woman giving presentation to an engaged group of colleagues

Why your business needs energy champions

Engaging employees is crucial for making energy efficiency part of your culture. Energy managers can be the deciding factor in getting all staff involved.

Even the most experienced and talented energy managers will tell you that they can't transform an organization entirely on their own.

“Every organization's culture is different, and there's no standard recipe for success when it comes to engaging employees around energy efficiency,” says Kady Cowan, an energy management expert at the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) with more than a decade of experience helping large organizations implement sustainability programs.

However, truly effective energy management begins with understanding that it's not just about technical projects. It's about making energy efficiency part of the organization's foundational culture – and that requires a team effort.

Curate your team wisely

Building a team of energy efficiency champions requires tapping into all corners of your organization, Cowan says. "Clever energy managers curate who they want on the team."

"If your organization has latent issues that are already top-of-mind and that you know energy efficiency can help solve, you'll already know who to bring on to your team," Cowan says. If business continuity is a repeated concern, for example, consider framing your team's priorities around how energy efficiency can minimize that. Or perhaps physical security is top-of-mind. In that case, lighting sensors to help alert guards of movement might make more sense than leaving lighting on all the time, plus help solve the security challenge. Regardless of the specifics, it's up to energy managers to pay attention and ask questions about different departments' priorities.

Your biggest energy champions don't necessarily have to be people with technical expertise, says Stephen Dixon, an independent consultant who’s been helping businesses implement energy efficiency for more than 30 years.

Most energy managers have that already, but they'll also need teams from other departments, who don't work directly on energy projects to provide insights into what motivates the organization as whole. "It really comes back to the culture of the organization itself, and what drives it," he says.

"Senior leaders can also provide advice about what has worked in the past, or where complementary projects are already happening and may provide an opportunity for energy efficiency to fit in," Cowan adds. For example, a corporate employee initiative might be the right fit for talking about HVAC improvements and the impact they can have on air quality.

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Build your visibility

"Doing something behind closed doors that's personally satisfying may not be the best place to start if you want to rally people," Cowan says. "Getting the support of the CEO or other senior management can go a long way in making the rest of your organization's employees energy efficiency champions," she says.

Pembroke-based manufacturer KI Canada is one organization that rallied employees, in part through the leadership of its general manager, Dan Mellen. He decided to get managers from every department to join together one afternoon and start filling cracks around the building with foam, to reduce air leaks.

Just by doing that, people began asking questions and getting involved. "It actually sparked conversation on energy and what we were trying to do," says Greg Wallace, the facility's engineering manager.

After kicking off efforts to become more energy efficient, KI was able to save 30 per cent of its energy costs within just one year.

Turning a culture around

"Making energy efficiency work for an organization comes down to a shared commitment. To make your staff engage with energy efficiency, start with education," says Dixon.

"There's an organizational learning piece that has to happen," he says. "I've seen organizations that will assign responsibility for energy to individuals but unfortunately people don't understand energy well enough to take that responsibility on. The education piece is important."

Take Home Depot as an example. In 2017, the retail giant launched The Power Project, an ongoing program that gives its stores score cards based on their building's energy performance. The program encourages healthy competition between stores and the best performing locations are rewarded with "fun funds" that go toward lunches or dinners for the associates.

But it also gives employees transparent information about their energy use. Just by launching scorecards, employees began asking questions about how they could do better and get more involved with energy conservation.

However, not every organization needs a signed commitment or even has to have regular "green team" meetings to keep employees engaged, Cowan points out. Instead, try focusing on specific wins and projects one at a time, such as a financing plan for a specific upgrade. Without something specific to work towards, people tend to fall back into their day-to-day habits, she says. Lighting is usually a favourite because it’s so visible and can engage employees around their direct workspace design.

In many cases, energy management can also boost morale. "Energy management can be an equalizer for many companies," Cowan adds.

"Imagine you're in a lab," she says. "Lots of egos there, trying to do the best science that they can, fighting for limited dollars and lab space. There's a wrestle between these lead scientists, and there's conflict."
And then, an energy manager comes into the lab to talk about saving energy.

"The whole lab gets together to do this, unrelated to their science completely. And the next thing you know, scientists are having lunch together, sharing notes.”

That, she says, is the power of energy efficiency. “You can turn a culture around."