Can you envision an Energy Corps?

By John Suzukida, PE, Lanex Consulting LLC, Shoreview, Minn. April 1, 2009

View the full story, including all images and figures, in our monthly digital edition


In the comic strip “Peanuts,” Lucy is forever fooling Charlie Brown by taking away the football just as his foot is about to kick it. This is what seems to happen with our reaction to energy. Even after numerous shortages, price spikes, and other energy crises, we are hesitant to make investments because paybacks calculated during high-price periods get extended when energy prices drop back down, and the paybacks don’t seem to materialize.

In Japan’s bullet train, the ticket aisles normally have open gates that energize closed if someone’s ticket is not valid. On the other hand, in the United States, the gates are typically closed and energized to open each time a valid ticket holder is present. In Germany, when a train arrives at a station, doors open only when you push a button, preventing every door from having to open at every stop.

These seem like small things, but they are symbolic of how energy frugality is more baked into the culture in many countries. David MacKay’s book, “Sustainable Energy—Without the Hot Air,” does an outstanding job of using engineering facts and good logic to dispel myths in energy. He equates the energy we use daily with where it comes from and could come from in the future.

One fact in particular stands out: The average American uses the equivalent of 250 kWh per day, compared to Europeans’ 125 kWh per day. Our historically cheap energy obviously is threaded into our lifestyles—we’re used to being able to throw more power at any challenge and have not had to finesse the details, like the bullet train ticket aisles or opening every train door at every stop.

What we implement is all that matters. To do that, energy needs energy. As we increase awareness and learn about how to use energy more efficiently, it’s clear that a lot of work has to be done on an unprecedented scale. That will take a lot of “people energy.” Technologies and building practices often focus on new construction, yet most of the homes and buildings that will be here in the future already exist.

So, what to do? Observing organizations like the Peace Corps , Habitat for Humanity , and AmeriCorps , the concept of tapping into a core of people—many of them young—to tackle practical implementation may be our future. Imagine an “Energy Corps” that swoops into communities with caulk guns, insulation, and thermostats in hand.

Many great building scientists, manufacturers, and practitioners are working hard to develop our future and optimize technology. But implementing those concepts is the next tough part. How many old homes have no insulation in the outside stud wall? Or still have drafty doors, gaping holes, and single-pane windows? Unfortunately, the number is high due to cost and lack of time or expertise. Borrowing from the model of performance contracting, there may be ways to fund these changes out of realized savings as well.

The point is not to displace the trades, but to enhance them by implementing training programs, certification, and ways to use energetic and handy people, potentially falling under an umbrella of the Energy Corps. The federal government is making unprecedented investments to boost the economy while making our society greener. Recently, the Dept. of Energy announced that it will invest nearly $8 billion in state and local weatherization and energy-efficiency efforts as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 . Investing resources in programs that implement energy-saving technologies will make lasting changes to the quantity of energy used in our homes and be a boost to jobs, building material manufacturers, and suppliers. What a win-win-win!

Retraining workers with the long-term goal of energy-efficiency jobs is critical. Giving it a boost by using many of the practices and structures that have worked so well for similar initiatives such as AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps helps avoid re-inventing the wheel—and we can start quickly.

Author Information

Suzukida is the principal of Lanex Consulting LLC, a business consulting firm in Shoreview, Minn. He was formerly senior vice president of marketing for Trane’s global commercial business. He is a member of Consulting-Specifying Engineer ‘s editorial advisory board.