Debunking energy efficiency myths

Originally published in Sustain, posted 23rd June 2022

Energy efficiency is a hot topic right now. Globally, the built environment is responsible for almost 40% of carbon emissions – 28% of that from operational energy use. There’s urgency to improve the performance of existing buildings by minimising energy waste but this requires an attitude change about the perceived barriers to success. Let’s challenge some of the biggest misconceptions about energy efficiency, starting with how we use office buildings…

Myth #1: It’s cost and time intensive

Transformational sustainability programmes may seem like a big effort that will be disruptive, difficult and costly to implement, with results taking years. However, they don’t have to be monoliths and can be iterative, through simple building reprogramming and cultivating the right community. How do you inspire occupiers to switch off lights, shut down computers and care how many times they boil the kettle? By working with them on behaviour changes, you can capture the quick wins and kick-start long-term positive impact. ESG may be a business priority but it must resonate with everyday users to drive meaningful change. Tools like the CUBE Competition can deepen engagement and deliver savings from day one without major expenditure by gamifying the process and making it intuitive, where everyone strives towards one goal.

The greater cost is actually the cost of inaction. Failing to future-proof buildings brings risks including obsolescence (think stranded assets), the ‘brown discount’ and the uncertainty of securing insurance. Conversely, 73% of investors believe that green strategies lead to higher rents, overall value and occupier retention. The bias leans towards action now.

Myth #2: Only major retrofits can help

When facing ambitious targets, big retrofits may be the first things that spring to mind. These are hugely important - and their time will come - but since they are so costly and time intensive, it makes sense to make more informed decisions beforehand. For example, if you install a new heat pump based on your current energy usage, rather than the 10-20% lower level you might achieve after effecting behaviour changes and better basic building reprogramming, you might end up over-specifying the heat pump and spending more than you need to.

Additionally, you need to ensure that any changes you make align with the needs of the building’s users. For instance, you might invest a lot of time and resources designing openable windows to let in fresh air, without considering the air quality and whether employees will actually use them. The first step is to work with building occupiers to understand their needs and how you can jointly reduce energy usage, and produce a new baseline energy profile. With that knowledge, you can make better choices.

Myth #3: Small actions make no difference

It’s easy to think that individual actions represent just a drop in the ocean. Actually, turning off four lights nightly in the office for one year can lower the carbon footprint by as much as ten flights between London and Paris. Setting up an actionable plan together with clear touch points increases motivation and shows how small steps add up to make a significant difference. The good thing is that it’s not necessary to wait until you have comprehensive building data to start making progress. Sustainability initiatives that use existing utility bills (which everyone has!) to benchmark against ongoing monthly consumption can already go a long way, allowing people to monitor progress and compare it with their peers to spur on further action.

It's time to adopt a new way of thinking and throw out old assumptions about energy efficiency to see real progress fast.

Mark Bruno is chief ambassador of CUBE & partner at Ampersand Partners