Clean Energy Conference Shows Efficiency Means Savings

April 12, 2010

By Eileen Claussen

This article originally appeared in Reuters.

While policymakers in Washington debate the best path forward for dealing with climate change, a growing number of U.S. businesses have discovered a simple technique that can lower costs, increase productivity, and slash greenhouse gas emissions.  What’s more, it can work for any business no matter what they make—whether it’s potato chips or computer chips.

 

It’s called energy efficiency, and a growing number of U.S. businesses are starting to get it. 

What does it mean to be efficient?  Seven habits of highly efficient companies as identified in the Pew Center’s new report From Shop Floor to Top Floor: Best Business Practices in Energy Efficiency, lists designating full-time staff to be accountable for energy performance, communicating externally the company’s successes in reducing energy costs and emissions and – perhaps most importantly – integrating sustainability as a core part of corporate strategic planning and risk assessment.

The results of this two-year study, featured this week at our Corporate Energy Efficiency Conference in Chicago attended by 260 representatives from 120 companies and universities, speak for themselves. 

Dow Chemical, which purchases as much energy in a year as Australia, estimates that its efficiency efforts have saved the company $8.6 billion since 1994 while avoiding about 86 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions.  The retailer Best Buy says that in 2008 its sales of certified ENERGY STAR products saved customers over $90 million in electric bills.

Why are they doing it?  For starters, higher and more volatile energy prices.

Energy experts at Toyota think of it as a treasure hunt for low-cost efficiency gains that equate to big cost savings. Like other innovative companies, Toyota empowers its employees to uncover and correct inefficient energy practices at their own plants and, in some cases, for their suppliers.  These efforts are in line with Toyota’s goal to reduce energy use per vehicle produced by 30 percent in 2011.

But concern about climate change, and growing customer and employee support for action on energy and environmental issues also matter, according to our corporate energy efficiency report.  In many cases, CEOs are personally spearheading efficiency efforts at their companies, reflecting the priority now given to energy saving measures.

“The most inexpensive items are generally improvements in energy efficiency, some of which are economic even without a price on carbon,” said Exelon CEO John Rowe at the conference. Exelon, one of the country’s largest electric utilities, cut energy use at its corporate headquarters by 50 percent by retrofitting it to meet LEED Platinum standards. 

The most effective companies are also looking outside their own walls to tap into even greater efficiency opportunities.  This means working with suppliers to adopt energy efficient practices, and designing products that allow consumers to share in energy savings. 

Earlier this year, Wal-Mart announced a goal to reduce carbon emissions from its global supply chain by 20 million tons, which is the equivalent shuttering six average-sized coal plants or taking 3.8 million cars off the road for a year.  United Technologies recently announced a goal to improve the energy efficiency of its products by at least 10 percent by 2010.

Energy efficiency also drives broader innovation, and the benefits go beyond dollars saved and emissions reduced. A focus on energy efficiency can lead to reevaluating business practices, often turning up improvements that increase productivity and enhance quality. 

Ambitious energy-savings targets forced Frito Lay to reexamine the way it bakes tortilla chips.  By installing new draft controls on ovens that reduced heat loss and evened out heat distribution, the quality of the chips improved.  At IBM, a focus on efficiency led to equipment upgrades that reduce energy use and improve reliability in semiconductor manufacturing processes. 

It is encouraging to see so many leading companies embrace energy efficiency as a win-win solution.  But energy efficiency isn’t just for businesses. 

We can all cut energy use, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and save money by taking simple steps like turning off the lights when we leave the room, adding insulation in our homes, and taking shorter showers.

But I’ve been around long enough to know that we can’t rely exclusively on voluntary action to achieve our environmental goals.

We need a comprehensive national clean energy policy that puts a price on carbon. Legislation that establishes such a price would unleash hundreds of millions of investment dollars, deliver an adrenaline shot to our nation’s manufacturing sector, and create thousands of well-paying jobs.  Energy efficiency sits atop the list of low-carbon choices poised to deliver immediate results in a clean energy economy.

Leading corporations have shown us what is possible.  It is time we follow in their footsteps and embrace energy efficiency as something we can do right now to help create a safer, more prosperous future. 
Eileen Claussen is President of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. 

Eileen Claussen is President of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change