Green Fridays, Smart Lighting and More: How National Geographic Cuts Its Energy Use

On a recent late night at the office, I got a warning from the cleaning woman: “You know the lights all shut off at 10 o’clock, right?” Fortunately, I had never stayed at National Geographic late enough to learn that fact. But I had noticed before that at 8:00 p.m., my computer sends a message saying it is going into sleep mode unless I click a button to keep it on.

Those automatic shut-offs are one of many small measures that have added up to big energy savings for the National Geographic Society. In fact, the Society’s facilities department announced earlier this year that NG achieved a record for energy conservation last year, hitting its lowest-ever level of energy use at 13,947,932 kilowatt hours. That’s 25 percent less energy than the Society used at its peak in 2000. Frank Candore, chief engineer for NGS, says each kilowatt hour saved amounts to 15.5 cents — at that rate, the Society has shaved nearly $700,000 off its annual energy bill.

The lights across National Geographic’s LEED-certified headquarters here in Washington, D.C. are shut off anywhere between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. on weekdays, depending on the location, and automatically come on at 7:15 a.m. The engineering staff also took one fluorescent bulb out of each fixture and replaced the remaining ones with higher-output bulbs, which cut the building’s lighting use almost in half, according to Candore.

Other ways NG cuts energy use:

– building temperature adjustments and improved heating/cooling systems

– smart printers that print only when you’re there to pick up the job, reducing paper waste

– Low-flow toilets and faucets in bathrooms

– Discounts and subsidies for Metro commuters and carpoolers

– Ample recycling and composting bins; compostable cups and containers in the cafeteria (and a discount on coffee if you bring your own mug)

– Green Fridays

What’s a Green Friday, you ask? For nine or ten days each year in warmer months, the Society shuts down most of its offices and cafeteria. If work needs to be done, employees do it remotely. According to Candore, every Green Friday saves 15,000 kilowatt hours, and this year, Green Fridays will add up to $21,000 in energy savings.

“We used to be 100 percent customer-oriented,” Candore said of his department. “If you called me and said, ‘I’m going to come in Saturday. Could you turn the air on for me?’ No problem.” Because of the way the building operated, that meant turning on the air conditioning for several floors on half of a whole building all day for one person—who may or may not have ended up coming to the office after all.

“About 10 years ago, we started saying, you know, we can’t keep running the equipment for one or two or three or four people. So we get people fans now if they want to come in on a Saturday or off hours,” he said.

Operators of large buildings like National Geographic have a significant role to play in increasing energy efficiency, and it’s clear to anyone who has passed a fully lit, empty office building at night that there is widespread room for improvement. Buildings account for about 40 percent of domestic energy use, and commercial buildings account for nearly half of that amount. As part of a larger effort to boost American energy efficiency, President Obama created the Better Buildings Initiative two years ago with the goal of making commercial buildings 20 percent more efficient by 2020.

Making such an improvement, however, isn’t as simple as just shutting off more lights. National Geographic’s progress is the product of several smaller changes that add up to large savings, and it’s countered somewhat by the cost associated with testing different approaches and new-to-market equipment.

“A lot of it’s all educating us, too,” Candore said. “We’re on the cutting edge of this, and not everything we do is a success.” He says, for example, that it took time to recognize energy savings from new, smaller boilers that were installed a couple of years ago. “We were thinking maybe we had a flop there,” he said. Changes to the way the boilers were being operated eventually resulted in improved performance.

The Society continues to look for improvements on energy use, and the engineering department is evaluating smart panels that would help fine-tune control over the building systems. As efforts to lower the Society’s carbon footprint continue internally, the new goal for 2015 is to achieve  a 10 percent reduction in electrical use, 10 percent reduction in water use, 25 percent reduction in landfill waste, and 5 percent reduction in greenhouse gases for NG’s vendors and suppliers.

Many of the Society’s efforts at sustainability are also powered by a “green team” of employees who volunteer their time to help put ideas into practice and to bolster energy awareness across divisions. Candore said that citing the environment, rather than savings, as the impetus for occasionally jarring changes tends to elicit support from coworkers. But, he said, “We’d rather not even call it the green initiative. We’d rather just call it best building business practices, because that’s what it is.”