Several corporate leaders, including Kohl’s, HEI Hotels and Resorts, Staples and Walgreens, have volunteered to reduce energy use 20 percent by 2020 as part of a challenge initiated by President Barack Obama. But that’s not the big deal.
The big deal is that they have agreed to publicly disclose how they’re doing it. Factories, data centers, stores and other large energy users often balk at revealing their energy efficiency strategies. After all, saving energy reduces the cost of doing business and gives them a competitive edge. By sharing details, they tip off the competition to better practices.
By not sharing details, however, they force others to reinvent the wheel — if they invent it at all — thus slowing U.S. progress in reaching national energy productivity goals aimed at bettering the economy.
“The real goal is to figure out who is leading in the space and how we can learn from their learning and replicate their activities in the marketplace quickly,” said Maria Vargas, director of the Better Buildings Challenge at the U.S. Department of Energy.
Vargas described the Obama strategy June 18-19 at the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships’ (NEEP) annual summit, an event that drew more than 300 people to Springfield, Mass.
“I have children, and they watch a show called ‘Mythbusters,'” she said. “So the way I think about the Better Business Challenge is as ‘barrier busters.'”
Some companies participating in the program have pursued energy efficiency for a decade or more, so can bust a lot of myths and offer substantial guidance. She relayed two examples where participants offered a useful strategy or technology.
Kohl’s was interested for years in pursuing energy efficiency, but the energy team could not convince the department store’s chief financial officer. It was largely a communications problem, as Vargas tells it.
“The CFO kept looking for different criteria than they had. They finally said, ‘This is crazy. We’re literally speaking different languages,'” she said.
Then, Kohl’s added someone from the CFO’s office to the energy team. That changed everything.
“All of a sudden, they move to the different country, and they are forced to speak the language,” she said.
As a result, Kohl’s is now “very much moving down an energy efficiency path and seeing tremendous savings across its portfolio,” she said.
Vargas also told the story of HEI Hotels & Resorts, owner of the Hilton, Marriott, Westin and other hotels. The company has developed an “easy, yet sophisticated” energy dashboard. “It was very proprietary,” she said.
A snapshot of the Energy Looking Glass, HEI’s energy management tracking tool.
But after getting a direct request from Obama, Kohl’s CEO said, “The president asked me to share, and I’m going to share,'” Vargas said. “So they have.”
Ultimately, though, Vargas sees the federal program as a way to bolster innovation for communities, cities and states — the true launching pad for an energy-efficiency revolution.
“I firmly believe that all politics, all success, all life is local,” she said. “The Department of Energy can tell somebody what to do, and people will be like, ‘That’s nice, pass the muffins.'”
NEEP, host of the conference where Vargas spoke, works within one of the nation’s most active regions for energy efficiency. In keeping with the idea that it helps to get information about successful companies out there, NEEP announced several business leader awards. Videos or written profiles are available about the energy efficiency efforts of the 12 companies and organizations.
This year’s winners were American University, Atlas Box & Crating Company, Anheuser-Busch (New Hampshire and New York), Baystate Health, Boehringer Ingelheim, Boston College, Cape Cod Commercial Linen Service, Covidien, ESPN, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and Woodstock Inn Station and Brewery.