Building an energy culture begins in elementary school

Oct. 1, 2012
Peter Garforth wonders how the educational system can help a company's energy culture.

Effective industrial energy management programs highlight the importance of a pervasive energy culture. If this exists, all decisions, both great and small, will take into account their impact on energy use and its consequences. Some organizations do achieve something approaching a pervasive energy culture and achieve unusually competitive energy productivity along with a reduced environmental footprint. With the growing list of risks, opportunities, and uncertainties around energy for the coming years, the impact of poorly-thought-through decisions when it comes to energy could be commercially devastating for some businesses. With the need for a pervasive energy culture never higher, it seemed a good time to take a look at some of the challenges and solutions.

Let’s begin with the employees’ backgrounds before they enter the company, as we are all a product of our education and experiences that shape our attitudes as adults. Recently, I visited an elementary school that had made many aspects of energy central to school life. Older sections of the school had workman-like efficiency upgrades, and newer sections had been built to near passive standards. A portfolio of on-site supply measures including heat pumps, solar thermal, and solar PV were well integrated into the day-to-day operations. More importantly, all the students had the subject of energy and its impacts included in their curricula. It was impressive to hear a 10-year-old student coherently explain the basic loading order, from efficiency through on-site clean supplies and on to utility supply of electricity and gas. Even more impressive was that she understood the fuel inefficiency associated with grid-supplied electricity and why it was important to be more efficient. This early understanding of the basics of a modern energy system and how the pieces all play together should become our minimum expectation, given its importance to so many aspects of our national, business, and personal lives.

Today’s reality is that this school is a small minority among elementary and high schools that consciously and systematically include basic energy literacy as part of the curriculum. In the wider educational community, the energy conversation is at best fragmented, politicized, often technically inaccurate or incomplete, and communicated in sound bites. Given this background, it is not difficult to see why most high school graduates entering the workforce have minimal interest or understanding of energy and are ill prepared to be part of a company team with an outstanding energy culture. The minority who retain an interest to pursue energy-related topics at the college level are all too often channeled into narrow technical or environmental specialties. This lack of holistic energy education may not be the best background to assist in creating the elusive energy culture.

So how do we square this circle from inside a company? The evidence is strong that companies with an energy culture have a competitive edge as a result. However, few achieve it and those that do may be overly optimistic about its depth and breadth.

Peter Garforth heads a specialist consultancy based in Toledo, Ohio and Brussels, Belgium. He advises major companies, cities, communities, property developers and policy makers on developing competitive approaches that reduce the economic and environmental impact of energy use. Peter has long been interested in energy productivity as a profitable business opportunity and has a considerable track record establishing successful businesses and programs in the US, Canada, Western and Eastern Europe, Indonesia, India, Brazil and China. Peter is a published author, has been a traveling professor at the University of Indiana at Purdue, and is well connected in the energy productivity business sector and regulatory community around the world. He can be reached at [email protected].
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Before getting too deep into mechanics of creating an energy culture, a good first step is to reconfirm the management commitment. Is the CEO deeply engaged? Is his direct staff committed and engaged? Are the strategic energy goals clear? Assuming the first step is cleared, the next step is to make a working-level definition of what a successful organizational engagement policy around energy would like. What level of energy knowledge should be expected for different types of employees? Which decisions and behaviors should include an energy consideration? How should energy performance be presented in regular meetings at all levels?

With a clear picture of what the goals are, it is important to next understand where the organization is today. Is energy a clear decision criterion in the relevant decisions ranging from siting a new plant to buying a coffee machine? How well does the current employee awareness stack up with the expectations from the previous step? Is energy on the agenda in an appropriate way in meetings on a continuing basis, in the same way safety is in many companies? Conducted objectively, the answers to these questions are often eye-opening in defining the gap between reality and perception. Once this gap is defined, the hard work of changing internal processes and raising employee knowledge and understanding of energy begins.

To make the journey easier in the future, companies should team with local elementary, high schools, and colleges in order to spread these efforts to the next generations of employees. As these students develop their understanding of energy, they will keep companies honest in the energy-culture change process and be far more valuable to industry in the future.