Can a Reality TV Show Help Cut America's Power Bill?

U.S. Department Of Energy Hopes to Find Out

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Tristam Coffin may look like someone you'd imagine being a Whole Foods "sustainable facilities" coordinator: sporting jeans and a casual button-down shirt, his springy blond locks brush over his collar. Not too long ago, Mr. Coffin was standing in a kitchen at the back of a Whole Foods store in San Francisco when he saw something he considered extraordinary -- three men in suits.

Before long, the three men, holding pens and notepads, climbed to the store's roof, looking at ducts, pipes, and the assorted mechanicals that make up the cardiopulmonary system of a modern grocer. The trio weren't Mr. Coffin's co-workers -- they were his buttoned-up equivalents from hotel giant Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. They are part of a unique exchange program organized by the U.S. Department of Energy that packages the most boring possible topic -- corporate energy efficiency -- into a reality TV show for the web.

This energy exchange swap is the latest initiative of the DOE's Better Buildings Challenge, an Obama administration push to encourage commercial, public, industrial, and residential buildings to be 20% more energy-efficient within a decade.Whole Foods and Hilton are already members of the challenge, and volunteered to participate in the promotion. Think of it as a kind of "Freaky Friday" experiment where companies exchange energy teams to diagnose facilities with fresh eyes. The DOE worked with a marketing and public-relations company to frame the exercise in a cable-TV-ready format (complete with a tame outtakes reel).

Viewers get to watch a Hilton team feeling claustrophobic inside a tiny Whole Foods kitchen. You see Mr. Coffin and two Whole Foods colleagues overwhelmed by the size of the Hilton San Francisco, the biggest hotel on the West Coast. "You could fit about five of our stores in there," Mr. Coffin says, walking into the ballroom.

What the men from Hilton found at Whole Foods' Ocean Avenue outpost was a store with modern touches that was nonetheless losing money through its roof. Intake pipes were sucking in cool San Francisco air as vents exhaled warm air from the store. They concluded that making use of the warm air by repiping the heat into the store would quickly pay for itself, and the store's energy bills would drop. Meanwhile, the trio from Whole Foods developed an appreciation for the complexities of hospitality: every guest wants a nice hot shower, so a hotel has to deliver hot water to every floor at any moment. It's got to be just right on the 30th floor without being too hot on the 12th floor, because hotels make money by making guests happy, not by saving energy.

Or, as Whole Foods' global energy coordinator Aaron Daly put it in an interview, "Energy is cheaper than losing a customer."

Not exactly "Keeping Up With The Kardashians"-level hijinks, but then again, the DOE's main job is overseeing nuclear materials and national laboratories, not grabby entertainment. But what the episodes lack in narrative propulsion they make up in symbolism. The problems experienced by the six men, all of them "Property Brothers" for the corporate set, represent challenges Americans are just beginning to face. Hilton, Whole Foods, the 250 other companies and organizations that belong to the Better Buildings Challenge, as well as everyone who heats and cools a home, office, factory, or store -- they're all trying to find the right balance between cost and comfort.

The good news is that U.S. energy intensity, or the amount of juice we get for a buck, has been improving for a generation:

A decline in high-energy manufacturing is part of the reason. But also critical are private-sector efforts, like those by Hilton and Whole Foods, to not set money on fire where it can be avoided. Government rules -- federal, state, or otherwise -- can improve standards, too. And potentially more transformative are recently proposed light-bulb efficiency standards and new regulations that may cut by a third energy used by electronic- device chargers.

While such common-sense changes to everyday consumer items seem like no-brainers, retailers face a conundrum when it comes to saving energy. There's the grocery industry legend about shoppers who bring sweaters for the chilly pass through the valley of milk and eggs. Stores want to refrigerate food, not people, but putting doors between shoppers and products might sacrifice impulse-buying. Hotel managers also know first impressions count, and the first impression people have of hotel rooms is whether the temperature is right. The trick is to engineer that judgment without keeping the air on all the time.

These are the problems every industry is trying to solve. Under the DOE program, managers are sharing their best practices -- the initiative compiles them in a "solutions center:" Kohl's Corp.'s department stores found savings by embedding people from the chief financial officer's team into the energy management group. At 3M Co., they set up an internal finance structure aimed at helping units bankroll improved efficiency measures.

Using energy more strategically can be as simple as Alcoa Inc.'s decision in 2010 to make efficiency part of top managers' compensation, a move known in industry as BFO, or "blinding flash of the obvious," says Maria Vargas, host of the new Web show and head of the DOE's Better Buildings program.

Less obvious is which brands may take up the challenge for the show's next season. "Stay tuned," Vargas says. "I am looking forward to finding out."

~~ Bloomberg News

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