Setting the Goal Posts for Energy Use: How Energy Efficiency Targets Trigger Action

Cities, such as Dubai, have improved energy efficiency by setting both public and private sector goals. (Photo: lam_chihang/Flickr)

The trouble with not having a goal is that you can spend your life running up and down the field and never score — Bill Copeland.

Goals help provide our everyday lives with structure, and operate similarly at the institutional level, offering organizations a low cost method of encouraging motivation, communication and accountability. In short, goals help organizations to achieve a variety of ends—including the reduction of energy waste.

Energy efficiency improvement goals, also known as energy efficiency targets, are intended reductions in energy over a specified time frame that have been defined in a SMART manner. Targets are useful because they can encourage decision makers to improve the use of energy in their communities and operations. Moreover, energy efficiency targets can have short or long term timeframes and can be implemented on various scales, ranging from the national level down to individual buildings. Cities should explore both mandatory public sector targets and voluntary private sector targets to forge energy-efficient communities.

Public Sector Targets: Leadership through Example

Setting targets to improve the energy efficiency of a city government’s assets—such as office buildings, public lighting, schools and hospitals—sends a clear message that energy efficiency is something the city values. Further, governments with large assets under their control are capable of significantly influencing local markets, and can provide local businesses with opportunities and increased capacity. Cities can also lead by example by defining an energy reduction goal and achieving it, demonstrating their usefulness. Government led efficiency projects produce useful case studies in retrofitting assets, which provide models for the private sector.

For example, Dubai publicly announced its goal of reducing energy consumption by 30 percent by the year 2030; the plan targets properties owned by both the government and private sector and sets annual targets from 2015 onward. To accomplish this, Dubai is setting up a ‘Super ESCO’ to create and oversee a local energy performance contracting market.

Inspiring the Private Sector through Voluntary Targets

To stimulate energy efficiency in the private sector, governments can introduce voluntary targets, incentivizing them to take action. For example, a city could ask real estate owners to sign up for a challenge with the aim of meeting an efficiency target; the winner of the competition is awarded the title of “biggest loser” (of energy consumption). Contests like this one build momentum and generate the additional support needed to strengthen and expand a city’s energy efficiency program. The key with these programs is the element of choice. Because businesses must make the active choice to participate, those who do take part receive community praise as leaders in both the industry and local sustainability, fueling more businesses to join.

Consider New York City’s “Carbon Challenge” program, which was introduced in 2007 and accumulated participants in the years following its launch. The Challenge recruited leading universities, hospitals and residential management firms to match the city government’s goal of reducing building-related emissions by 30 percent within ten years. Since its beginning, participants have aggressively cut their energy use and emissions, with some already achieving the goal. In fact, by 2014 carbon emissions city-wide for those participating had been cut by an average 19 percent. Two key factors in the Challenge’s success have been its creation of a platform that allows participants to exchange information, and the provision of simple tools to track individual progress along the way. The effort of each participant goes well beyond their individual reduction in emissions – their innovations and efficiency tactics reveal strategies for energy efficiency that can be scaled up across the city and beyond.

Setting Meaningful Targets

Before developing goals and working toward them, it’s important that decision makers consider what makes for a good target. To be effective, a target should quantify the desired energy reduction, specify a baseline or starting point, include a clear timeframe, and identify the main actors. All targets should be clearly stated so that progress towards the target can be easily tracked and communicated, and those responsible for achieving them can be held accountable. Furthermore, targets should be based on the best data regarding what is realistically achievable for local businesses and organizations, and be directly aligned with incentives to spur action.

Nobody enjoys watching a match where the teams run up and down the field without scoring. But this is essentially what many cities and businesses are still doing when it comes to energy efficiency. For cities that don’t want to leave energy efficiency to chance, it is key to have a clear goal and a bold vision with accountability and motivational milestones along the way. Setting an energy efficiency target is a powerful tool to rally stakeholders behind a common vision and accelerate energy efficiency in cities.


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Renilde Becqué is an independent sustainability and energy consultant. She is also the coordinating author of WRI’s forthcoming guidebook for cities on implementing building efficiency strategies in their communities.

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