Not at all a carbon-copy service

April 23, 2011
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Local architectural and engineering firm Progressive AE had already made its mark as a leader in the sustainability realm when, a little more than a year ago, it started a carbon-neutral consulting service. The service measures the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by a business and provides concrete ideas on how a firm can reduce emissions and cut operating costs.

Jeff Remtema is the firm’s director of sustainability and a LEED-certified architect. He told the Business Journal that the service is off to a good start despite a tough economy.

“Our clients are definitely looking for ways to save money and for ways to improve their environmental performance,” he said.

So maybe starting the service during a time when economic conditions weren’t great was a smart thing to do? “Yeah, it really was,” he said.

The idea for the carbon-neutral consulting service surfaced years before it was rolled out. Remtema said the concept grew from internal audits Progressive conducted on its Four Mile Road headquarters.

“We started with LEED for existing buildings. We got our own facility certified and, springing out of that then, we realized that we had gathered all of the sort of necessary metrics and data to really understand what all these different impacts were,” he said. “But we didn’t have a good way to compare one to another”

Remtema said the firm learned how much waste it was generating and how much electricity and gas it was using, but at first they weren’t sure what to do with that data — until they found they could turn the seemingly non-related findings into a single carbon measurement. Once they did that, they could make apple-to-apple comparisons from different energy uses.

“So we were able to understand what all these different environmental impacts were, based on a single metric,” he said.

Being an environmentally serious architectural and engineering firm meant Progressive was qualified to offer its homegrown service to clients.

“When we started going on our own carbon-management plan, we really sought to understand how does our carbon-management plan align with our organizational business strategy,” he said. “And that’s sort of the theme that we carry on when we’re working with our clients, as well.” 

Remtema said the service consists of a baseline inventory of such items as how much natural gas and electricity a client uses, how much travel a client regularly does, what type of gasoline or diesel fuel a client pumps, and what a client’s waste stream looks like.

“We delve into several different aspects and we start with all companies there to create what we call a carbon pie chart. So then we can say, ‘There’s a really big slice. What is that?’” he explained.

Progressive also needs to know what the client’s larger business strategy is, so it can determine which carbon-producing areas most directly align with that strategy. Since those areas can differ, depending on what type of business a client is in, it means the carbon-neutral service isn’t a carbon-copy practice: Each client gets a specialized management plan that Remtema said is tuned to its business strategy.

“For an AE firm, like ourselves, our business strategy is around buildings, so we’re going to look very closely at how our facility operates. If you are, say, a trucking company, your impacts are probably in your vehicle travel. So we’re going to really try to understand how we can reduce your carbon footprint as it relates to the type of fuel you’re using and the type of vehicle miles that you’re traveling,” said Remtema.

Remtema said he focuses on the architectural side, while David Bell and Eric Herman jump into other areas. Bell is a senior mechanical engineer and a certified quantifier who can address greenhouse gases. Herman directs business performance solutions for Progressive and looks at the operational improvements a client can make to cut emissions and costs.
Progressive measures the carbon a client emits by using a calculation known as “tons of carbon dioxide equivalent,” because every type of energy source can be converted into that measurement. The calculation includes carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride and perfluorocarbons.

“All of these can be measured in terms of CO2, so the final footprint is usually reported in tons of CO2e, or carbon dioxide equivalent,” said Remtema. “We can do that with waste, so it’s basically a series of conversion factors. We know that if you’re throwing away X amount of tons of garbage to the landfill, it’s producing X amount of CO2 equivalent.”

Remtema said for a service company, a Progressive audit would probably expect a measurement equal to 10 tons per employee. “But if you’re a trucking company, we’d have a very different level that we’d be looking for,” he said. He added that it can take a few weeks to put a company’s data into the calculation. “We usually look for about a year’s worth of data.”

Remtema said the response from clients to the carbon-neutral service has been very good so far. The firm has been working with the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and its carbon calculator. “The results have really been favorable. We’ve been able to get some really good data and dig in to how the clients are operating, and we’ve achieved some pretty good energy savings based on what we’ve found,” he said. “The big point about the service is, we’ve developed a carbon-management plan to align with an organization’s business strategy.”

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