Fourteen contestants of all shapes and sizes are vying to win U.S. EPA's version of the televised weight-loss competition "The Biggest Loser." Each will go on a diet with online tips from the show's fitness trainer, Bob Harper. A final weigh-in will decide the contest in October.

That's where the similarities end.

The contestants are not overweight people, but buildings, including a New York City high-rise office building, a Colorado elementary school and a Minnesota mall. Their diet involves cutting kilowatt-hours from energy bills -- not pounds. And, this being a government contest, the prize for the building that trims the largest percentage of their energy waste is prestige -- not $250,000.

But EPA says that all 14 finalists, among some 200 Energy Star program participants that applied to its first National Building Competition, will win by making further strides in energy efficiency. Commercial buildings consume more than $100 billion of energy a year, almost a third of which gets wasted, on average, according to EPA. They also account for 17 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

The new contest comes as EPA and the Energy Department seek to revamp standards and enforcement in their larger Energy Star program, most famous for its appliance stickers. Recent investigations revealed that some appliances weren't living up to expectations.

Energy Star-certified buildings typically use about a third less energy than their peers, and an independent engineer must verify their data, EPA says. Contestants in the new competition will monitor their energy use with EPA's online tracking tool.

Many of the contestants are facing some of the common barriers to shedding energy pounds. One of the smaller entrants, Crystal River Elementary School in Carbondale, Colo., occupies a new building that didn't work as advertised.

A field ripe for energy (and emissions) reductions
"I think we were picked because we have the most to gain," said third-grade teacher Lisa Dameron. "For a new energy-efficient building, we weren't living up to our potential," she said.

The school's energy problems began when it underwent a major expansion three years ago. The design plans valued efficiency, but the ventilation system wasn't installed properly, she said. Today, people in half the building are too hot, while those in the other half want to turn up the heat.

The district is tightening its budget and seeking ways to avoid layoffs, while the school's energy bills are the highest in the district, Dameron said.

Now it has a grant to monitor its use and look for low-cost ways to reduce demand. It is also mobilizing its army of schoolchildren to be vigilant about avoiding energy waste, aiming to save $50,000 to $70,000 from its annual energy bill, said Dameron.

Other contestants have to educate busier adults and gauge the benefits of larger capital investments.

In Minnesota's Maplewood Mall, outside of St. Paul, 100 people gathered today for a press conference to kick off the contest and encourage the mall's 130 tenants to save energy, according to Les Morris, spokesman for the Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group, the nation's largest real estate company. He said that whether a tenant pays its portion of the mall's utility bill would depend on individual store contracts.

A lot of the company's strategy at the 945,000-square-foot mall has also depended on upfront capital investments and automated energy-saving strategies, such as installing new chiller units, switching out light bulbs, and timing vending machines to turn off at night. Its 2009 energy usage was a fifth lower than its usage in 2005.

This year, pending capital approval, Simon plans to install an energy-saving device on the mall's water pumps that allows more carefully gauged power use, much like a light-bulb dimmer switch.

"You do have to make that initial expenditure, but we find that it is worth it," Morris said.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500