around the hallways and noticed an intense Ping Pong game in that room. As she watched, one player, overheated, jumped on the table, pushed up a ceiling tile, and changed the AC setting. Only when the game was over, the players forgot to switch the AC back — that’s why it stayed so cold.

The fellow solved the problem by first putting up a sign by the AC thermostat to remind employees to return to the original setting after their games. Then, in her final report she recommended a longer term solution: installation of programmable thermostats that would allow the facilities team to program a schedule to automatically adjust the temperature.

Faces of EDF Climate Corps

During the three-day training fellows are trained to be sensitive to the culture of their host corporations.

“This is where MBA culture meets Old-School facilities culture,” said Trish Kenlon, a former fellow who is now the manager of sustainability for Ann Taylor. “People are anxious about conservation. They see you coming, and they think they will be less comfortable, or less safe, or less productive. Your job is to communicate why your ideas are going to make things better.”

So far, EDF Climate Corps has racked up an impressive record. Since 2008, the program’s first year, the fellows have identified opportunities for companies to save $439 million in net operational costs and cut the equivalent of 985 million kilowatt hours of energy use annually — enough to power 85,000 homes for a year. The fellows’ recommendations could also avoid 557,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually — equivalent to taking more than 86,000 SUVs off the road for a year.

In fact, eBay’s senior manager for operational sustainability said he feels like he got ten months of value from eBay’s EDF Climate Corps fellows in the ten weeks they spent on the job.

That kind of success is fueling growth. The first EDF Climate Corps class had seven fellows; this year, 57 MBA students will join 49 companies, half of which are repeat participants. Among the new companies that have signed on this year are Citigroup, Microsoft, Union Pacific and Facebook.

Three fellows are headed for Facebook to study their new campus in Menlo Park, CA, noted an excited Esra Kucukciftci. “People in the Bay Area have an ethos of caring about the environment,” she said, “and it is important for a company like Facebook to make a big statement by having energy efficient buildings. Think about it: 600 million users. That’s their reach. That’s the kind of platform it is going to take to reach a tipping point on energy use.”

Why, given the success EDF Climate Corps has had, aren’t companies doing the job themselves? After all, it’s entirely in their interest to save money. Jason Jay, a lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, tried to answer that question in a talk he gave to the fellows in Boston.

“You would think EE [energy efficiency] is a nobrainer, right?” he said. But he pointed out that many companies, while they may form “green” teams or committees or councils, aren’t really focused on getting results. The only way to get “high organizational capacity for EE [energy efficiency],” he said, is by setting goals at the highest levels of management, with clearly delineated lines of authority to make changes and motivate staff.

“I remember when we didn’t have IT departments,” Jay added. “Now, no one operates without one. Soon, all companies will have EE departments. Best energy practices will be captured — and spread.”

Listening to the MBA students talk about their hopes for their fellowships, I was struck by another EE factor: emotional energy. EDF Climate Corps fellows are investing themselves in the future of our environment. They are optimistic. And they are looking to drive change on a large scale. They see a bright green future.

Cynthia Shih, a student at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, said it best. “I plan to make energy efficiency….really cool.”

Personal Nature

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