WisBusiness: Panelists at sustainable biz conference tout money savings from green practices

By Brian E. Clark

For WisBusiness.com

Green buildings can do a lot for employee morale, even help with marketing efforts and – more important for the bottom line – lead to substantial savings, a trio of panelists said at the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council Conference.

While the first two reasons are harder to quantify, monitoring a structure’s upgraded mechanical systems can produce payoffs within seven years, often sooner, they said.

The conference, in its fourth year and sponsored by the UW-Madison Business School, drew more than 300 participants on Thursday. Tom Eggert, director of the council, said the number of attendees was the largest ever and the event attracted scores of executives from Wisconsin companies of all sizes.

“They are here because they understand that this is not only the right thing to do, but something that can save them a lot of money,” he said. “In many cases, it’s now businesses – rather than government – that are leading the way in terms of water and energy conservation and even dealing with climate change.

“Everyone who is here gets that,” he added. “They understand that it can be in their best interest, and society’s, to take that role.”

Bruce Richards, sustainability coordinator for the Verona-based Epic medical software company, said it’s the goal of his rapidly expanding enterprise to eventually get to net zero power usage in its buildings by using green construction techniques and geothermal and solar power.

The company’s 900-acre campus has 3.5 million square feet of structures, most used in offices. He said 99 percent of the buildings are heated and cooled with geothermal energy and Epic is now in the process of adding eight new buildings.

Richards said sustainability is part of the company’s character and something it is constantly trying to improve, though it doesn’t seek publicity for its efforts. He said the first buildings that went up on the campus used 40 percent less energy than the industry norm and the second round of structures cut that figure by another 20 percent.

In an effort to cut waste even further, he said his company closely monitors its electricity use. He said officials expected the payback on the monitoring equipment to be five years, but now anticipates it will be three.

That’s been done by adapting lighting to employee schedules. Next on the list, he said, will be making changes in the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems — all based on data collected about building use.

Richards said by monitoring employee transportation habits, new buildings have required fewer parking spaces.

“We have younger workers who ride bicycles and take buses,” added Richards, who noted that many energy-saving ideas come from workers. “So instead of having one parking stall per employee, we’ve found we only need 70 percent of the spaces.”

Paul Oswald, CEO of Environmental Systems Inc., said his company built the Gateway West Sustainable 1 office structure in Brookfield two years ago — in part — to show clients how they could reduce energy consumption.

While the company wanted to “lead by example,” he said executives said the techniques and equipment had to be practical and have a payback over eight years.

Within the first year, the high performance roof and integrated building system, combined with monitoring and submonitoring, helped save the firm $32,000.

“And in the first 11 months of 2011, we have saved another $10,600 from our baseline,” he said.

“There is nothing terribly special about this building,” he said. “We don’t have solar or geothermal. But we are not lighting 25,000-square-feet of floor space when we don’t need to.”

The key to continued savings over the next 30 to 50 years, he said, will be strict monitoring and upkeep of the building to make it perform at its optimum.

Even though ESI has been in the efficient building business for 30 years, Oswald said his company made a mistake by putting in an electric humidifier that turned out to be an energy hog.

That was discovered by monitoring power use, he said, and it was quickly replaced with a natural-gas model.

Oswald said vast amounts amount of energy are wasted in current structures by poor maintenance and “run to failure” attitudes by owners who often pay “fast-food wages” to the people in charge of keeping their buildings running.

Russ Klisch, president of Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery, acknowledged that his monitoring system is little more than checking the monthly water and energy bills.

But he said those statements show that he is cutting waste by upgrading machinery since he started in 1987 with more efficient equipment to replace inexpensive “Frankenstein” gear that had lived, died and been born again.

Moreover, he’s done things like adapting his refrigeration system so that waste heat is now used to warm water coming into the brewery. In addition, he painted the roof white to lower building temperatures, switched to kegs that took less water for washing, moved tanks so fewer pumps were needed to move liquids, purchased LED lights and bought more efficient motors.

He said he has also worked to build a culture of environmental awareness at the brewery. The company has 23 employees, he noted, and at least four of them ride their bikes to work.

All three men said employees support sustainability efforts and know they are participating in energy efficiency efforts. At Epic and Environmental Systems Inc. sophisticated equipment gives readouts on energy use and savings.

At Epic, Richards said, employees in different buildings compete to see which structure can reduce consumption the most.

And at Lakefront, Klisch said workers are proud to have helped lower the amount of energy used to make a barrel of beer.

“We view this as a moral responsibility,” said Klisch, whose company gives environmental tours of its plant every Friday.

“And this helps us sell more beer, too,” he added with a smile.