Towards an Energy Efficient Future – An Interview With EDF’s Rachel Hinchliffe

By Madhurya Prakash

Businesses now realize the need to be more sustainable and proactive about minimizing the harmful effects of their business operations on the environment. Just having the intent is not enough. What businesses need today is an actionable business plan which is consistent with their overall business strategy and environmentally friendly. There are many opportunity areas to work on but a great place to start is energy efficiency. Energy efficiency is cost effective and has a measurable impact on the climate crisis.  The opportunity is enormous: a 2009 McKinsey report estimates that by 2020, the United States could reduce its annual energy consumption by 23% through energy efficiency measures alone.  This would cut greenhouse gas emissions by over a gigaton – that’s a billion tons – and cumulatively save companies and consumers over a trillion dollars.

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) is actively working towards this goal and I had an opportunity to interview Rachel Hinchliffe, project manager with EDF at the Net Impact Conference 2010. Read on to learn more about the EDF’s Climate Corps initiative and more.

Triple Pundit: Can you tell me briefly about EDF’s climate corps program and the history behind it.

Rachel Hinchliffe: Sure. We at EDF believe that businesses need an extra set of skilled hands to become more energy efficient. Energy efficiency is one area which can have immediate impact with right efforts. To truly take energy efficiency to scale, there is a need for a national movement that captures the imagination of people from dorm rooms to boardrooms across the country. That’s why Environmental Defense Fund created EDF Climate Corps.  Every year, this program selects students from top-tier MBA programs, provide them with intensive training, and embeds them in companies around the country.  For 10-12 weeks, the fellows serve as champions of energy efficiency, developing customized investment plans that help their companies cut costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

The program was piloted in 2008 with 7 Climate Corps fellows and it has been steadily growing since then.  Last summer we had 51 fellows on board working with 47 companies across industries from telecommunications (AT&T and Verizon), to IT (Cisco and Sungard), e-commerce (eBay and Yahoo!) retail (Target and JCPenney) and financial services (Bank of America and Wells Fargo).  Several companies are returning to Climate Corps for a second year – Cisco for a third. And we are looking to expand and scale the program in coming years.

3p: Can you give us a quick insight about the impact, the fellows have had in the past years?

RH: EDF’s Climate Corps program has been very successful in terms of the results achieved by our fellows. This success is strongly reflected by the rate at which our program is growing. In the first two years of the program, Climate Corps fellows identified almost $350 million in net operating cost savings, and 678 million kilowatt hours of energy savings – enough to power 60,000 homes annually.  Even more impressive: companies report that they are implementing 84% of the energy savings projects identified by the fellows.  We have some impressive stories of our fellows which we are very proud about.

3p: So how do you identify and select the corporate partners for this program?

RH: As I mentioned earlier, we have corporate partners across various industries and several companies have returned to Climate Corps. Most importantly, we look for companies which already have a strong intent to become more energy efficient because this means that there is a higher chances of recommendations coming out of EDF Climate Corps being implemented. Also, currently we are working only with US based companies. We look for companies which have large commercial real estate as this gives us to identify energy savings opportunities. In summary, we partner with large companies which are looking for a extra set of skilled hands to create and execute an actionable business plan for energy efficiency.

3p: Speaking of the other side of the coin, how do you select the Climate Corps Fellows ? Specifically, how do you ensure a good match between the fellow and the host company?

RH:Every year we select our fellows from top MBA schools. Ideal candidates are MBA students with a strong passion for environmental change. But the requirements go above and beyond just the passion for the cause. A Climate Corps fellow needs to be a self starter with strong project management and financial analysis skills because s/he he needs to make a strong business case for their energy efficiency plan. Since fellows work in the capacity of corporate advisor, we look for fellows with great  communication and collaborative skills with a strong executive presence. Having an engineering or environmental background is highly desired.

EDF takes great care to do a customized match between the fellows and host companies. We make it a highly personalized process to ensure the fit and hence both EDF and host companies interview the candidates before they are selected as fellows.

3p: Once the fellows are selected, what resources are provided to them by EDF and host companies to help them achieve good results?

RH: Once the fellows are selected, they are required to participate in rigorous energy efficiency training hosted by EDF. This training is based on the Climate Corps Handbook [PDF] and covers fundamental energy efficiency strategies for commercial office buildings. This training also gives the fellows an opportunity to meet and network with other participants. Host companies provide the fellows with their energy audit data which helps them get started. Each of the fellows will be assigned to a dedicated EDF manager who helps the fellows throughout the process. EDF holds weekly check in calls to help fellows on a regular basis, at the same time tracking progress.

EDF’s program gives access to a big professional network for fellows which helps them advance professionally during and beyond the program.

3p: Climate Corps is an unconventional internship program with lofty goals for all participants. What are some of the key challenges that you have faced?

RH: Yes, given the unconventional and challenging nature of this program, there are some challenges.  For instance, it might be hard to bring about change in some companies as buy-in is needed from a wide range of stakeholders. Also some recommendations for energy efficiency may directly compete with primary business objectives which means that the fellow has to come up with a really strong business case for energy efficiency. But we at EDF believe that we should not let the perfection be the enemy of the good. So our program tries to achieve energy efficiency with available resources and possible constraints. A major goal of our program is to break down such barriers in the business to make it more sustainable.

3p: This indeed is a great initiative. Thank you so much for sharing your perspectives with us. We wish the program a great success. 

RH: Thank you so much. It was pleasure speaking about our program with you.

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Madhurya Prakash is young career woman from Bangalore, India. She is currently pursuing her full time MBA at Carnegie Mellon University Tepper School of Business. Her interests include technology, sustainability, social media and blogging. She aims to work at the intersection of technology, business and sustainability after her MBA.

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