Dilbert’s an MVP in EPA’s booming battle of the buildings

By Katherine Ling | 01/26/2015 01:05 PM EST

George McDowell delayed retirement to help his Delaware school district slash its energy consumption. McDowell is as gaga for energy efficiency as he is for his beloved Dallas Cowboys. And U.S. EPA is gaga for people like McDowell and other “cubicle dwellers” who have made the five-year-old EPA’s National Building Competition a huge win for energy efficiency.

George McDowell delayed retirement to help his Delaware school district slash its energy consumption.

A former social studies teacher, building administrator and facilities manager, McDowell, 68, has added part-time energy manager to his résumé at the Red Clay Consolidated School District in and around Wilmington.

"My friends ask, ‘Why are you still working? Why don’t you want to retire?’" he said with gusto in a recent interview. "Because I am already doing want I want to do. I love it!"


No joke. McDowell is as gaga for energy efficiency as he is for his beloved Dallas Cowboys. It shows in how his voice rises and hands gesture when talk turns to the Cowboys — or saving power.

And it’s also no joke that U.S. EPA is gaga for people like McDowell. He and other energy efficiency enthusiasts are star players in EPA’s National Building Competition that for the last five years has pit one group of power misers against another to see who can be energy’s "biggest loser."

The 2014 competition offered a new wrinkle as each participant had to enter a "team" of five or more buildings. The Cincinnati-based grocery chain Kroger Co. led the field with a team of 2,326 stores. EPA will continue the team concept in this year’s contest.

Last month marked the final "weigh in" for 5,500 buildings in the 2014 competition. Final scores will take several months to calculate, EPA says.

But the sheer number of entries last year marks a huge win for EPA given that the initial competition in 2010 had only 14 entries, according to Lauren Hodges, communications director for EPA’s Energy Star building program.

"Our partners were beating their heads against the wall to get people in their building to try and achieve these goals," Hodges said. "The competition was the first time it really clicked and really happened, and they are seeing savings like they have never seen before."

Energy efficiency boosters say conservation is the cheapest "fuel" capable of dramatically cutting electricity bills and emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

George McDowell
George McDowell, energy manager for Delaware’s Red Clay Consolidated School District and Dallas Cowboys fan. | Photo by George McDowell.

Because buildings use almost 75 percent of U.S. electricity, a National Academy of Sciences panel says improved efficiency in buildings "offers the greatest possibility for U.S. energy savings."

Maximizing energy efficiency measures could potentially cut building energy use to as low as 16 quadrillion British thermal units in 2050, or about 70 percent below business-as-usual estimates, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute, an efficiency booster and researcher.

But energy efficiency means more than flipping switches and installing fancy equipment. A critical key to success: behavior modification.

Can people be taught to turn off computers at night? Can they reset heating and cooling systems to sync with office hours?

Some progressive companies like office supply retailer Staples Inc. use automatic systems to circumvent the human factor to save energy, but most companies can’t or won’t pay for what seems like a simple act of turning off a light switch.

"The average building wastes 30 percent of its energy," Hodges said. "Through the competition, they see the ‘lowly’ cubicle dweller can make a difference."

‘Small nudge … can go a long way’

There are no cash prizes for National Building Competition champions. They get nice plaques and bragging rights.

But the competition does generate national recognition for winners and leverage for building managers pushing for expanded energy-conservation budgets or a way to persuade tenants to be smart about energy use.

"The underlying economics are so positive that a small nudge of a competition can go a long way toward driving performance," said Cliff Majersik, executive director of the Institute for Market Transformation. "Those conversations are directly valuable to empower the people that make buildings better."

The competition is also open to any building — old or new — that boosts facilities that can’t meet the high standards of EPA’s Energy Star certification. To earn an Energy Star label, a building must score 75 or higher, which would place it in the top 25 percent of similar facilities nationwide.

Majersik said the competition provides hard numbers for buildings trying to qualify for financing for efficiency improvements.

"When you have a competition like this, it shows buildings all over the country that have achieved savings at that level, that another prospective building can point to," he said. "People often think many things are not possible, and the best way to counter that is to show that not only is it possible, but here it is."

The competition is an incentive to improve energy consumption — but it also presents bonus visible publicity for companies already making energy efficiency improvements anyway.

At the midpoint weigh-in last year, drug retailing giant Walgreen Co.’s five stores led the competition.

Doug Latulippe, director of demand-side programs at energy management firm Burton Energy Group, worked with Walgreens on some energy efficiency improvement projects that just happened to coincide with the timeline of the 2014 competition. He persuaded his client to enter Walgreens into the competition to showcase the savings.

