If you were to tell an MBA student that their summer internship would be spent changing light bulbs, they would no doubt be horrified. However, assessing the potential for energy efficiency gains in lighting systems is among the challenges facing students on this year’s EDF Climate Corps internship – and the organisation running the programme has had students queuing up for places on it.

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a New York-based non-profit organisation, launched the Climate Corps internship programme in 2008 after working with Walmart on an energy efficiency project that delivered substantial financial gains for the retailer from energy savings.

“We wondered why companies weren’t all over this,” says Victoria Mills, EDF Climate Corps programme director. “We figured it must be because of some organisational barriers that prevented them acting on this opportunity.”

Seeing this as a business problem rather than an environmental one, EDF had the idea of placing MBAs within corporations and giving them a specific mission to cut the companies’ energy costs. Since the first internship programme – with seven MBAs in seven companies – the scheme has expanded rapidly. This year 51 students will be going into 47 companies.

EDF works with Net Impact – a corporate responsibility network of MBA students and young professionals – to identify prospective interns. It then matches them with an appropriate company.

Before embarking on their internships, students undergo a training workshop run by EDF. “They cover a lot of energy basics and financial modelling of energy-related topics,” says Koji Kitazume, a joint degree MBA student at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business who is spending the summer working in McDonalds’ Chicago offices.

The preliminary training also covers organisational management issues and some of the barriers that students may encounter during their internship. “Often, [managing energy
efficiency] is no one person’s job, responsibility is spread across departments and there can be split incentives,” says Ms Mills. “So the MBAs work across the organisation and get people talking to each other.”

After the internships, EDF maintains links with the company to see if the interns’ recommendations are being followed. So far, it has tracked implementation rates of more than 80 per cent.

Students find that the internships hone their technical, organisational and communications skills and also expose them to new industries.

For Jamie Mikkelsen, an MBA student at University of Michigan’s Erb Institute who is spending the summer with the retailer Target in Minneapolis, the internship will help her move from economic consulting into a career that marries her interests in business and the environment. Ms Mikkelsen points out that the Climate Corps students can have a longer lasting impact on a company than they might during an internship at an investment bank or consultancy.

“One of the most important things for us is that the recommendations have a series of steps and suggest procedures for the company to use to continue with the work,” she says. “So the fellows know their work will last beyond the internship.”

Collectively, the interns have had a big impact. The 2008 and 2009 fellows identified almost $90m in energy savings, cutting the equivalent of 280m kilowatt hours of energy use annually – enough to power 24,000 homes – and avoiding a total of 157,000 metric tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.

Sarah Shapiro, a University of Michigan MBA/MS student, interned at Cisco Systems and, after analysing temperatures in the data labs, found that reducing the intensity of cooling of the centres by a fraction could save the company $1.8m a year without harming the IT equipment.

“That’s the nature of energy efficiency,” says Ms Mills. “The losses are small and diffuse so they often dribble out of companies’ pockets like change – but that means you could be losing millions.”

Stemming these losses is what excites the students. “McDonald’s has tens of thousands of restaurants worldwide,” says Mr Kitazume. “So if I could identify a small savings potential that could be applied across all restaurants, the impact could be significant – that scale is fascinating.”

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