Category Archives: Sustainability in Business

Experiences as an Electrical Utility Energy Auditor

By Aaron Martin, ESG Energy Analyst 

It is no secret that energy efficiency is here to stay. From homeowners to building managers to public utilities, we strive to maximize comfort, increase productivity, and enhance generation and distribution while simultaneously decreasing energy usage. As energy prices continue to rise, efficiency will very likely become the new norm. To paraphrase the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, the term “green” may very well disappear from the modern lexicon as we replace older, resource-intensive methods and materials with modern, efficient alternatives.

Near the forefront of these efforts are the public utilities. The corporations that provide us with the energy we need to work and play have a vested interest in increasing efficiency and reducing demand. Avoided costs create added profits, streamlined services for customers, and funds for research and development. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, the typical coal-fired power plant has capital costs of around $3,250 per kilowatt; given that such a facility has a capacity of approximately 500 megawatts, it goes without saying that your local utility would love to avoid building another power production plant.

Duke Energy is no exception in this regard. Their website has received an overhaul that emphasizes energy efficiency, containing graphical analyses and tailored data points for homeowners, and even features an energy efficient product shopping area. Over the past couple of years, residential customers may have noticed the promotion of more efficient lighting through the distribution of free compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). Duke Energy representatives have taken the subject of energy efficiency to local schools; during his kindergarten year, my son  came home one day with an energy efficiency kit containing CFLs and high efficiency plumbing fixtures (but as the son of an energy geek, these items were well known to him). Finally, Duke’s Smart Saver program offers residential customers financial incentives for purchases of select energy efficient heating and air conditioning products as well as home air leakage reduction services and insulation upgrades.

Over the course of the past three weeks, I acted as an auditor for Duke Energy’s Home Energy House Call (HEHC) program, during which time I visited nearly fifty homes throughout the Piedmont. Free for Duke Energy customers that own their own home (more about the HEHC program can be found here), the program features a visit by an energy expert who performs an abbreviated energy audit, as well as the distribution of an energy efficiency kit and additional CFLs upon request. The typical house call takes between 45 and 60 minutes, with visual inspections of heating and cooling systems and insulation levels taking precedence. Homeowners are interviewed on their energy usage habits, and then receive a customized report that can be used to increase the comfort and efficiency of their home.

For someone who is more accustomed to residential new construction testing, the experience of face-to-face communication with homeowners in homes built between the years of 1920 and 2008 was as rewarding as it was diverse. The houses I visited ranged from 800 square foot bungalows to 7,200 square foot mansions. When asked about the prime reason for scheduling the house call,  I estimate that approximately 50% attributed the appointment to high bills, 25% to comfort-related issues, and the remaining 25% to the desire for a general discussion on energy efficiency.  Though time management was a bit tricky during the first three to five days, I soon developed a rhythm that allowed me to thoroughly answer questions and address concerns while still accomplishing all items on the to-do list.

The homeowners were as diverse as the homes that I visited. While some people declined the free CFLs (one cited the dangers of mercury as a prime factor), most were very excited to replace their incandescent bulbs and begin saving money immediately. I was very encouraged to see the overwhelming desire to reduce electrical consumption and the overall interest in residential energy efficiency. Indeed, several customers will most likely pursue advanced home performance  diagnostic testing (a comprehensive home energy audit or duct leakage testing) in the near future. It was extremely gratifying to assist people struggling with expensive bills; in one instance I discovered a very large leak in a supply duct in the homeowner’s crawl space, which, when sealed, will result in significant savings. I was also able to identify an air sealing point at another home with an attached garage that will lead to heightened levels of indoor air quality and health and safety for the occupants.

But most of all, I feel very grateful to have had such a tremendous learning experience, seeing various construction styles, materials, and heating and cooling systems that I had not seen before, while helping homeowners increase the comfort, durability, and energy efficiency of their homes. Humans often focus on the negative, and with respect to large companies or other entities, on the products or services they lack. Perhaps it’s time to celebrate the minor victories. When American homeowners get excited about saving money and reducing their carbon footprint, everyone wins, and if the public utility is a driving force in making this happen, then more power to them.

