Apr 7, 2017

Inside the US Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Initiative

Green Tech
Energy Efficiency
Green Energy
Nell Walker
6 min
Vargas and the SWAP teams
Maria Vargas, Senior Program Advisor for the US Department of Energy has spent 32 years working on the preservation of the world’s environment. She...

Maria Vargas, Senior Program Advisor for the US Department of Energy has spent 32 years working on the preservation of the world’s environment. She began at the Environmental Protection Agency in 1985, battling global warming and the depletion of the ozone layer, before becoming a Brand Manager for ENERGY STAR, the government-backed symbol identifying the most energy-efficient products and companies. In 2011, Vargas moved on to the US Department of Energy, and now runs the remarkable Better Buildings Initiative.

In the US, about $200 billion a year is spent on running commercial buildings, with another $200 billion on manufacturing facilities, and on average, between 20 and 30 percent of the energy used in those buildings can be saved cost-effectively. The Better Buildings Challenge has been issued to spur businesses into saving that energy, and so the role of Vargas and her team is to inspire and enable them to join in.

“Energy efficiency is a huge opportunity for us, and I think while we’ve made progress, there are a series of persistent and pernicious barriers,” Vargas explains. “Those are far-ranging, and are why we set up the Better Buildings Initiative. It might be a lack of senior management buy-in or incentives, not knowing how to finance change, or not knowing what technologies should be used. Sometimes when an organization does one thing, such as installing energy-efficient lighting, they think their job is done.

“The Better Buildings Initiative was borne out of recognition of those barriers, and what it would take to really accelerate the pace of energy efficiency and adoption. It’s built on the leadership theory of change: who in the market is leading the way to understand – or is willing to step up to the challenge of greater energy efficiency – and do so in a meaningful way? Who can manage a 20 percent energy use reduction across their portfolio in 10 years, and is also willing to publically share what they’re doing with others?”

Vargas states that while organizations are happy to learn from their government in many ways, they look to their peers when building a strong business case. Organizational sea change is one of the toughest barriers to break through; changing the way a company views and values the investment of efficiency is too often seen as an extra overhead cost, when in reality, energy efficiency benefits everybody.

“People ask why partners join the Better Buildings Challenge and what the benefit is,” Vargas says, “and the most obvious one is the monetary saving. On top of that, these companies are trying to attract the best talent, and the best talent wants to work for organizations that truly care. There are no downsides – nobody is going to complain if you use less energy. A kilowatt does not have a union.

“It’s fascinating, seeing what it takes to get an organization to move from being set in its ways to doing something different, and how to make that happen. Some brands are more flexible and adaptable than others, but the potential challenges force you to think differently. Those who think differently are the ones who empower their employees.”

The Department of Energy offers a great deal of support to those companies willing to join in with the Better Buildings Challenge. There is a technical hub available to aid those unsure of which technologies they should invest in, financial advice for those who may be seeking to enable their CFO to think differently, and a service to help track energy usage in order to manage it effectively. The other element to this support is connecting partners with one another, removing the element of competition by opening avenues for them to help each other. To illustrate the effectiveness of this, Vargas and her team started the Better Buildings SWAP, which sees two organizations swapping places, learning, and collaborating on ideas.

“While we established the importance of sharing information, we were trying to think about how we could prove it in a way that was fun and engaging,” explains Vargas. “Energy efficiency by itself is typically not the most exciting of topics, and yet the reality is there’s a lot of really cool stuff going on. We realized that even if companies were willing to share information, they probably thought they could only share within their own sector. A hospital can only learn from other hospitals, a grocery store can only learn from another grocery store – that’s not true.

“We wanted a way to demonstrate in a fun, interactive way that learning can happen across the market, and eventually we came up with this notion of a swap.”

The first series of the Better Buildings SWAP features Hilton and Whole Foods – both giants in their field, one very corporate and one very proud of being the opposite of corporate – swapping places and sharing the details of their organizations in the most open way possible.

“One of the Whole Foods team said ‘there’s never been suits in the kitchen before’. Despite the cultural differences, the lessons each organization took away from the experience were quite profound. That’s why we decided to make more episodes of SWAP, because it illustrates the ‘a-ha!’ moment we want people to have when they think about energy efficiency. We want to show that other people have the same issues as you, and that you’re well-served to figure out how they overcame those issues. While it’s a serious issue and very much in the national interest, we’ve proved that it can still be enjoyable and engaging.”

Vargas and her team have reaped the rewards of the SWAP in the form of positive feedback and increased awareness of what she and her team are doing. Thanks to an unforeseen degree of recognition – after all, a televised business swap is a highly unusual project for a governmental department to undertake – the first season achieved over 50 million media impressions and 300,000 YouTube views. Season two – a swap between the US Airforce Academy and the US Naval Academy – has over 1.5 million views.

The team has already wrapped on a third season – a city swap between Boston and Atlanta – which delves into a whole new set of trials. The diverse spectrum of sectors that the show has already put through the same challenge is what makes it so appealing for its audience, and it has enjoyed enough enthusiastic feedback to warrant at least two more series.

“Lots of people have been covering it, which is a microcosm of what my challenge is for energy efficiency,” says Vargas. “All these partners are doing great things but if nobody knows about it, we’re not changing anything. Part of the SWAP is about educating and engaging. The smartest people you’ll ever work with are the ones who admit they don’t know everything, the ones who will openly state that they want to learn and be better. The Better Building Initiative as a whole encourages that.”

