The US Department of Energy (DoE) recently launched the first season of its Better Climate Challenge (BCC) Road Show, a video series highlighting the leadership of US-based public and private organisations in decarbonising their buildings and industrial plants; aiming to showcase the innovative decarbonisation work of the DoE’s BCC partners.

As partners in the BCC, companies commit to reducing their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 50% within ten years and sharing solutions publicly to help others build on their success. These 150 partner organisations are developing new technologies, implementing energy-saving practices and building the next generation of the US workforce – all while cutting emissions and increasing global competitiveness.

Buildings and manufacturing plants account for roughly two-thirds of US CO₂ emissions. If all organisations in the commercial, public and industrial sectors reduced their GHG emissions by 50%, it would save nearly 1.5 billion metric tonnes of CO₂ emissions annually – more than the annual emissions from every home in the country.

The BCC is one component of the Better Buildings Initiative. To date, more than 900 Better Buildings Partners have saved more than $15bn in energy costs while sharing their innovative strategies.

Energy Monitor caught up with Maria Tikoff Vargas, director of the US Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Challenge, to find out more about how the programme is helping these organisations decarbonise their operations.

Maria Tikoff Vargas, director of the US DoE’s Better Buildings Challenge. Credit: US DoE.

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The Better Buildings Initiative (BBI) is a broad platform that the DoE uses to work with any kind of organisation – hospitals, hotels, grocery stores, industrial organisations, school districts – to help them understand there’s a lot of opportunity to be more energy efficient in their buildings and manufacturing plants. The BBI works with organisations at a partnership level to get them to set an aggressive public goal and then share their success. And I mean that both in data – how well they’re doing to reduce energy use – but also how they’re getting there and how they’re overcoming the barriers they were facing. We started that about 12 years ago. It’s really that model and that DNA that the BCC has evolved from.

We’ve been doing this for about a decade and it works; it really is the market leadership view of change. When we think about climate issues and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, decarbonising US homes and buildings and manufacturing plants is key and critical to the fight against climate change. We know that organisations have to set public goals and understand the goals, but a lot of organisations out there have already set those goals; for these companies, the BCC is helping turn those goals into actions and pathways at a portfolio level. This isn’t building by building; this is, if you are Cleveland Clinic, across all your hospitals; if you are Hilton, it’s across all your hotels.

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We need leaders who are willing to act now and, very importantly, share what they’re doing. That is essentially the backbone of what we’re trying to do in the BCC. Organisations that work with us set an aggressive goal of at least a 50% GHG emissions reduction, scope 1 and scope 2, within ten years. And they agree to share with us how it is they were able to decarbonise, because we know the pathways to decarbonisation are going to be different. Not every organisation is willing to do that, but there are leaders in every sector and that’s really our goal: to have different leaders across different sectors of the economy so others can learn from them as they de-risk and demonstrate what they’re doing.

We don’t pay them to decarbonise. These are organisations that know this is what the future looks like, and they’re interested in working with the DoE to head that way. We do provide some technical assistance. What we want to understand is what’s working, where they’re having success and where they’re getting stuck. It’s just as important for us as the DoE to know where these organisations are getting stuck so we can think about how we’re investing our research dollars and other tools we have at the federal level to help.

How big is the scope? Realistically, how many partners are you expecting to onboard in the future?

We have 150 organisations, and then we have about another seven or eight that have signed on as financial allies – people who are willing to commit resources to help these organisations – and about another 30 organisations that have stepped forward as allies – people like the Building Owners and Managers Association, the society of architects, the code-setting organisations.

We don't need everyone. I don't think we could get everyone because not everyone is at that place. Really what we're looking for are the key leaders in all the different sectors of the US economy: school districts, hotels, hospitals, grocery stores, retail establishments, industrial organisations. We need these organisations to show the others in their space how the transition is done.

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We're trying to make sure we have different leaders in different sectors of the economy but we're also very mindful to seek out leadership in different parts of the country. We need all types of organisation: large, small, public, private, across the economy and through the different sectors and regions. The regional aspect is very important because the decarbonisation pathways are going to be very different for someone in Seattle than they are going to be for somebody in Miami.

Bottom line, in the next couple of years, we're looking for a couple hundred organisations, but I'm not so focused on a number as much as I am making sure I've got role models for anyone who might need one in the US economy. We need these ambitious GHG reduction targets, but this has to be something we work together on or we're just not going to make it.

