Emerging crowdsourcing models are helping small businesses save energy and get connected to tailored energy service providers at no cost to the business or provider.

America’s small- and mid-sized businesses (SMBs) spend more than $60 billion in energy costs every year -- enough energy to power one-third of our nation’s homes -- and are becoming increasingly interested in energy management to control those costs.

According to Accenture’s report, The New Energy Consumer Handbook, 87 percent of SMBs want targeted energy solutions for their business needs, 74 percent said they were somewhat or very interested in generating their own electricity, and more than half say they are interested in receiving an energy audit.

Because of this, solar companies are all trying to crack the code on small commercial solar with programs targeting SMBs. But given the fragmented nature of the market and difficulty reaching decision-makers, providers often don’t know where to begin. 

As a result, SMBs have become the “neglected middle” of energy management, stuck between their attention-hogging siblings in residential and large commercial. And one of the biggest challenges facing utility and service providers' SMB programs is how to tackle lead generation and customer acquisition in the space.

One organization, Green Impact Campaign (GIC), is using a crowdsourced, student-powered model to better connect SMBs with tailored services and then pair relevant service providers with these engaged leads.

To do this, GIC provides students with cloud-based tools and training to go out into their community to conduct free energy assessments for small businesses. Students use GIC’s mobile application to conduct a basic assessment of the business and its energy-using devices. Once completed, the application automatically compiles a report for the business owner containing custom, low-cost efficiency recommendations.

On average, it takes a student 20 minutes to complete an energy assessment and identify potential energy savings of up to 30 percent.

What happens after the assessment? GIC reports 70 percent of businesses receiving an assessment implement the recommendations within a year.

More importantly, after achieving these small wins, many participating businesses want to pursue additional energy management efforts -- including solar installations, procuring renewable energy, and installing lighting control technologies.

One out of every five businesses -- 10 times the participation rate of some utility programs -- say "yes" to receiving an assessment through Green Impact Campaign’s program.

Through the assessments, the program is amassing data regarding SMB energy profiles based on industry, geography, and opportunities to better connect them with the most appropriate providers, regardless of if they are solar, LED lighting, or retail energy options.

Given current growth, GIC projects reaching 5,000 small businesses over the next two years. The program has mobilized hundreds of students across 30 states, including California, New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Colorado, with nearly 50 new students joining every month. 

Like other crowdsourced, win-win programs such as Duolingo, which teaches languages for free while translating digital content on the web, students learn about energy while providing a free service to a local business. GIC takes it a step further by incorporating a service provider for implementation, creating cost savings and environmental benefit in the process.

Nine out of 10 students who have gone through the program say the experience helped them get a cleantech job or advanced their career within two years. It has emerged as a vetted feeder model for students interested in the Environmental Defense Fund’s highly competitive Climate Corp Fellowship program.

Students still enrolled in school have gone on to represent their school at the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality summits and held internships within the school’s sustainability office.

With the learning-by-doing model demonstrating greater value and becoming more popular, it gives hope that SMBs can effectively engage in informed energy management while educating the next generation of energy leaders.


Daniel Hill is the president and co-founder of the Green Impact Campaign. He has a professional background in energy management, sustainability strategy development, and occupant engagement program design in the built environment.