Author Archive

September 10, 2012

What’s the environmental footprint of your technology use? There’s no app for that.

Josh Hatch, Director of Sustainability Analytics, BrightworksBy Joshua Hatch

Director of Sustainability Analytics

Are you big into social media? Can you hardly wait for the next iPhone? And are you having trouble reconciling the environmental implications of our ever-connected society? You are not alone. If you tune into the latest environmental data from large technology firms like Apple, Google and Facebook, then you could develop whiplash from confusing numbers and competing claims.

The environmental footprint of your social and technological habits is hard to understand because most of the supply chain and infrastructure of technology companies is hidden in the “cloud” or in contract manufacturing towns. It is also hard to make sense of the net environmental impact these companies present, both positive and negative. Should we be concerned that the data centers that power all digital services are one of, if not the, fastest growing sectors of our electric grid, or placated that they are only two percent of our over-all energy use? I am speaking at Greenbuild 2012 this fall on this one issue alone.  And can social media and technology create greater openness and tools for activism that drive a broader societal awareness or corporate environmental responsibility and eventually “pay for themselves”?  It’s a muddy issue, but we can start to clarify it by identifying what the questions are today, and what will tip them in one direction or another.

The Impact of the Cloud

Google was first major technology company to get really transparent on the impact of their operations by releasing the energy usage from all of their data centers. It can only be huge, right? Actually, I was surprised at how small it was. Data centers make up about two percent of U.S. electricity use and Google’s share was less than one percent of that. Facebook more recently followed suit by disclosing their energy use and carbon footprint, and did a great job presenting some complex data and making it relatable.  In short, the carbon footprint of your annual Facebook use is about equal to the footprint of a couple glasses of wine or a medium latte.

Facebook: Sharing Our Footprint

Your Facebook carbon footprint is equal to… Image via Facebook

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December 12, 2011

Move the Market, Don’t Let the Market Move You

Josh Hatch, Director of Sustainability Analytics, BrightworksBy Josh Hatch

For those of you impatient with progress on sustainability in our society, I have wonderful news: Sustainability is here. Today.

OK, we haven’t literally solved it. But it is possible, within reach even. This is encouraging, right? Most of us worried about sustainability are concerned we aren’t moving fast enough — and we aren’t. But not because renewable energy isn’t cheap enough, worldwide climate protection policies are insufficient, or Whole Foods’ Organics aren’t organic enough. Nor does sustainability cost too much, require additional technological breakthroughs or need further study.

Progress is being held back by the widespread, self-defeating business mindset of “waiting for a good time” to consider sustainability — when the best time is always now.

Why Standing Still is the Greatest Risk of All

Truly innovative and leading organizations make decisions with imperfect or partial information, or in spite of immature or uncertain technology. And they use creativity or partnerships to work around financial obstacles. They are successful independent of these limitations — perhaps even more successful because their competitors stand flat-footed, unwilling to challenge assumptions that prevent action.

Unfortunately, sustainability won’t be “easier” to address in the future when solar energy is cheaper and ecological impacts are fully valued and integrated into reporting. Why?

  • Sustainability problems – such as risk of climate disruption and increasing prevalence of toxins in our air, water and soil – are becoming increasingly severe.
  • Available options and resources – such as time to act, collective willpower and financial resources – are becoming increasingly limited. Inaction or complacency based on deferred action is a human behavioral phenomenon. Decisions by society or corporations to defer or de-prioritize action on sustainability represents a mental barrier more than a consequence of technology, information or financial resource limitations.

Forward-Thinking Decisions That Pay Off

The Toyota Prius

The Toyota Prius, Forward-Thinking Success. Photo via Consumer Reports

Many companies have defied predominant business norms or customer preferences and transformed their industries for the better. A modern classic is, of course, the Prius. For automakers, developing a hybrid-electric vehicle seemed niche at best and suicidal at worst. Previous electric car efforts had gone poorly for other manufacturers. And there was a very small market, at best, for these expensive, fuel-sipping vehicles when Toyota began their designs. But when the company released the first Prius, they had a multiple-year lead on the entire automotive industry and are now the de facto “brand” of hybrid electric vehicles.

Who in your company has the analogous good idea that is being prevented from implementation?

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September 13, 2011

Is Sustainability Your Known Unknown: Using Sustainability Analytics to Make Confident Business Decisions

Josh Hatch, Director of Sustainability Analytics, Brightworks

By Josh Hatch

Director of Sustainability Analytics

Confident decision-making in tumultuous times requires a thorough understanding of triple bottom line and broader sustainability impacts. Using the sustainability lens may not influence each decision in a significant way, but it will enable businesses to identify opportunities, reduce risk and effectively communicate the sustainability impacts of their operations.

