Energy efficiency is often called the low-hanging fruit of a clean-energy economy. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu likes to say it’s not just hanging, it’s rotting on the ground.

The easy pickings are apparently not that easy, though. Energy efficiency programs have picked up speed in the past few years with concerns about the bottom line and/or sustainability, but those programs often come in fits and starts.

To look for more comprehensive solutions, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) evaluated five energy efficiency programs in large workplaces to find some of what it takes to make reductions using behavior programs, rather than just retrofits.

The report examined five case studies: “Green the Capitol” in the U.S. House of Representatives; a behavior campaign at a Canadian provincial government building; “Conservation Action!” at BC Hydro; “TLC – Care to Conserve” at the University Health Network at University of Toronto; and “Tenant Energy Management Program” at the Empire State Building.

It’s worth noting upfront that four of the five facilities studied are institutions where the tenant also owns the building. Although navigating the tenant/owner relationship to achieve energy savings is more difficult, it is not impossible. With the proliferation of energy benchmarking, owners of large buildings in many cities and states are examining their energy use and looking to team up with tenants on energy efficiency.

But whatever is being done is far short of what could be accomplished. Commercial energy use is growing faster than the transportation, residential or industrial sectors.

According to anther recent report from ACEEE, “The Long-Term Energy Efficiency Potential: What the Evidence Suggests,” heating and cooling loads in new construction could be reduced 70 percent to 90 percent by 2050 with improvements in building shells. Even building shell retrofits with the latest technology could save up to 40 percent in energy.

But buildings have long life spans, and money for capital improvements is hard to come across these days. In lieu of a retrofit with the most advanced technologies, cutting energy and greening the workplace is possible (beyond replacing light bulbs). Here are 10 findings from the ACEEE.

1.     Lead From the Top. Upper management must not only take ownership of the program, but must also set the tone for the entire project. It means that upper management has to involve stakeholders in the organization early and come up with a clear plan. In the case of the Empire State Building, the Rocky Mountain Institute, which was one of the program participants, noted that project prep time could have been shortened through better coordination.

2.     Make It Public. Once upper management is on board and taking a leadership position, there must be a public pledge. It should be binding, and reiterated loudly throughout the company and beyond. For the organizations in the study, the pledges also doubled as public relation bids. In cases where the building owner has a number of different tenants, a focus on efficiency can be a selling point.

3.     Branding, Branding, Branding. Whether it’s signage in the vestibule or stickers on the light switches, it’s important to offer motivation and reminders to employees. A catchy slogan doesn’t hurt either. Maybe make up some t-shirts -- cool ones, not dorky ones. 

4.     Form Committees. It’s one thing to kick off a program that upper management is behind; it’s another to execute it over months -- or possibly years -- across various offices and departments. There needs to be one committee to oversee the entire project, including its design and implementation, but there also likely needs to be smaller teams that take those directives into the trenches. 

5.     Assign Peer Champions. Of course, success often comes when people hear things from peers, rather than from superiors or branded campaigns (but don’t throw numbers 1 and 3 out the window!). Instead, each of the five programs all relied on using volunteers to be representatives or exemplary participants in the program. Whether they were “Green Office Representatives” in Washington, D.C. or “Conservation Floor Captains” in British Columbia, these key participants coordinated with the people around them and reported back to the managing committees.

6.     Communicate. This should be a no-brainer. It’s not enough to slap up a few posters and stickers around the building. Communication needs to be clear and it needs to come in multiple forms. All of the five case studies used public meetings, websites and email. Some programs had one-on-one consultations with workers in their cubicles to install lighting controls or at least to discuss efficiency options.

7.     Give (and Take) Feedback. One of the examples highlighted by the authors of the report was the “My Green Office” website that was part of the “Green the Capitol” campaign. Not only did the site perform the function of the number 6 dictum by communicating what the program is and what can be done, but it also provided a feedback mechanism to track the behavioral changes and allowed participants to personalize the project. As all good websites should be, it was an interactive tool rather than just a one-way channel for the dissemination of information.

8.     Tie It to Money. Nothing motivates people like money, whether it's the carrot or stick type of incentive. Many of the case studies featured challenges that offered prizes to individuals or teams that achieved the greatest degree of energy reduction. BC Hydro integrated the energy results into annual performance reviews, which determine bonuses. For geographically diverse companies, technology from companies like Lucid can allow management to compare energy efficiency across various properties.  

9.     Buy Some Technology. The Empire State Building underwent a very public and extensive retrofit. But companies don’t need to undertake a complete overhaul to save serious energy. A little automation, particularly for lighting and room occupation, can go a long way. It also wasn't just an issue of behavior or technology adjustments, according to ACEEE -- instead, combining the two can reap far more savings. One Canadian government office saved more than 12 percent on energy bills with one automatic daylight system on one floor, compared to just 2.4 percent on a floor without the system. Companies like People Power and ThinkEco are also talking with equipment manufacturers to put intelligence in copiers, printers and computers so they can be scheduled to be turned off when the office is closed. 

10.  Track and Report. The ACEEE acknowledges that although these projects saw significant double-digit savings in terms of energy and/or CO2. However, most did not accurately track the full cost and energy savings of the energy efficiency behavior programs. Without accurate data about what works, the authors argue that the behavior component is easily disregarded during retrofits -- something that needs to change if companies are to reap the most benefit out of their investments.

Tags: aceee, energy efficiency, energy savings, retrofit