Spotlight On: Energy Efficiency

Think your company has done all it can with regard to energy conservation? Well, think again. Significant opportunities for energy efficiency still exist in the retail sector, with a 29% savings on average, Maria Vargas, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Challenge, told attendees at the SPECS session, “Introduction to the Better Buildings Challenge.”

“Despite the many cost-effective opportunities, however, persistent barriers still exist,” Vargas said.

These barriers include lack of senior management buy-in, lack of a skilled work force, lack of information (with a need for unbiased information) and an “I’ve already done it” mentality. Another big barrier: not integrating energy efficiency into business planning.

There are also some roadblocks specific to the retail sector, Vargas noted, including a tendency to over-light based on outdated assumptions of what is necessary to make a property and shopping experience attractive.

“Also, in retail, customer comfort and the shopping experience take precedence over energy performance,” she said.

To help overcome the barriers to greater energy efficiency and drive action, the U.S. Department of Energy has launched a program, called the “Better Buildings Challenge.”

“Better Buildings promotes energy efficiency as a top-priority energy resource,” Vargas explained.

The Better Buildings Challenge, which is part of the larger Better Buildings Initiative, is a voluntary leadership initiative that asks public, private and nonprofit organizations to make a public commitment to energy efficiency. With a goal of making America’s commercial buildings at least 20% more efficient by 2020, the program supports commercial and industrial building owners by providing technical assistance and proven solutions to energy efficiency. It also provides a forum for matching “partners” and “allies” to enhance collaboration and problem solving in energy efficiency.

“So far, more than 110 public, private and nonprofit organizations, including 23 commercial businesses, have committed to the Better Buildings Challenge,” Vargas said, “including such retail partners as Best Buy, Kohl’s, Macy’s, Walgreens, Starbucks, Staples and Supervalu.” 

To become a partner in the Challenge, the company signs a voluntary partnership agreement with the Department of Energy.

“The main things we ask a partner to do is to set a 20% energy reduction goal by 2020 across its portfolio,” Vargas explained, “and to kick off a showcase project within nine months.”

Challenge partners also commit to sharing energy consumption data to measure progress against their pledge goal, and sharing information about the energy-efficiency implementation models (including the tools, technologies and processes) they are using to reach their pledge goal.

“An implementation model is a replicable process or solution that an organization has used to achieve its energy-reduction goals,” Vargas said. “It may be an organizational/business decision or process, financing or implementation strategy that has addressed a barrier within the organization and/or within the market.”

At Kohl’s, for example, despite a track record of successful projects, the energy team was having trouble getting and defending sustained corporate funding for under-budgeted energy-efficiency projects. To overcome this barrier, the retailer strengthened the relationship between the finance and energy teams by embedding members of the finance department into the energy team. This succeeded in expediting the communication of financial benefits and the approval of energy-efficiency projects.

“The result or outcome has been an annual ‘new technology’ budget to test emerging technologies and a financial analyst liaison to expedite expense requests,” Vargas said.

The budget allows Kohl’s to pilot two to three new programs for 10 to 20 stores annually.

For its part, the Department of Energy agrees to lend technical assistance and assist with the development of implementation models, and provide national and local recognition, among other things to Better Building Challenge partners. (For more details, go to

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