May 13, 2016 by

CREDIT: AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

The U.S. Steel Building in Pittsburgh saves more than a million dollars a year after retrofitting for better efficiency.

Amid all the talk about transitioning to clean energy sources, consider this:

The cleanest energy is the energy we never use.

It’s also the cheapest, which is one reason that companies are embracing energy efficiency now more than ever. In fact, energy efficiency — now being rebranded for the business sector as energy productivity — is having a moment.

“People have been working on this topic for the last 20 to 30 years, but there still are so many opportunities that need to be unlocked,” Jenny Chu, a manager at The Climate Group, told ThinkProgress.

Chu was speaking from the Alliance to Save Energy’s annual efficiency conference, which took place this week in Washington, D.C., and where The Climate Group — an international nonprofit that works with businesses and governments to transition to clean energy — launched a new initiative, EP100. Under EP100, companies will commit to doubling their energy productivity — that is, getting just as much done using only half the energy (or getting twice as much done for the same amount of energy — you get the idea). That’s a big deal. One of the major talking points against emissions reductions is that lowering our carbon footprint will ruin the economy — but efficiency is hard to argue against.

And perhaps more than other emissions-reductions efforts, there is a lot of low-hanging fruit in efficiency. According to light bulb company Phillips, if all the world’s companies switched from old-fashioned light bulbs to LED ones, they would collectively save $94 billion in energy costs — and reduce demand by the equivalent of 371 power plants. (For comparison, there are currently 290 active coal-fired power plants in the entire United States).

And if you’re willing to go further than light bulbs, there is more hidden inefficiency to target. A retrofit at Pittsburgh’s U.S. Steel building resulted in $1 million worth of energy savings each year for the commercial building, according to Danfoss, another company that joined the EP100 initiative this week. That company installed new pumps for the 64-story building’s water supply and new fans in its air circulation system. In a case study, the building manager says that driving down energy costs has also made the building more attractive to tenants — a positive economic side effect.

Buildings account for 40 percent of the electricity used in the United States, so making them more efficient will go a long way towards reducing the country’s overall demand. And as Chu pointed out, any money that isn’t going into electricity costs can go into something else. In other words, energy efficiency hits the sweet spot of being both good for the environment and good for the economy.

But we’ve been talking about being more efficient for decades. Why is all this possible now?

Technology And The Internet Of Things

Back in the day, being more efficient was largely a user-driven process. Did you turn your heat up or did you put a sweater on? Did you unplug your electronics when you were done?

Those choices still matter. (In fact, given the amount of electricity our appliances use, that second one might be more important than ever.) But systems matter even more.

“Behavior still has a role in all this, of course,” said Scott Tew, executive director of Ingersoll Rand’s Center for Energy Efficiency and Sustainability. “The good news is that we can compensate for bad behavior today in a way we couldn’t in the past.” Think about lights that shut off automatically — all of a sudden, the user doesn’t have to remember to turn the lights off.

“People used to attach efficiency to ‘something I have to give up,’ which is why I love this concept of energy productivity,” Tew said. “That’s really getting more out of the energy being consumed. You get more out of it this month that you did last month.”

In fact, the United States recently announced that it has decoupled emissions from economic growth — indicating that we’re going the right direction on energy and productivity, whether it’s clean energy or no energy.

“It’s all about optimizing your heating and cooling and your lighting,” said Kevin Bollom, vice president of building services for Trane, an Ingersoll Rand company that works on building systems. On average, heating, cooling, and lighting together account for more than 50 percent of a buildings’ demand, but the systems that control those things are better than ever.

For instance, automatic sensors aren’t just for motion-detector lights. Sensors can send data from, say, a conference center room to a monitor hundreds of miles away, in real time. An operator there can see that the lights are off and the room is getting colder, and he can ramp down the air conditioning in the summer or automatically raise the blinds in the winter to take advantage of heat from the sun.

“The internet of things is starting to really hit our industry,” Bollom said.

Of course, not everything is intuitive. Take Trane’s work with a theater company in Minnesota, for example. The company wanted to better manage temperatures in their theaters — being too hot or too cold is one of movie-goers top complaints. Trane installed a management system, but wasn’t getting quite the results it was looking for. Now they have added a new data set: ticket sales. Knowing in advance how many people are going to be watching a certain showing allows the company to adjust the heating or air conditioning in advance and with more specificity. Now the theater isn’t over-chilling a a room with very few moviegoers, and they don’t have to over-correct in a room that has gotten too warm. (Trying to cool down a hot room is significantly less efficient — and less comfortable — than getting the temperature right from the beginning.)

The Makings Of A Movement

But price and comfort aren’t the only reasons companies want to be more efficient. In the broader political and societal landscape, energy efficiency is one way companies can show themselves to be conscientious actors.

“Companies as a whole are feeling the momentum, feeling the pressure, whatever you want to call it: They have to make a commitment to the environment,” Bollom said. Efficiency is also measurable, which means its easy to set goals and report them.

Covestro, which also announced that it was joining EP100 this week, is an example of how the intangible bloom of energy efficiency can sway corporate decisions.

“I represent an industry that is traditionally grey,” said Richard Northcote, chief sustainability officer for the polymer manufacturer. “What we are announcing today gives us color and makes us stand out,” he told ThinkProgress over email, saying he hoped the company’s action would encourage other companies to sign onto the commitment, too.

Covestro likely won’t be alone for long. The Department of Energy has seen efficiency commitments triple since 2011, as has its Better Building Challenge, which together the department calculates has saved $1.3 billion and reduced carbon emissions by 10 million tons.

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