The group of over 300 companies already taking part in the Better Buildings Challenge have saved billions of dollars between them, but in Vargas’s words, “the biggest savings come from this leadership group’s ability to motivate and accelerate change”. On the commercial buildings side alone, this project could save $80 billion every year. The businesses involved view energy efficiency as not only something they should be doing because their competitors are, but as something they should do and can do easily. The main goal of the initiative is to transform the US market and the way energy is thought about country-wide.

“That’s our hope and our belief, that people will see the savings and the impact these organizations are making, and be inspired by it. This is something that will snowball from here, and from one company to another too. It’s fascinating to watch this internally, seeing some companies make their first forays into energy efficiency, and others being inspired by their peers to expand their efforts.”


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Jul 29, 2021

Carbon dioxide removal revenues worth £2bn a year by 2030

Dominic Ellis
4 min
Engineered greenhouse gas removals will become "a major new infrastructure sector" in the coming decades says the UK's National Infrastructure Commission

Carbon dioxide removal revenues could reach £2bn a year by 2030 in the UK with costs per megatonne totalling up to £400 million, according to the National Infrastructure Commission

Engineered greenhouse gas removals will become "a major new infrastructure sector" in the coming decades - although costs are uncertain given removal technologies are in their infancy - and revenues could match that of the UK’s water sector by 2050. The Commission’s analysis suggests engineered removals technologies need to have capacity to remove five to ten megatonnes of carbon dioxide no later than 2030, and between 40 and 100 megatonnes by 2050.

The Commission states technologies fit into two categories: extracting carbon dioxide directly out of the air; and bioenergy with carbon capture technology – processing biomass to recapture carbon dioxide absorbed as the fuel grew. In both cases, the captured CO2 is then stored permanently out of the atmosphere, typically under the seabed.

The report sets out how the engineered removal and storage of carbon dioxide offers the most realistic way to mitigate the final slice of emissions expected to remain by the 2040s from sources that don’t currently have a decarbonisation solution, like aviation and agriculture. 

It stresses that the potential of these technologies is “not an excuse to delay necessary action elsewhere” and cannot replace efforts to reduce emissions from sectors like road transport or power, where removals would be a more expensive alternative.  

The critical role these technologies will play in meeting climate targets means government must rapidly kick start the sector so that it becomes viable by the 2030s, according to the report, which was commissioned by government in November 2020. 

Early movement by the UK to develop the expertise and capacity in greenhouse gas removal technologies could create a comparative advantage, with the prospect of other countries needing to procure the knowledge and skills the UK develops.

The Commission recommends that government should support the development of this new sector in the short term with policies that drive delivery of these technologies and create demand through obligations on polluting industries, which will over time enable a competitive market to develop. Robust independent regulation must also be put in place from the start to help build public and investor confidence.

While the burden of these costs could be shared by different parts of industries required to pay for removals or in part shared with government, the report acknowledges that, over the longer term, the aim should be to have polluting sectors pay for removals they need to reach carbon targets.

Polluting industries are likely to pass a proportion of the costs onto consumers. While those with bigger household expenditures will pay more than those on lower incomes, the report underlines that government will need to identify ways of protecting vulnerable consumers and to decide where in relevant industry supply chains the costs should fall.

Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, said taking steps to clean our air is something we’re going to have to get used to, just as we already manage our wastewater and household refuse. 

"While engineered removals will not be everyone’s favourite device in the toolkit, they are there for the hardest jobs. And in the overall project of mitigating our impact on the planet for the sake of generations to come, we need every tool we can find," he said.

“But to get close to having the sector operating where and when we need it to, the government needs to get ahead of the game now. The adaptive approach to market building we recommend will create the best environment for emerging technologies to develop quickly and show their worth, avoiding the need for government to pick winners. We know from the dramatic fall in the cost of renewables that this approach works and we must apply the lessons learned to this novel, but necessary, technology.” 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency estimate a global capacity for engineered removals of 2,000 to 16,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide each year by 2050 will be needed in order to meet global reduction targets. 

Yesterday Summit Carbon Solutions received "a strategic investment" from John Deere to advance a major CCUS project (click here). The project will accelerate decarbonisation efforts across the agriculture industry by enabling the production of low carbon ethanol, resulting in the production of more sustainable food, feed, and fuel. Summit Carbon Solutions has partnered with 31 biorefineries across the Midwest United States to capture and permanently sequester their CO2 emissions.  

Cory Reed, President, Agriculture & Turf Division of John Deere, said: "Carbon neutral ethanol would have a positive impact on the environment and bolster the long-term sustainability of the agriculture industry. The work Summit Carbon Solutions is doing will be critical in delivering on these goals."

McKinsey highlights a number of CCUS methods which can drive CO2 to net zero:

  • Today’s leader: Enhanced oil recovery Among CO2 uses by industry, enhanced oil recovery leads the field. It accounts for around 90 percent of all CO2 usage today
  • Cementing in CO2 for the ages New processes could lock up CO2 permanently in concrete, “storing” CO2 in buildings, sidewalks, or anywhere else concrete is used
  • Carbon neutral fuel for jets Technically, CO2 could be used to create virtually any type of fuel. Through a chemical reaction, CO2 captured from industry can be combined with hydrogen to create synthetic gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel
  • Capturing CO2 from ambient air - anywhere Direct air capture (DAC) could push CO2 emissions into negative territory in a big way
  • The biomass-energy cycle: CO2 neutral or even negative Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage relies on nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere for use elsewhere

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