 Sources:

(1) http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/capitalcost/xls/table1.xls

(2) http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/coalvswind/c01.html

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The True Costs of Air Pollutants

In a report covering toxic industrial air pollution, nicknamed the “Toxic 20”, North Carolina was recently ranked 10th worst in the country for toxic air pollution in 2009. The 14.9 million pounds of chemical emissions from the state’s power plants accounted for 49% of the tar-heel state’s total pollution as well as 4% of national power plant pollution. Additionally, the 1,220 pounds of mercury air pollution that North Carolina power plants emitted made up 68% of the total state mercury air pollution and 2% of pollution for the electric sector in the United States as a whole. The significant, leading role that coal-fired power plants currently have with emitting toxic air pollutants is birthing a cornucopia of problems encompassing our environment, wallets and health.

While the environmental and ecological consequences of maintaining our use of coal-based power systems have been explored, preached, taught and studied, the subsequent human health effects that also arise have received less attention. Pediatric MD Lynn Ringenberg, a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, presents the medical case against coal-based power generation, saying:

“Coal pollution is killing Americans. It is America’s biggest source of toxic air pollution. Air toxics from coal-fired power plants cause cancer, birth defects, and respiratory illness. Just one of those air toxics, mercury, damages the developing brains of feuses, infants, and small children. It robs our children of healthy neurological development and native intelligence.”

According to Environment North Carolina’s website, North Carolina alone experiences 3,000 premature deaths resulting from air pollution which makes up “3 to 7 percent of all deaths that are not caused by violence or accidents.” In an attempt to address this, the 2002 state Legislature passed the Clean Smokestacks law that aimed to cut power plan pollution by more than 70 percent over 7 years. While this has helped partially remedy the problem, fundamental changes are needed to effectively, sustainably curb air pollutants, specifically clean energy generation and cleaner transportation (low- or zero-emitting cars and clean mass transit).

Last week a peer-reviewed report from Economics and Equity for the Environment (E3) network showed that the social cost of carbon dioxide emissions per ton is upwards of $893, over 42.5 times higher than the $21/ton that government currently uses for cost-benefit assessments. Such a discrepancy is significant in that it (a) testifies to how behind the ball environmental cost-accounting is and (b) it makes projects such as coal-fired power plants more politically enticing because the costs appear drastically lower than what they truly are. While different air pollutants have different effects, combating these effects requires more attention and focus on the idea that pollution levels are directly correlated with health, environmental and economic costs.

In the increasingly interconnected web of economics, social development and environmental health, the multi-faceted problems we are beginning to discuss require new measurement tools to enable new thinking.

Making the Business Case for Green Buildings

I was recently thumbing through a sustainable design magazine and saw an advertisement for the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).  The ad listed the top ten reasons  why green buildings are good for your business, cited by USGBC members.  I found the points compelling and applicable not only to LEED buildings but buildings certified under other reputable green building programs as well.

WHY COMMERCIAL BUILDING OWNERS CHOOSE GREEN

1 – Green buildings are a competitive differentiator.  Lower operating costs and better indoor air quality make buildings with green features more attractive to buyers and tenants.

2- Green buildings help mitigate risk.  Third party verification of measures installed to help protect indoor air quality can aid against law suits down the line. Green buildings also tend to sell and lease faster than similar non-certified buildings.

3- Green buildings attract tenants.  Educated tenants are willing to pay more for the benefits of green features.

4- Green buildings are cost-effective.  An upfront investment in green building design results in much greater life cycle savings.  Green buildings also sell for more than their conventional counterparts.

5- Green buildings can increase rental rates.  Green buildings outperform non-green buildings in key areas such as occupancy, sale price and rental rates.

WHY COMMERCIAL BUILDING TENANTS CHOOSE GREEN

1- Green buildings mean happier employees and occupants.  Green buildings have healthier and cleaner environments, which mean healthier occupants.  Business operating out of green buildings have improved recruitment and retention and increased employee productivity.

2-Green buildings reap public relations and community benefits. Patrons like to support businesses that are committed to the environment and sustainability.

3- Green buildings can have lower operating costs. Green buildings typically have lower utility costs and are less expensive to maintain.  Many tax benefits and incentives are also available.

4- Green buildings provide immediate and measurable results.  Companies are saving money by reducing the use of energy, water and other resources.

5- Green buildings save energy.  Energy conservation has a positive life-cycle impact and reduces an organization’s carbon footprint.

To learn more about the USGBC and LEED, visit the USGBC website.

To learn more about ESG Energy’s green building services and carbon footprint reduction program, visit the ESG Energy website.

