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Leon Kaye headshot

Better Buildings Challenge Nets Almost $2 Billion in Energy Savings

By Leon Kaye

The Donald Trump White House appears determined to demolish the previous administration’s energy and environmental policies, but it's crowing about one Department of Energy success, and justifiably so.

The latest numbers released by the DOE’s Better Buildings Challenge amounted to 240 trillion BTUs in energy cuts and $1.9 billion in cost savings.

The Challenge, which was first implemented during the George W. Bush administration, seeks to make all commercial, residential and public buildings 20 percent more energy-efficient over the next decade. The program largely relies on partnerships and market-based solutions to allow new energy-efficiency innovations to scale – encouraging investment and green jobs in the process.

The latest results indicate the 345 public- and private-sector organizations participating in the program have made a difference. In addition to energy and financial savings, the Challenge avoided 15 million tons of carbon emissions and prevented 4 billion gallons of water waste.

The methods implemented by businesses, schools and manufacturing plants varied across the board. Starbucks, for example, installed advanced-metering systems that measure equipment performance while keeping store temperatures comfortable enough for customers. Thermostats and lighting in many Starbucks locations were automatically adjusted to match local weather conditions, cutting utility costs by 6 percent. Of course, rolling out such a process is relatively seamless for Starbucks, which owns all of its retail locations.

Wendy’s, which franchises many of its locations, said it actively recruited franchisees to join its energy savings campaign. On average, the typical fast-food restaurant uses 10 times more energy than the average retail store. Wendy's headquarters provided technical support and benchmarking data in order to help franchise locations switch to LED lighting and more effective HVAC systems. Individual locations were able to access energy data and find opportunities for costs savings.

Other industries, including health care, also benefitted from the Better Buildings Challenge. The Cleveland Clinic, for example, replaced 50,000 troffer lights with LEDs -- reducing energy consumption by 15 percent. That is not a small sum for the typical hospital, which on average spends about $680,000 on utility costs each year, averaging $13,600 per hospital bed.

Colleges and school districts, which are susceptible to fluctuations in energy prices, are also active participants in the Challenge. K-12 school districts in Colorado, Washington and Illinois reduced their energy consumption by as much as 28 percent last year. In higher education, UC-Irvine led the pack with a 27 percent reduction in energy, followed by Towson University, just north of Baltimore, which saved 20 percent by transforming 5 million square feet into more energy efficient space.

Even Energy Secretary Rick Perry was apparently impressed with this program’s progress, notable as at one time, he was determined to eliminate the DOE before he was chosen to lead it. “Hundreds of leaders from the public and private sectors are demonstrating innovative approaches and deepening American investments in critical building infrastructure,” Perry said in a public statement. “By planning ahead and investing in cost-effective energy efficiency strategies, partners are bringing better buildings to our communities and improving the everyday places Americans live and work, while creating new and lasting jobs.”

This latest DOE report comes as supporters of the coal industry insist that the current presidential administration stick to its promise to revive jobs in this sector, and advocates for renewables retort that solar power was responsible for 1 in 50 new U.S. jobs last year. But a new job may be found most easily within the energy efficiency services sector, which was largely responsible for this Challenge’s recent round of success. According to a DOE report released in January, 2.2 million Americans work in in the energy efficiency field, an increase of 133,000 jobs during 2016.

And it is those jobs that helped to retrofit 200 million square feet of building space last year thanks to a $650 million investment. Those efforts spawned at least 1,000 solutions in a DOE database that are ready to be tapped by any organization looking to save money by investing in new energy-saving designs and technologies.

Image credit: Towson University

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye