5 Key Takeaways From Those Who Built the Business Case for Energy Efficiency

by Aman Singh Das | June 20, 2011

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Building the business case for energy efficiency has been a priority for Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) Climate Corps program for a long time – working with leading companies across the United States to unearth significant cost and energy savings.

Identifying these energy opportunities and overcoming barriers that prevent companies from investing in energy efficiency would not be possible without the efforts of highly-qualified MBA students who have participated in EDF Climate Corps each summer since 2008.

EDF Climate Corps fellows are the heart of the program. They are trained by EDF and placed in leading companies to become champions of energy efficiency, analyzing energy-saving opportunities, and developing customized energy efficiency investment plans.

In just three years, these fellows have been responsible for developing hundreds of energy projects that could potentially save $439 million in net operational costs. To date, participating companies report that projects representing 86 percent of the energy savings identified by Climate Corps fellows are complete or underway – proof that the program is helping make “green” business the new business as usual.

With the program embarking on its fourth summer with 57 fellows working at 49 companies, EDF invited several alumni Climate Corps fellows to share their experiences with the program as part of the recent EDF Climate Corps training event at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

EDF Climate Corps Sustainability Fellowship Program

Trish Kenlon, a New York University MBA graduate and 2009 fellow with TXU Energy; Ian Lavery, a MIT MBA graduate and 2009 fellow with EMC Corporation; and Eva Zlotnicka, a Yale MBA graduate and 2010 fellow with Genzyme discussed how they worked with their respective companies to build the business case for energy efficiency. Here are five key takeaways from their work:

  1. Talk in terms of financial benefits: Operational costs, payback periods and return on investments are all terms that business leaders understand and are the driving force behind any good business strategy. The most successful Climate Corps fellows are ones that are able to speak the business language and identify energy savings in terms of financial opportunities. After all, it’s the strong financial backgrounds that tie this diverse group of students together. So tap into your financial vocabularies when making the business case for energy efficiency investments.

  2. Share what energy efficiency means for both business and the planet: While it’s essential to understand the business benefits, for Climate Corps fellows, it’s even more important to share why these opportunities make sense for the environment. Trish and Eva spent much of their time debating the impact of climate change and the role of companies on the issue. Although some of the employees they worked with didn’t necessarily see eye to eye on all issues, the results of Trish and Eva’s work were a vital proof point on how business and environmental leadership can go hand-in-hand.

  3. Understand how environmental issues can impact corporate reputation: For companies, building the business case for energy efficiency goes beyond dollars signs, metric tons of carbon or kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy. Businesses realize that environmental leadership can enhance their reputation, and the most effective Climate Corps fellows understand these intangible benefits as well. Climate Corps fellows also recognize that environmental efforts must be backed by real data and results, and that is the inspiration for many projects developed by Climate Corps fellows that are now reported as part of their host companies’ overall sustainability strategies.

  4. Know how to fit in and effectively engage employees: Sometimes, Climate Corps fellows are viewed as interns who will be with the company for a short period of time and contribute a limited amount of work. Other times, employees have a perception that fellows are “green” whistleblowers – constantly looking over their shoulders to see how their work is impacting the environment. Trish, Ian and Eva all shared the importance of engaging employees quickly and effectively to share who they are and why they are there for the summer. Employees then often become their greatest advocates and create universal buy-in for their efforts, which ultimately leads to a greater chance for projects to be implemented.

  5. Recognize that the “low hanging fruit” grows back: Many companies have participated in Climate Corps for several years, while others already employ an energy team responsible for identifying similar opportunities to many of the projects Climate Corps fellows work on. However, time after time, fellows continue to unearth significant savings at many of these companies. When Ian first showed up for work, he was told “all the low-hanging fruit is already picked” and was challenged to find significant savings. In response, he identified opportunities that could reduce annual energy costs by approximately $443,000, cut nearly three million kWh of electricity, and avoid 1,900 metric tons of carbon emissions.

These key takeaways from Trish, Ian and Eva’s experiences were absorbed by the 57 new Climate Corps fellows at the training who will likely have their own exciting stories to tell by the end of the summer.

But perhaps the most important takeaway from observing the past and present Climate Corps fellows together was that everyone in that room represented tomorrow’s business leaders, responsible for taking companies down a path toward a thriving economy and healthier planet. Each of the EDF Climate Corps fellows is part of a national movement to build the business case for energy efficiency and take it to scale – one that captures the imagination of people from dorm rooms to boardrooms across the country.

--By Jasper Jung, Marketing and Communications Manager, Corporate Partnerships Program, Environmental Defense Fund

Filed Under: CSR

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