Rocky Mountain Institute Sets Bold Goals for Energy Efficiency

Entrepreneurial nonprofit believes going green can improve the bottom line

21 November 2014

Many groups, including IEEE, are working on ways to reduce dependence on fossil fuels by shifting to renewables and more energy-efficient methods to produce electricity. Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Institute, an independent nonprofit with facilities in Boulder and Snowmass, has a different approach than most. RMI shows organizations how they can improve their bottom line by using natural resources more efficiently for electricity, transportation, manufacturing, and buildings design.

RMI believes that by implementing its applied research aimed at solving what it calls complex energy challenges, several exceptional goals can be met. It says that by 2050, transportation would not use any oil; renewables would meet 80 percent of electricity demand; a billion square feet of commercial space could be made more efficient; and total energy consumption, rather than growing, could be reduced by 9 percent from 2010 levels. And these targets can be accomplished with current technology and existing government policies. All it takes is to rethink design—of just about everything. RMI calls its vision “Reinventing Fire.”

Eric Wanless, manager and senior consultant with RMI, was the keynote speaker at the IEEE Conference on Technology for Sustainability, held in July in Portland, Ore. IEEE Region 6, the IEEE Oregon Section, and IEEE-USA sponsored the event. Wanless covered some of RMI’s projects in his presentation, “Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era.”  

 “What sets RMI apart is that we combine traditional deep thinking and research with applying the concepts we develop,” Wanless says. “At our core, we are practitioners, so we work with government agencies, private companies, communities, and academic institutions to prove the concepts and theories we come up with in our thinking.”

RMI has turned its theories into reality on several projects, including retrofitting existing commercial buildings to be more energy efficient, making heavy trucks more fuel efficient, and—one of Wanless’s pet projects—eliminating the waste of energy in consumer products.


Making existing commercial buildings more energy efficient is one of the greatest opportunities facing the real estate industry, according to RMI. Buildings in the United States will be wasting energy worth more than a trillion dollars over the next 40 years—US $1.4 trillion net savings, to be more exact. This amount can be saved by retrofitting buildings using RMI’s whole-systems-design approach. This would optimize not just a few parts of a facility but all of its systems. This is what happened with the world’s most famous office building: the Empire State Building, in New York City.

RMI, Johnson Controls, and the building’s property manager, Jones Lang Lasalle, developed an energy-efficiency program for the landmark building and launched a comprehensive retrofit in 2009. Its more than 6,500 windows were insulated with a coated film, the heating and air conditioning units were changed for more efficient ones, LED lighting was installed, and extra insulation was fitted behind radiators to save heat. It also upgraded its 68 elevators to be 30 percent more efficient while sending excess energy back to the building’s grid. Other energy-improving upgrades were made to the building’s ventilation, and it switched between steam and electricity to supply chilled water throughout the air conditioning system. In 2011, the building beat its year-one energy-efficiency guarantee by 5 percent, saving $2.4 million. The building’s owners and building management entered into a performance contract that guarantees the projected energy savings over the life of the project. In the second year, the iconic property surpassed its energy-efficiency guarantee goal by nearly 4 percent. This year, the iconic property beat that guarantee by 15.9 percent, saving an additional $2.8 million.

If every commercial building in New York City followed this blueprint, according to RMI, carbon emissions would be reduced by 4 million tons annually—equivalent to that generated by a typical coal-fired power plant.

“The success we had came from our concept called Tunneling Through the Cost Barrier in which we take a step back and look at as big a picture as we can and, by doing so, find opportunities to save energy,” explains Wanless. “In doing all the energy-efficiency improvements together rather than in isolation, it eliminated the need to invest in a very large chiller upgrade; instead they renovated some of their smaller chillers, saving $17 million in capital costs, which paid for most of the efficiency improvements. Often, improving energy efficiency leads to other savings.”


Fleets of delivery trucks represent only about 7 percent of the U.S. vehicle stock but account for more than 35 percent of the country’s transportation-related fuel consumption. In 2005 the retail giant Wal-Mart focused on improving the efficiency of its long-haul trucks, which average just over six miles per gallon. Its goal is to more than double the fuel efficiency, to 13 mpg, by 2015. After Wal-Mart fleet managers worked with its vendors to identify possible efficiency technologies, the company turned in 2006 to RMI to help it decide which ones to adopt. 

RMI’s advice to Wal-Mart was to improve the aerodynamics of each tractor and trailer, and to use low-rolling-resistance tires. The company also installed diesel-powered auxiliary power units (APUs) in each truck to cut down on engine idling. These units consist of a small generator that can supply heating, cooling, and other accessory loads to the driver without turning on the truck’s engine.

In May 2006, Wal-Mart installed APUs on all trucks that made overnight trips. In one year, this single change eliminated about 100,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions, reduced diesel fuel consumption by 10 million gallons, and saved the company an estimated $25 million.

RMI also helped the retailer choose devices such as aerodynamic skirting and so-called freight wings that would reduce the aerodynamic drag of its trucks.


One of Wanless’s so-called seedling projects involves making consumer electronics more efficient by eliminating their waste of energy. For example, he demonstrated that energy consumption by computers can be cost-effectively reduced by about 30 percent. Computers, clothes dryers, and television sets could benefit the most from an energy-savings approach to their design.

According to Wanless, the rationale behind optimizing devices and appliances to be more energy efficient is simple: U.S. consumers spend more than $100 billion a year on the energy to power them.

“Would you rather your customers spend those billions wasting electricity, or would you rather them have more money in their pockets to buy better, higher-value products?” he asks.

Making more energy-efficient products provides, he says, direct value for customers and for companies that want to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Even better, doing so hardly costs anything, Wanless says. Many design engineers don’t consider reducing energy consumption because they haven’t been asked to design for efficiency, he points out.

“It’s a great opportunity to do good for the planet and the bottom line,” he says. “You are supporting consumers and helping them save money.

“I challenge IEEE members to think broadly about how they approach problems as they relate to transforming our energy system,” Wanless adds. “Think bigger than you typically do and challenge yourself to explore nontraditional solutions, take risks, and do things differently.”

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