Leasing Space? Reduce the Carbon Footprint of Your Business While Increasing Your Bottom Line

Read Craig’s latest post on the Greensboro Partnership blog.

Sustainability Spending on the Rise

Although the financial crisis has brought business investment to what seems like a crawl, business are spending money on sustainability activities as recently shown by the 2nd annual Sustainability & Innovation Global Executive Study.

This collaboration between the MIT Sloan Management Review and the Boston Consulting Group found that respondents to the survey expet their spending to grow further in the coming year.

The Question: How has your organization’s commitment to sustainability changed in the past year?

The majority of respondents have ‘somewhat increased’ or ‘significantly increased” investment and activities in sustainability. The greatest increase in the chart above is for significantly increasing commitment for the next year, which rose by nearly a third from 17% to last year to 22% for the coming year.

This begs the question, are businesses spending more on sustainability, or simply spending more in general as the economy improves?

Responses to other survey questions suggest that business owners are giving sustainability more attention, even though they do not see a short-term reward. This statistic is not surprising, according to Peter Graf, chief sustainability officer of the software giant SAP. Graf says that making the business case for investment in sustainability at SAP involved careful strategy, including lots of short e-mails about the topic & individual 2-hour meetings with key players to focus their interest. This sounds a lot like the method an adult uses to convince teenagers to do something the adult knows will be beneficial in the long run.

“When the board met as a group, it was, arguably, the best-prepared board meeting I’ve ever been at,” Graf told MIT SMR in an interview last fall. “It was a complete home run. One person said, ‘We’re having the conversation here that I have with my kids at every dinner.’ I was surprised how strong their commitment was and how immediate their agreement was that we have to adopt a long-term strategic focus on sustainability.”

The trend is clear – business executives see value in putting resources into sustainable initiatives.

The Business of Carbon

As a small business owner, news of another tax is usually not welcome, and I have been hearing an increasing number of media references to a carbon tax. Our president has mentioned it a number of times and with increasing frequency since taking office. While one could argue for hours about the details, something most Americans (and for that matter, inhabitants of this planet) agree upon is that the U.S. reliance on fossil fuel as a primary energy source is heading all of us down a dangerous an potentially irreversible path.

Many wise people believe that a tax on carbon emissions is inevitable as it is probably the only way to force Americans (and the Chinese and Indians) to drastically reduce their carbon footprint and to do it fast enough to matter.

How many American businesses have any idea about their total carbon footprint? Most business owners would rather NOT know, as this could mean having to change the way they do business. I believe that a carbon tax is inevitable, and when it arrives, it will hit us all quite hard. No American will like it, but our country has waited too long to make the necessary changes in the way we live. Our thirst for an unsustainable level of freedom and comfort has made us addicted to oil.

As with any addiction, hitting bottom is usually when change occurs. Is the BP oil disaster our ‘bottom’? Many believe it is. This single event has increased made most Americans take notice of how irresponsible we have become and how we have to change. Sounds like the definition of ‘bottom’ to me.

My point is this: is your business ready for a low-carbon world that includes a tax on carbon? If not, doesn’t it make sense to begin accounting for the carbon you use and emit? The big corporations are doing it, and it’s not just for the publicity. They are planning to be ready for a low-carbon economy. Businesses who are not ready will pay a high price to stay in the game.

A Great Reason to Green Your Business – Increased Employee Productivity

The Business Journal has published a special report in Sustainability and Business and featured an article on employee productivity in green properties.  Last year, national real estate brokerage CB Richard Ellis and the University of San Diego surveyed tenants in 154 buildings nationwide that were either LEED or Energy Star certified.  55% of companies reported increased employee productivity since making the move and 45% reported fewer sick days.  EPA findings support these statistics, estimating that firms nationwide lose about $60 billion in productivity and sick days because of Sick Building Syndrome.  Green buildings have better filtration and cleaner air, thus reducing airborne germs and allergens

LEED and Energy Star buildings tend to give employees more control over their environment with zoned thermostats and task lighting, which leads to improved employee satisfaction.  The companies surveyed in the CB Richard Ellis study reported thinking that being in a green building helped improve employee recruitment and improved their image in the eyes of their customers.  

To read more about the CB Richard Ellis study, visit their website at http://www.cbre.com/EN/AboutUs/MediaCentre/2009/Pages/110209.aspx