Rethink Impossible: EDF Climate Corps fellow finds 80% energy savings for AT&T. Is there an app for that?

By Jen Snook, EDF Climate Corps fellow at AT&T, MBA/MEM candidate at Fuqua School of Business and Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, Member of Net Impact

Arriving at a new job is always a little daunting.  There is an adjustment period, but over time you find where you fit in and how you add value to an organization.  Rounding out my ninth week in the Corporate Real Estate division of AT&T as an EDF Climate Corps fellow, I felt much different than those first nervous days.  My project, looking at lighting use in roughly half of AT&T’s real estate portfolio, had seemingly borne fruit.  The path I had taken to this point can essentially be broken down into four stages:

  1. Understand
  2. Question
  3. Quantify
  4. Extrapolate

My lighting education started on our second day of EDF Climate Corp Training in NYC with an in-depth expert presentation on lighting from the Rensselear Polytechnic Institute.  As I started to dive into my project at AT&T, I built upon this foundation with additional research online, interviews with colleagues in the field, and conversations with lighting vendors.  I can now safely say that I know a LOT about lighting occupancy sensors and could talk in length about the virtues of lighting retrofits, but that’s another blog.

Currently, there is a big push in the energy efficiency world to convert the omnipresent linear fluorescent light bulbs to more efficient technology that uses roughly a third less energy to produce the same amount of light.

However, what if we just kept the lights off?  Growing up, my father insisted that I turn the lights off whenever I left a room.  It’s simple logic, if no one is around, there is no need to waste energy, or as my dad saw it, waste money.  The same logic holds today in my work at AT&T.  If nobody is in a room, keep the lights off!

There are plenty of reasons that lights remain on when no one is around, however.  Maybe you plan to return later and it’s easier to leave the lights on, maybe it is a large room and you don’t want to risk leaving others in the dark, maybe the light switch is in an inconvenient location, maybe lots of things that can add up to the lights staying on more than necessary.  Occupancy sensors eliminate the “maybes.”

The challenge was to quantify just how often the lights were on. With the help of light loggers that record the lighting use and occupancy patterns of a given space, I found, not surprisingly, that some people are good about turning the lights off and other times the lights remain on when no one is working in a given space.  On average, though, the lights are on roughly half of the time.  In a traditional office space with a 40-hour workweek, you would expect that lighting is needed a little less than a quarter of the time.  However, my project is focused on buildings that are mostly comprised of telecom equipment with a very low human to square foot density.  At the very most, any given space around the equipment is likely to be occupied ten percent of the time.

A little simple math and you quickly realize that installing occupancy sensors could represent an 80% savings in electricity use!

This is the fun part.  In a recent conversation with my supervisor John Schinter, Executive Director of Energy at AT&T, we talked about the idea of scalable solutions.  Any energy efficiently opportunity can be a win, but for a company the size of AT&T, solutions to reducing energy use that can be replicated over and over again are the best use of capital and human resources.

As I mentioned before, AT&T brought me in to look at lighting in roughly half of its portfolio, and my final recommendation includes lighting used in thousands of central offices representing more than a million square feet of floor space.

Imagine applying the 80% savings in electricity use across more than 100 million square feet of space. The company could save hundreds of millions of kWh annually through the installation of occupancy sensors.

Read more about the 2010 final EDF Climate Corps program results here.

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