Climate Corps: The War on Climate Change Hits the Ground

By Matt Baker

There has been a battle cry repeated more often than any other, especially in the green building community: energy efficiency. Renewables can cut greenhouse gas emissions, but during the wait for lower prices and more efficacious technologies we can reduce the amount of energy we consume now.

This strategy often promises a quick return on investment, handy for persuading those who oversee the funding. If improving energy efficiency makes so much sense, however, why does it often seem so hard to implement?

Constructed over a century ago, 440 N. Wells is one of the Urban Innovations properties that their EDF Climate Corps fellow will focus on during the summer.

Constructed over a century ago, 440 N. Wells is one of the Urban Innovations properties that their EDF Climate Corps fellow will focus on during the summer.

The first barricade is often limited resources; ROI is only a strong argument if there exists the capital to invest in the first place. The other major limitation is the human factor, whether that’s insufficient tenant/employee engagement or a misunderstanding of the basics of energy efficiency by facility managers.

Even so, there must be some way to help organizations improve the energy efficiency of their building stock. Enter the EDF Climate Corps. An initiative of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), this program is designed to tap the talents of graduate students with aptitudes in business, engineering, environmental science and public policy who then help organizations discover strategies to save both energy and money.

The idea is to have a trained, effective and dedicated resource to focus on these specific projects, allowing the EDF Climate Corps fellows to act as energy management catalysts for the organization with which they are paired. Each fellow spends the summer working with a company or organization, identifying needs and developing an actionable energy management plan.

“The value of the fellow goes beyond just the immense savings they identify and implement,” said Sitar Mody, Senior Manager, Strategy of EDF Climate Corps. “They’re breaking down silos between departments. They’re bringing new ideas to the table. It’s amazing the way a fresh look can find things.”

For many of the fellows, energy management is not their area of expertise. Most were selected because of their business acumen. “There’s something about the financial skillset coupled with the technical skillset,” said Mody, “where they’re able to get the trust and buy-in of facility folks as well as the decision-makers.”

That’s not to say they will be ill-prepared. Training, which EDF conducted in Chicago with the cooperation of the Energy Center of Wisconsin, involves a five-day boot camp focusing on the fundamentals of energy efficiency, change management, demand response, financing and other factors. Once installed at their host organization, the fellows also have the support of an EDF project manager as well as access to online collaboration tools and expert resources.


The program has grown from seven companies in the Bay Area back in 2008 to 116 this year. Five of those seven were technology firms but the program now spans across an array of industries. Chicago’s presence has also increased, more than tripling to 16 local companies this year compared to years past.

That is due mostly to EDF’s strategic focus on the region. Buoyed by the success and growth of the program, EDF was curious to see what sort of change can be enacted when the full force of EDF Climate Corps is brought to bear on one region and one industry.

2014 Chicago-Based EDF Climate Corps Host Organizations

CB Richard Ellis Group
Chicago Housing Authority
Glenstar Asset Management
Hispanic Housing Development
Institute of Cultural Affairs
McDonald’s Corporation
Merchandise Mart
Ronald McDonald House Charities
Shorenstein Properties
Skidmore, Owings and Merrill
South Street Capital
UL Environment
Urban Innovations
USG Corporation

For a variety of reasons, Chicago proved to be an attractive field of operations for this campaign. Governmental buy-in is evinced not just by the platforms of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chief Sustainability Officer Karen Weigert, but also legislation like the Energy Benchmarking Ordinance. Another factor is the presence of so many environmentally focused organizations, from the National Resource Defense Council and C40 Cities to startups like Energy Foundry. “There’s already a great mindshare on the ground in Chicago,” Mody said.

The Chicago component of this year’s EDF Climate Corps class will complement Retrofit Chicago—the city’s initiative to help buildings reduce their energy use by 20% over 5 years. The fellows will provide hands-on support to help building managers attain their committed goals.

While Chicago is the geographical focus, the multi-tenant, commercial real estate sector is the targeted industry. EDF decided to focus there because of the inherent challenges. For instance, a multi-tenant building can make as many energy-saving changes to the base building as they want, but those changes may have little effect without proper tenant engagement.


One local company that is hosting a fellow this summer is Urban Innovations. The real estate investment company started out in the adaptive reuse of loft buildings more than 30 years ago. They manage nearly a dozen Class B properties totaling over 750,000 square feet, mostly in River North.

“Redeveloping older properties and repurposing them for office space was a forward thinking idea at the time,” said Alfrieda Green, Vice President of Property Management with Urban Innovations. “We’re a little ahead of the curve with regard to sustainability for properties of our type and size.”

Urban Innovations started benchmarking their properties in 2008 using the EPA’s Portfolio Manager program and now has six Energy Star buildings and one that is LEED certified. Notwithstanding that—or that their core business of finding new life for old structures is one of the primary tenets of green building—the company does not have a dedicated staff for managing sustainability. “We’ve done quite a bit so far and the EDF program is an opportunity for us to go a step further to formalize our program,” said Green.

Before their EDF Climate Corps fellow arrived, Urban Innovations identified three properties from their portfolio that were next due for a lifecycle assessment and possible equipment upgrades. The intern will focus on those buildings, identifying financial incentives related to sustainability as well as energy efficiency opportunities that are available now.

The easiest path to improved energy efficiency is via periodic system replacement. Properly maintained vintage buildings can actually become more efficient over the years. Urban Innovations certainly has vintage stock; the youngest building in their portfolio was constructed in 1930 and the oldest in 1886.

Not everything has been rehabilitated, however. While the buildings have seen HVAC and lighting upgrades over the years, Green hopes that the EDF Climate Corps fellow will be able to home in specifically on the elevators. “It’s something we never really looked at before,” she said. Any choices they make on elevator modernization in the three target buildings will inform how they as a company look at the same issue in other buildings when they come up for review.


The end goal is for the program to act not as a knockout punch, but the tip of a spear for a prolonged campaign. “We want whatever we learn to be duplicated so that we can apply for the same incentives and rebates again and make the same decisions,” said Green, “or at least understand what factored into that decision for other properties going forward.”

Staff education is another long term benefit that Urban Innovations will aim for. Sustainability shouldn’t be relegated to managing the portfolio, but should become a part of how they do business as a company. “Sustainable operations is just good management in our opinion,” Green said.

Since its launch, EDF Climate Corps has identified nearly $1.3 billion in potential energy savings, or an average of $1 million for each organization. EDF follows up with the hosts to find out the status of projects, to re-engage the organizations and to see what kind of energy projects they are planning for the future. These reviews have shown that an impressive 55% of recommended energy-saving changes have been implemented.

That reflects the first years of the program, when fellows were suggesting the low hanging fruit of lighting, HVAC and envelope upgrades. Most of the “early adopter” organizations have moved on to less quantifiable strategies such as tenant/employee engagement. The challenge now for EDF is twofold: to reach out to energy management stragglers, and discover new ways to carve out efficiencies for those who were on the front lines.

“Urban Innovations is a class B portfolio with 11 awesome commercial buildings,” said Mody. “They want to take their work to the next level. Not only will we help them to move projects forward, we are building out a decision-making tool. Can that tool be replicated and scaled across class B buildings around Chicago?”

To truly take control of energy management, these strategies need to be scaled up. The battle line can’t end with the dozens of properties in one portfolio, the thousands of buildings in Chicago or even the millions across the U.S.

Photo: Barry Rustin of Barry Rustin Photography


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