Effective organizations are learning that modern business decision-making and planning requires them to look beyond sustainability as a certification, rating system, goal or even a theory. They’re embracing sustainability as a set of decision criteria and a filter to be applied to any major business dilemma. Businesses that ignore sustainability’s strategic value do so at their own risk in an era marked by volatile energy and resource prices, evolving regulatory requirements and unforeseen financial, environmental and supply chain disruptions.

Titanic vs. Iceberg

Sustainability implications for businesses often hide beneath the surface until it's too late. Image via Robert M. Williams

Here are four steps leaders in sustainability are taking to build stronger, more resilient organizations:

1.  Establish Organizational Sustainability Bearings Before Setting Your Course

The first step isn’t necessarily the hardest in addressing sustainability—there are so many opportunities for low-cost/no-cost improvements that can be pursued immediately. However, many organizations suffer from the problem of setting broader organizational priorities and launching sustainability initiatives before fully mapping the relevance and impacts of these initiatives on their business.

Without a solid understanding of the major and minor impacts and their relative proportions, sincere efforts can be made chasing relatively small gains. Metro, a regional government organization based in Portland, Oregon, enacted aggressive sustainability targets in 2003 for reductions in their major sustainability impacts—water, toxics, GHG, waste and habitat. However, they didn’t also conduct a thorough audit to develop a baseline, prioritize efforts and gauge progress toward the targets from their many programs and initiatives addressing sustainability.

Sustainability technical assistance from Brightworks ultimately provided them with the analytics to understand current sustainability impacts for each of their five goals, as well as the composition of those impacts. For instance, they targeted a water usage reduction of 50% by 2025. Our analysis identified how much water they were actually using so progress toward the target could be quantified. We discovered a single property (the Zoo) used 42% of their total water budget. Without seriously addressing water efficiency at the Zoo, the target will be difficult if not impossible to reach.

Confident planning requires this level of understanding of sustainability impacts. Major efforts should be focused on the biggest opportunities, while also ensuring appropriate attention is paid to minor, but meaningful, opportunities elsewhere in an organization. All companies need analytics to comparatively assess major and minor opportunities as well as to track their progress to justify further initiatives.

2.  Go Beyond Credentials by Applying a Sustainability Lens to All Major DecisionsBusiness Decision Making Criteria: Profitability, Marketability, Sustainability?

A few years ago, you only had to complete a GHG footprint analysis to assert your green credentials. But most of those reports just quantify the magnitude of one potential liability without providing mitigating solutions or a framework for considering the impact of future business decisions. Today, organizations must consider carbon impact and other sustainability factors in all major business decisions.

To respond to the outsized environmental footprints of their data center facilities, our clients have engaged us during site selection to consider the upfront impact on long-term water resource availability, carbon intensity of grid electricity, system development costs and green building incentives. They want to ensure their mission-critical facilities remain operational while effectively managing and limiting their resource consumption. Smart consideration of sustainability impacts at the front end of the project can result in selection of a site that has long-term water and energy security and a low carbon footprint. This reduces future risks from resource scarcity or carbon taxes.

3. Use Sustainability Analysis to Uncover Business Opportunities

This trend follows from a broader shift in perception. Not simply a static concept, sustainability is increasingly approached as a dynamic process. No longer do sustainability plans collect dust on the shelf. They must be actionable initiatives that relate to core business strategy.

The DOE Hanford Site faced federal requirements for GHG reductions across the board. Given the current traffic congestion, long commutes and rising gasoline prices encountered by their employees, they started by addressing the portion of their GHG footprint associated with commuting.

Responding to these challenges, Brightworks conducted a greenhouse gas reduction and cost savings analysis. We uncovered a future scenario so compelling that reductions beyond those required are being planned. Steps include expanding vanpooling, facilitating and promoting carpooling, condensing work weeks and relocating a significant number of employees to Hanford offices in Richland, Washington.

This combination of steps will save DOE and employees money, reduce emissions by more than twice the amount required by federal mandate and increase employee morale. The immediate savings possible will motivate Hanford Site to implement our recommendations ahead of schedule, and we expect they will look for reductions elsewhere in their operations.

4. Commit to Ongoing Improvement

Today’s sustainability leaders also continually address and re-evaluate their sustainability efforts. Consumers have a healthy amount of skepticism and insight into the legitimacy of sustainability efforts; only genuine efforts will allow your organization to avoid being seen as greenwashing. That’s why deft organizations are continually re-evaluating their business and operations for opportunities to align with sustainability practices.

After spending considerable effort renovating their event space—including energy efficiency upgrades, careful material selection and screening vendors for leadership in sustainability practices—Leftbank Annex in Portland asked Brightworks to conduct a thorough sustainability audit. They wanted to honestly assess the building’s strengths and weaknesses and identify additional opportunities for improvement.