What do they get out of taking part in the challenge? What are the incentives?

It's different for every organisation. I would argue the recognition [of their climate ambitions] certainly has a piece for most of the people we work with, but there are other reasons people join, not the least of which is to be part of this very active peer network to learn from. The other thing is getting help from the DoE.

There's a lot in the industrial space and manufacturing space that we don't have answers to, but we're certainly not going to get answers by ignoring them. So, it's about sitting down with the organisations to understand where they're getting stuck.

It's also just about getting into a room with other organisations to figure out what they're doing. There's a lot of pressure on these organisations to decarbonise right now. By joining this partnership, people are finding the right combination of technical acumen but also peer networking that's really going to allow them to learn and then propel their organisation forwards.

Can you give some examples of how these partners are decarbonising their operations through the programme?

We've been working with Nissan for more than a decade, first on their energy efficiency work and now on the climate challenge. A lot of people find energy efficiency is a kind of gateway drug. Parkway Schools, for example, has now put a geothermal system in their school district.

By joining this partnership, people are finding the right combination of technical acumen but also peer networking that's really going to allow them to learn and then propel their organisation forwards.

Our job is to tell everybody what these organisations are doing, who had what barrier and how they overcame it. Half the barriers cited by our partners are not technical – we know how to do energy efficiency – the bigger barriers are often to do with how to pay for it, how to get their team on board and how to convince their customers that this is a good thing.

Can you provide specific examples of the support DoE provides them?

These organisations are kind of like families; they all look alike from the outside but they're all different on the inside. They are all at different stages and need different things. For some of our BCC partners, they're still getting their arms around their inventory – where their GHG emissions come from. You can't begin to decarbonise unless you know how you're creating GHG emissions. Once they've got their arms around their inventory, they're then trying to figure out where they should focus first. We work very closely with the national labs – the National Renewable Energy Laboratory or Pacific Northwest National Laboratory – and it's those folks that can help a lot of the partners on some of the technical issues they have.

We try to do calls at least once or twice a year. It's up to the partner and we try to reflect back to them where they need help. An organisation might say, ‘I've got my inventory and I really want to do a geothermal system, but I can't figure out how to talk to my CFO about that. Is there somebody on your team who can show me what someone else has done to get this through?’

We have a broad set of experts and resources for partners to avail themselves of. A lot of our partners were saying: 'My CEO told me I have to reduce 50% of my GHG emissions and I don't even know where to start.' So, we did a working group; about 50 of our partners sat down with us and said, 'who's doing what, how are they doing it and how's it going?' Also, a couple months ago, we released an emissions reduction planning guide, to show people how to do it on a step-by-step basis.

Which kind of industries or organisations are struggling to decarbonise and why?

It depends on what you mean by “struggling”. For some organisations, there are people within them who want to do it and want to make it public, but they're struggling to get organisational approval. That's a different kind of struggle.

Then there is the technical struggle. For some of our industrial partners, it's going to be a very hard process – there are a lot of technologies we don't have yet. For some industries, we simply don't know how to decarbonise them yet – certainly not at cost, at scale and in time. So, we are still actively recruiting because we want to make sure we have a broad representation in some sectors that are trying to figure out the best path to decarbonisation.

Grocery stores are also hard ones to decarbonise. It's hard for them as the margins are so low. It's challenging to get some of them to think about this as they've got a lot of other things on their plate. So, there are lots of different reasons organisations are struggling.

What lessons has the DoE learnt through the BCC process about decarbonising the US economy that it didn’t know before?

What I continue to be amazed by is the power one or two individuals, or a small team, can have within an organisation if they're allowed to lead. We work with very large organisations and yet something about those organisations allows a person, or a small team of people, to really drive systemic and very progressive change internally. That's one thing that constantly surprises me.

Why we look for the commitment at a portfolio-wide level is that if somebody who managed just one hospital within a hospital network had to fight to do this, they would be fighting an unwinnable battle. So, part of the reason we structured the BCC to get initial buy-in from the top is because you're not going to get a 50% GHG reduction goal if you're not committed to providing the money to get that done. But it's also about the people who are empowered in those organisations. The type of people we work with really make it part of their ambition and passion to transform their organisation from within, and that really inspires me.