Prioritizing Sustainability Projects

One of the biggest mistakes I see time and time again is major capital expenditure on projects that are prioritized based on obviousness to the eye rather than hard data. This generally happens when proper systems are not in place to collect and analyze data. At one point in my career, I was given a budget and told here is the project we want to execute. It was a good project, but I stepped back and asked myself, “Is this project the best use of our budget at the moment?” After putting the proper data collection and analysis systems in place, the answer was no. I was able to identify five projects that were not obvious to the eye but were obvious to the data, that came with much lower costs and much greater resource and cost savings, so I moved that project down the list of priorities with hard data to back my decision. So how should sustainability projects be prioritized? Read on to find out more.

1a. Routine Maintenance

This has already been talked about ad nauseam, but routine maintenance is critical to efficient and properly operating systems. Yes it comes with a recurring annual cost, but that would be recuperated with the efficiency of the operating systems, extension of equipment life, minimization of problems that require outside contractors, and production gains from employee and client comfort. While it is not the first thing that comes to people’s mind when they think of sustainability, it should be. Though in the era of non-repairable throwaway electronics, it is understandable why it is not heading the list, because it is not as profitable to major corporations who want to sell their inventory. Consider this: a small leak that takes 2 minutes for a maintenance technician to fix can cost a businesses hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Before considering any sustainability projects, households and businesses should ensure the proper routine maintenance of all systems is being carried out periodically.

1b. Conservation Projects

Conservation projects are also as important as routine maintenance which is why I made them 1b. The purpose of conservation projects are to identify where resources are being wasted and to minimize waste. They are generally low cost with high returns. This could be as simple as identifying where lights are being left on and implementing an educational program to change behaviors and/or installing occupancy sensors or timers. In developed countries, with seemingly unlimited access to low cost energy, clean water, and land to dispose of garbage, access to these resources are often taken for granted, which leads to waste. Though the reality is these resources are not unlimited and do come with a cost. Though obvious waste can be identified with the eye, it is the waste that is not obvious to the eye that is generally responsible for most waste and costs associated with that waste, which is why proper data collection and analysis systems are required to identify and disclose it, which is why Aletheia Analytica was created.

2. Efficiency Projects

Efficiency projects require an upfront capital investment as it indicates an existing system is being replaced with a new system. This can be a small cost like replacing a light bulb or a major cost like replacing a commercial air handling unit. As technology advances, costs come down, and what was once not cost-effective, becomes cost-effective. For example, in the 1990s, electronic ballasts and T8 fluorescent lighting was the newer tech that began replacing magnetic ballasts and T12 fluorescent lighting for the next few decades. Today, LED lighting is now replacing T8 lighting in a similar manner. Determining resource savings from efficiency projects involves engineering calculations which can vary from very simple to very advanced. Accurate estimation of resource savings is a necessary step in project planning due to the upfront capital costs associated with efficiency projects. A poor estimation could lead to underperformance, and utilize capital that could have been allocated to a higher performance efficiency project.

3. Renewable Projects

Once you have maximized the efficiency of your existing systems and minimized inefficiency, renewables are the final step. Solar hot water heaters have been used widely for decades in hot regions without access to cheap gas, due to their ability to provide hot water year-round with minimal costs. Geothermal and ground-to-air heat exchangers can provide decent returns in more temperate climates that do not have extreme weather patterns, or with proper backup heating and cooling in extreme climates. Solar photovoltaic, while it’s the first thing that comes to everyone’s mind when they think renewable energy, are generally the least economical option. The reason for this is the cost of solar photovoltaic panels are still high versus the energy they produce, and many variables can impact the efficiency of a photovoltaic panel like shade and dust, so they require more maintenance. With that said, photovoltaic panels are a good option for backup power in areas that experience power outages, or remote areas that do not have access to an electric grid.