The conversation around climate change has understandably taken a back seat in recent months, but as reports emerge that we have only six months to avert climate catastrophe, it is clear that the world’s pandemic recovery plan must also include drastically reduced energy consumption. Luckily, economic recovery and a healthier planet go hand in hand, despite what the prevailing narrative might suggest.
As we slowly get back to work, travel restrictions ease, and our daily lives settle into a new normal, business leaders must seize the opportunity to implement more streamlined and efficient practices and begin to see that it’s easy (and cost-effective) to be green.
Being energy efficient is an asset, not a cost
For those who own or manage assets such as office buildings, it has long been held that going green will cost you a pretty penny. Converting the energy supply chain from fossil fuels to renewable sources, renovating buildings with more thermally efficient cladding, even repainting facades with energy-generating paint are all expensive on the face of it. But any investment is going to hurt your pocket in the short term, and Brad Dockser, CEO and co-founder of GreenGen argues that the conversation around energy in real estate needs to be reframed to focus on the long-term benefits of being more energy-efficient. “We just flip the narrative,” says Dockser, “instead of telling clients to spend more and be more sustainable, we talk about investing in your business and assets to increase cash flow and make it more valuable, and the byproduct of that is improved sustainability and resiliency.” Dockser also makes clear to clients the litany of secondary benefits to both businesses and public institutions such as “reducing the probability of flood damage” with more resilient buildings, or getting rid of city power plants to clean up the air and in doing so “reducing health care costs by trillions of dollars” by minimizing long-term asthmatic, coronary, and pulmonary issues.
As countries around the world tentatively come out of lockdown, broad and transformative changes will be key to getting businesses, and the economy, back on track whilst simultaneously promoting a more sustainable way of operating.
Dockser argues that this change will be a silver lining of the Covid-19 crisis: “Increased remote working may reduce real estate footprints and commuting-related emissions. People will also expect more health and wellbeing considerations in their work environments, such as better air purification systems or smart elevators and lights that don’t require touch.” Opening up our society again will require huge changes in the way we behave, and the wide-ranging, exhaustive approach that Dockser describes could very well include a huge reduction in energy consumption on a number of fronts.
When applied on a larger scale, to a city or a state perhaps, this exhaustive approach needs a slightly different tactic when addressing decision-makers that are concerned with a multitude of factors alongside cost savings. Itai Dadon, the Global Head of Smart Cities at Itron, takes a similar but more weighted approach to Dockser when meeting with clients: “Our projects aim to be good for the planet, profits, and people, but not necessarily in that order,” says Dadon, “it’s our responsibility to show all dimensions — if the environmental aspect won’t convince a city manager [to adopt smart city tech], then maybe the social or financial aspect will.” Itron works with cities to implement wide-ranging smart tech solutions, which Dadon sees as inseparable from the fact that urban populations are growing exponentially, and that our habits need to change radically: “70% of global emissions are from energy consumption. If we zoom into that bubble 30% are from electricity and heat, and 15% from transport. That means that every small improvement that we make in energy consumption will have a tremendous impact.”
In Copenhagen, for example, Itron worked with the city to “implement smart and connected street lights all across the city, including advanced sensors for detecting cyclists in bike lanes,” and achieved a 76% saving in energy consumption. This is a staggering improvement, but as Dadon points out: “streetlights make up about half of a city’s energy bill, so this is a very low hanging fruit.” These savings are a result of many small changes adding up, or more accurately, stacking on top of each other, as Dadon explains: “converting streetlights from incandescent bulbs to LED, that already cuts energy use, adding connectivity and a software platform to control them from a distance can really push the envelope, and add a lot of savings on operations such as eliminating truck rolls for maintenance. It’s a virtuous cycle if you will.”
The double bottom line
As commercial buildings and cities alike have been left empty, and true operational costs and inefficiencies revealed, this period has been a golden opportunity for businesses to take stock of current practices and consider how to improve in the future. “As economies around the globe begin to recover, we must ask ourselves which industries we want to support, and what kind of economy we want to rebuild?” asks Dockser. “Companies that understand the importance of energy-efficient solutions simultaneously save money and help increase sustainability,” he continues, creating “a double bottom line” that can only help to rebuild commercial or city-wide operations in a more sustainable way.
This has been perhaps the only period in modern history where every facet of our ‘normal’ lives is being scrutinized for cost-effectiveness and efficiency. To waste this unique opportunity to build a better, and more profitable, future for everyone would be yet another tragedy in the saga of 2020.