Latulippe’s firm is also an integral part of energy conservation at Staples, which has been a player in the EPA building contest for the past several years. Staples eliminated its "low-hanging" efficiency improvements long ago — actually placing it at a disadvantage in the competition — so continuing to find the extra percentages of improvements for the company is still exciting, Latulippe said.

"Staples is a much different animal," he said. "Staples would be doing this if there were no competition. We would be in this facility making these improvements just because that is what Staples does."

But the competition does give Latulippe and his team another excuse to check in with Staples’ managers to ensure they are following their company’s best practices — something he says all businesses and buildings can do for instant and easy energy savings. The competition also drives Staples’ managers "to put their best foot forward" and increases competition between facilities providing those extra savings, he said.

Not just for the ‘rah-rah’ type

For McDowell and the Red Clay schools, the competition helped to highlight the culmination of energy efficiency improvements the New Castle County district is making as part of a major capital and renovation process.

Many Red Clay schools are already Energy Star-certified, and several of the schools have "green ribbon" committees to work on energy efficiency efforts, McDowell said. Energy is also embedded in the curriculum of the middle and high schools, including a science high school that has a solar panel lab.

Still, McDowell said he didn’t want to let a good competition go to waste. He not only entered about two dozen school buildings in his district, he tried to whet the competitive appetites of the district’s 16,000 or so students by entering the elementary, middle and high schools as separate teams.

At the competition’s midpoint, Red Clay high schools commanded third place with an 8.6 percent reduction in energy usage, with the elementary team placing seventh with 6 percent reduction and middle schools a close eighth place with 5.7 percent reduction.

"I was very surprised that the high schools are doing so much better," McDowell said. "Because of the involvement of people, I thought elementary schools would do the best. … Elementary school kids are more of the ‘rah-rah’ type. You can get them more involved in that type of thing. They are less cynical."

For Cassidy Turley, a leading U.S. commercial real estate services provider that recently combined with global real estate firm DTZ, the competition helps the firm’s building managers boost the enthusiasm of their tenants, who command about 70 percent of their buildings’ power demand, to cut energy use. Cassidy Turley merged with DTZ, a global leader in commercial real estate services, earlier this month under new ownership and a new DTZ brand.

The Chicago-based firm doesn’t own the buildings it manages, so capital improvements such as a new sensor-based lighting system aren’t necessarily on the table. And not all its clients want their energy consumption information to be public.

But internal recognition and positive public relations for the buildings — an attraction for new tenants — are a powerful motivator, according to Katie Ross, the firm’s sustainability project manager.

"Last year, we had a building that placed 12th in the whole competition with a 29.2 percent reduction, and that really sparked, I think, great interest in the competition, and the Cincinnati team was really, really proud and excited about that," she said.

The company’s 12th-place finish means a lot given that the competition had 3,200 entries.

The firm’s 2014 team included 125 buildings in 14 states. For each competition, Ross and her sustainability team provide communication materials, an educational video and tips for "150 ways to save energy," but each facility has its own plan, Ross said.

One building engineer decided to reward occupants with "green bucks" certificates to use at the cafeteria whenever a person was seen turning a light off or using the stairs, for example, she said.


EPA is not the only federal agency to use competitions to spur progress in energy efficiency or other areas where regulation isn’t desirable or possible.

The Energy Department has also held several competitions to boost clean technology development (E&ENews PM, May 20, 2014) and create applications for DOE energy data (Greenwire, Feb. 17, 2014).

And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has joined EPA and other agencies in hosting a competition for the most inexpensive and best sensor for nutrients in water (Greenwire, Dec. 18, 2014).

Congress has also promoted the use of prizes and competitions by federal agencies to spur private-sector investment.

House Science, Space and Technology Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has said agencies aren’t using competition enough and included language for further guidance on prize authority and flexibility to partner with the private sector last year in a bill, H.R. 4186, to reauthorize the National Science Foundation (E&E Daily, April 10, 2014).

With EPA and many other agencies facing budget cuts and likely further financial constrains in the future, this combination of cooperation while competing is very cost-effective, the Institute for Market Transformation’s Majersik said.

"We call it ‘coopetition,’" Majersik said. "This is a new trend this challenge program where they try to instill this coopetition — cooperating with each other at the same time competing to do their best."

Another bonus: Unlike regulations, competition is unlikely to get mired in a long court fight.

Regulations are valuable, Majersik said, but because of the human element and ecosystem of different elements in a building, "you can’t regulate [buildings] like a furnace."

Much of the energy savings depends on good facility managers, and the competition helps raise their profile, he said.

"This is a little-recognized profession that usually labors in obscurity without credit or recognition for the importance of what they do," Majersik said. "Recognizing the performance of a building is effectively recognizing the facility managers who are doing a good job."