Taking Efficiency Out of the Box

A small company finding it hard to sell its residential energy usage monitoring devices starts a “parent-teenage contract” marketing campaign. The teenager gets the parents to buy the device, and then they both sign a contract stipulating that the teenager will keep half the money saved on reduced energy usage. As the savings start to roll in, the teenager becomes more motivated to improve the household’s energy efficiency as do the parents, while the company points to this positive experience as it seeks additional customers for its monitoring device. This model has achieved success on a small scale, but could it be adopted on a wider level as it is driven by a business case, contains ingredients for cultural transformation and taps into incentives that appear to be driving action?

This was one of the many thought-provoking anecdotes shared at the ninth Green Innovation in Business Network (GIBN) Solutions Lab held in Boston where the 90 or so participants spent the day coming up with solutions to barriers faced by companies pursuing energy efficiency. The Pew Center on Global Climate Change was a co-sponsor of the event, along with the Environmental Defense Fund, Ashoka, Microsoft, Net Impact Boston, and many other partners. (For more information on GIBN Solutions Labs and the topics discussed at this specific event please click here.)

The GIBN Solution Labs are one-day workshops structured in an “unconference” format where participants are divided into small groups of about eight or less. Each group brainstorms solutions to a specific issue or barrier and reports back to the whole group at the end of the day. With the umbrella theme of overcoming barriers to energy efficiency, the Boston GIBN Solutions Lab focused on 14 specific topics, such as financing, making the business case and motivating the public on energy efficiency. Participants including companies, consultants, academics, and non-governmental organizations spent the morning exploring a variety of topics and then chose one in the afternoon to focus on in depth through a problem identification and solution design process.

Peter Senge, founding chair of Society for Organizational Learning and senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, kicked off the workshop with a thought-provoking speech that emphasized the need for a comprehensive vision for energy efficiency instead of piecemeal solutions. By the end of the workshop some pieces of the vision had emerged: establish energy efficiency as a social norm; create business models that support energy efficiency investments; and design methods to more effectively communicate the benefits of energy efficiency.

The day was filled with a constant buzz of conversations out of which emerged some “out of the box” ideas as well as best practices. The group tackling the issue of motivating the public on energy efficiency proposed a K-12 energy efficiency curriculum that would result in children passing along the learning to their parents. Interestingly, the group on improving energy efficiency of buildings also saw children as key players. It proposed student projects involving energy audits and efficiency implementation measures for school buildings. A “just do it,” results-oriented approach was suggested to get senior management buy-in for energy efficiency projects: do the energy audit (which many utilities will provide free of charge) and then use the results of potential energy savings to convince senior management to implement the energy efficiency measures. Creative employee communication methods were also suggested such as distributing figures on how much paper and printer toner is being used by the office or putting up a sign next to the printer asking “Do you really need to print this?” There were also some “out of the box” topics: one group looked at the water-energy nexus and noted that understanding the relationships between water usage and energy could spur new technical innovations such as water-less laundry systems.

Discussions also emphasized known best practices, which were useful to participants just getting started on energy efficiency and sustainability issues. For example, developing a detailed work plan and timeframe when proposing an energy efficiency project to senior management was essential in getting their approval to move ahead. Additionally, continuous monitoring and progress reports are critical in maintaining momentum and receiving the okay to pursue more projects in the future. Recommendations for embedding energy efficiency within corporate supply chains included clearly communicating energy efficiency expectations to suppliers; helping them find the right resources to implement energy efficiency measures; and auditing suppliers to ensure implementation and maintenance.

The end-of-day presentations highlighted that while each group was tackling different topics related to energy efficiency they struggled with some common barriers. For example, financing and communicating energy efficiency were issues that almost all groups found necessary and yet difficult to overcome.

In terms of specific solutions, not everyone went home with sure-fire answers to how they were going to fund their energy efficiency projects or convince senior management to make energy efficiency a priority. However, most participants did leave with at least a few new ideas to try out and the understanding that in order to be an effective component of the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, energy efficiency required a comprehensive, system-based approach.

Aisha Husain is an Energy Efficiency Fellow