In addition to validating their venue’s strengths, we identified creative solutions to respond to their unique constraints. For example, part of the venue’s appeal is as a historic building with original brickwork and large windows that provide a beautiful city backdrop for events. In their renovation, Leftbank Annex prioritized energy efficiency equipment, but they were limited in their ability to further insulate the building envelope. We recommended a partnership with a solar provider using third-party financing. Leftbank Annex would benefit by reducing their reliance on grid energy without compromising their aesthetic appeal, gaining a system paid for upfront by the solar developer (and paid off by energy bill reductions) and showing a visible commitment to renewable energy.

At the conclusion of our study, our client demonstrated a real understanding of ongoing improvement, stating: “Having you do an annual review, or asking for your advice before making a major investment, would probably be a very smart thing to do. Every decision we make needs to build off this foundation.”

It appears few companies today haven’t considered sustainability in some way. For many, however, sustainability remains a known unknown—something that is dismissed as irrelevant until it becomes the peril too close and large to avoid. What will separate the leaders and winners of tomorrow will be the ability to turn the demands of sustainability on their business into a known known—something that can be managed.

Companies that consider and reconsider the relationship of sustainability to their business will adapt quicker. And competitors that dismiss sustainability as extraneous or too costly will be left behind.

March 15, 2011

Client Corner: Cate Millar of the Leftbank Annex

Josh Hatch, Climate Services Group Director, Brightworks

by Josh Hatch

Climate Services Group Director

How green do you want your business to be, and how do you know if you measure up to your own standards? The Leftbank Annex, a flexible event space in Portland, Oregon, requested an independent, third party sustainability audit to answer those questions for their business. We analyzed their operational practices and the preferred vendor list that they suggest to all of their clients to give them an accurate picture of their sustainability successes and opportunities for improvement. I sat down with Leftbank Managing Director Cate Millar to talk about what prompted the project for them, and how they’re planning on using the findings as they move their business forward.

Oregon Environmental Council 2011 Annual Event at the Leftbank Annex

Oregon Environmental Council 2011 Annual Event at the Leftbank Annex

Josh: You’ve said you want to be the most sustainable event space you can be. Where did that goal come from?

Cate: Our goal came from within – from our ownership really believing this is the right thing to do. Sustainability is the primary concern of very few of our clients. It’s somewhere on the list of concerns for many, but it’s not on the radar at all for the majority. It’s a pressure that’s just nascent in this market. But we know that if you look at the trends nationally, things are going that way. It’s there, it’s just not “the thing.”

Part of it for us is a role model mindset. If we can do it, anyone can do it. And we want to attract businesses and clients that want to put on green events, but we also want the events of people who don’t care to be as green as possible.

Josh: The “We’ve done our research so you don’t have to” model.

Cate: Right. It’s a nice exclamation point at the end of a tour with a prospective client. “By the way, this is how our space works. It’s green.” We’re giving them everything they want, and then some. This audit process provides independent corroboration that we’re doing what we set out to do. When I spoke with your CEO, he put it this way: “We walk the walk, so you can talk the talk.” We want to be sure we have the walk before we talk. There’s the issue of greenwashing, and we’re hypersensitive to it.

Josh: When you renovated the building, you installed high efficiency water fixtures, but also added plumbing for a future rainwater capture system. The high efficiency fixtures make a big dent in your water usage, but something the report turned up is that one of the biggest changes you can realistically make to be more resource efficient is capturing rainwater to flush toilets. You’ve actually already plumbed for it, but it’s still an investment – it’s a tank, and a system…

Cate: But that’s good to know, and we’ll use that information to help prioritize future capital decisions. And the vendor reviews you put together are something we can use right away. The great thing about this project is that you’ve confirmed what we believed – that we created the space we intended – and given us the tools to make incremental and major improvements that will keep us on track. In fact, having you do an annual review, or asking for your advice before making a major investment, would probably be a very smart thing to do. Every decision we make needs to build off this foundation.

The Leftbank Annex
The Leftbank Annex event space, photo from Benefit Auctions 360

Josh: Food is a really tough nut to crack when you’re talking about sustainability, and we know that. But your exclusive vendor is in the pack of leaders.

Cate: Our goal is to be the greenest possible event space we can be. After how we manage our facility, the caterer has the biggest impact on operations. We were very cognizant of that when we selected Bon Appetit. Sustainability is at the heart of their corporate DNA and we knew they would carry that part of the business.

Josh: Your vendors were very open about their sustainability challenges.

