In Houston, some firehouses have been known to leave a desk lamp shining on the thermostat to keep the air conditioning humming as the firefighters are out for hours responding to calls. When they return, they understandably want a semi-arctic environment after packing heavy gear around in the sweltering summer heat of Texas.

For the city of Houston, which is trying to reduce its energy footprint, the firehouses are not helping. And while firehouses tend to be poor energy performers in many cities, they aren't the only ones keeping energy efficiency managers up at night.

“Tenants are my worst enemy,” said Sarah Calvillo Hoffman, resource conservation advisor for the City of Seattle. “I try my best to avoid them.”

At EnerNOC’s EnergySMART Summit in Philadelphia, energy managers from the private and public sector shared frustrations and lessons learned in engaging stakeholders, from the C-suite to the employees who will ultimately carry out most of the energy efficiency measures. In most cases, getting buy-in isn’t just helpful, it’s necessary, especially as the lowest-hanging fruit has been plucked and there are increasingly stringent sustainability goals that must be met.

All energy managers love data, and that’s a good place to start. But being armed with data, even real-time data, simply isn’t enough by itself to move the needle for good and to continue pushing it forward in the future.  Although EnerNOC’s EnergySMART Summit focuses on data and analytics, the most formidable hurdle for most energy-efficiency efforts is operational change.  

Here are suggestions from energy managers who spoke at EnergySMART about how to get everyone on board, from turning off lights to large capital projects.

Tell stories. “We need emotional, concrete, visceral stories for energy savings,” said Thomas Johnson, director of plant operations at Northwest Community Hospital in Illinois. Data can help tell those stories, but energy data probably won’t elicit a visceral reaction unless the audience is energy wonks. “We need to communicate our story, good, bad or ugly,” said Allan Skodowski, senior VP and director of LEED and sustainability services at Transwestern.

Turn the data into tangible assets. “We try to figure out how many potholes can be fixed with our lighting program, or how many pools can stay open,” said Kristin Sullivan, Philadelphia’s energy manager. No one cares about BTUs and kilowatt-hours, but lots of people care about pools and potholes. Find whatever matters to each part of the organization, whether that's jobs saved or new computers. 

Be nice. Many parts of the organization are probably addressing energy use because it’s part of a mandate, whether the energy benchmarking rules that many cities now have or sustainability goals that are often meant to be embraced at all levels of the corporation. “A police officer or firefighter has a very different day than I do,” said Sullivan. “It’s all about having the soft conversation skills.” That may even include letting someone take you to task for making their life more difficult or for failing to address energy needs on their terms.

Give tours. Johnson occasionally offers behind-the-scenes tours to C-suite executives and other employees. “You can get people interested in how much energy we use and how hard the guys work,” he said. Most people have no idea what energy assets look like in a large building. Not only is it cool, but it gives another concrete point of reference when imploring them to cut energy or find money in the capital budget for upgrades.

Ask questions. “Why not?” Diana Duffy, energy services coordinator at Keene State College, likes to ask her facility managers and executives. At the facilities level, having an open dialogue filled with lots of questions, including those geared to help participants better understand processes, to help to fine-tune plans for retrofits, and to help you clarify your own reasoning as you seek acceptance up or down the chain. Johnson said that simply asking the facilities engineers if something will work is a great way to build a groundswell of interest in a project that can be leveraged later on.

Let everyone participate. “I can’t tell you how many ideas we’ve gotten from housekeepers and card dealers,” said Chris Brophy, VP for corporate sustainability at MGM Resorts. Ideally, those ideas that get adopted will be rewarded with recognition of the employees who offered them, as well as financial incentives.

Show waste, not savings. “We [tend] to step over dollars to get to pennies,” said Scott Minnix, director of general services for the City of Houston. “We need to reverse that.” For many cities, energy is paid through the general fund -- money that many cash-strapped municipalities would be grateful to be able to use elsewhere.

Yet many cities cannot justify capital investments for projects that would pay back in a few years or less. At Northwest Community Hospital, Johnson likes to turn paybacks into ROIs. “That’s not a three-year payback; that’s a 33 percent ROI. Where else can the hospital get that?” he asks.

Start at the top. Interest and acceptance from employees is key to see projects completed, but buy-in from the C-suite is critical in order to secure project approval in the first place. Lawrence Palfini, VP of global real estate and store development at Tiffany & Co., said his job is far easier because of the focus from the CEO down on corporate social responsibility.

For others, this is where data converted into powerful numbers to tell a story can make a difference. Even if sustainability goals are in place, don’t assume the C-suite knows what some of the low-hanging fruit are. At Keene State College, Duffy spent her whole first year trying to scare people by repeating numbers detailing how much #6 heating oil was being used on campus. “Use money to motivate the C-level,” said Thomas Mort, global energy director for Archer Daniels Midland. “Make them feel bad.”

Tie it to the budget. “We haven’t figured out to get reduced operating costs back to the buildings that participated,” said Seattle’s Hoffman. Neither has Houston, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia or many of the other cities that are working on a solution. “We’re trying to find a way to recognize the wins,” said Philadelphia’s Sullivan.

In Johnson’s hospital, he hangs the giant rebate checks in the central utility plant to show the energy plant is not just a cost, but that it also generates revenue. Untangling operating budgets for individual buildings and departments so that at least some of the money is flowing back to the place where savings were generated is incredibly complex for most organizations. This isn’t nuclear physics, ADM’s Mort said of institutionalizing energy efficiency: “This is change management.”