Cate: We wanted to offer our customers a list of “preferred vendors” that share our business and sustainability goals. We went through a rigorous process to vet our selections and are confident recommending any of our partners. When you speak to someone about sustainability, you can tell if they’re really committed or just talking the talk. When you ask someone what they do to be green you hope for a more thoughtful answer than “Well, I drive a Prius.” Our vendors had real answers; they gang deliveries to reduce travel, use local and organic food, natural cleansers and seasonal flowers. They compost and use recycled water to clean rentals. You know they’ve really thought about it.

Josh: You have to ask about specifics. If I ask a caterer where they get their tomatoes in winter, I know they’ve been deliberate when they have an answer like “This is something we struggled with for a long time, but eventually we found a vendor who does thus and so, and here’s why we think that’s best.” When they have a static policy like, “We only buy organic tomatoes,” it almost seems too cut and dry.

Cate: If we’re committing to continual improvement , our vendors have to be too. If you’re at the head of the pack and do nothing, everyone else passes you by after a few years. This assessment is only a beginning. That’s what’s exciting to me. It’s never done.

December 1, 2010

Are Green Buildings Keeping Pace with Climate Protection Targets?

Josh Hatch, Climate Services Group Director, Brightworksby Josh Hatch

Climate Services Group Director

In the past few years there has been a growing focus on understanding and reducing the carbon footprint of new and existing buildings. Trade publications, news articles, and corporate press releases are full of claims of massive reductions. Design firms advertise their net-zero projects, solar arrays, and advanced control systems that aim to minimize the carbon footprint of building operation. But how representative are these claims, and how does actual progress compare with the magnitude of the climate change problem? As a national leader in green building and sustainability, the City of Portland, Oregon offers new data that may shed light on where the rest of the country is headed, and whether enough progress is being made.

Over the past three years, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Portland Design Awards Competition has required that projects submit carbon calculations along with their application. The calculations are made by inputting forecast or actual energy usage information into a standardized carbon-calculation tool.  The tool determines the building’s carbon performance in comparison with both the national average for buildings of the same size and type, and in comparison with the carbon reduction target required for stabilizing the atmosphere concentration of carbon dioxide (as established by the 2030 Challenge Reduction Targets). This collected data provides a rare glimpse into the carbon performance of newly designed or renovated facilities.

The national average information for a building’s energy performance is taken from the Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS) database and converted to carbon impact. It is important to note that current building code requirements translate into a requirement that new designs demonstrate a roughly 25% improvement over the national average. The average project submitted to the competition in 2010 was 46% better than the national average, up from 33% in 2009, and up from 36% in 2008. Of the approximately 75 projects submitted each year to the design awards competition, in 2010, 28 projects demonstrated a 50% or greater improvement above the national average.  In 2009, that number was 19, and in 2008, it was only 11. Performance of at least 50% better than national average is relevant since the 2030 Challenge Target for climate stabilization was 50% prior to 2010. In 2010, the target for the next five years increased to 60%. In 2010, 16 of the submitted projects already met this higher threshold. These statistics were calculated by the Carbon Analysis Committee for the AIA Portland Design Awards Competition—a committee that I chair.

AIA Portland Design Awards Applicants greenhouse gas emissions

AIA Portland Design Awards Greenhouse Gas Data. Click to view full size.


This positive trend is encouraging, since it demonstrates that even in a relatively short 3-year period, the projects submitted for the AIA Portland Design Awards are showing marked improvement in reducing carbon emissions. However, it also brings up two large concerns:  There is a lag even among projects submitted for the awards in achieving the 2030 Challenge Targets for climate stabilization.  Also, many projects are still being designed and built only to the minimum code requirements. Portland’s data shows that roughly one-third of all projects submitted performance data indicating that they were at or below a 25% improvement over the national average.  Basically, the buildings were built to minimum code requirements. On the other hand, three projects were submitted this year that were carbon-neutral, proving that high performance is possible with today’s technologies and still cost-effective enough to be built during a recession.

Another indication of progress appeared in the release of the first year Progress Report for the Climate Action Plan for the City of Portland and its local Multnomah County. This is a three-year plan to put Portland on a path to achieve a 40% reduction in carbon emissions citywide by 2030 and achieve an 80% reduction by 2050. The report finds that local emissions have already dropped 15% since the year 2000.  Since 1990, a baseline year referenced in the Kyoto Protocol, local emissions have dropped 2% overall—for comparison, during the same time period, emissions nationwide rose 9%.This demonstrates that real carbon emission reductions can be achieved, even with population growth.

These two insights provide valuable information about progress in carbon reductions in buildings and communities. Although there has been a media onslaught about high performance green buildings that claim substantial carbon reductions, one should be skeptical of the US building code baseline used to calculate those reductions. Current energy code nearly guarantees a 25% improvement beyond the national average building performance.  However, only a few buildings are truly striving for or achieving carbon neutrality. It is likely that, until high performance green building achievements are no longer news, we still have a long way to go.

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