Screen shot 2010-01-19 at 10.53.06 PMThe term “green building” may bring to mind flimsy construction, uncomfortable temperatures, poor lighting — and perhaps the faint smell of peat moss. But nothing could be further from the truth. With focus on natural lighting and ventilation, clean materials, intelligent and automated energy management and a more organic feel, green buildings have been shown to actually improve worker productivity, cut down on sick days, reduce health care costs, and boost workplace morale.

Taking all of this into account, moving into a greener building could be a natural way to improve your company’s bottom line, make your employees happier and grow the economy — all while doing your part for the environment. But you don’t need to uproot and relocate to get your business on the road to green.

One of the easiest, more immediate things you can do is retrofit buildings for energy efficiency. Intelligent lighting controls (check out Adura Technologies), programmable thermostats (like EcoFactor) and automated energy management systems (Tendril, EnergyHub and AlertMe) can all make a huge difference — and will become much more ubiquitous among the small business community (and our homes) in the next several years.

Here are four reasons why the energy efficiency market is poised to explode:

It’s clean. If a watt saved is a watt not produced, then efficiency is the cleanest, most renewable source of energy imaginable.

It’s big. Implementation of simple energy monitoring systems in homes and businesses could reduce national energy consumption by 5 percent. More proactive measures could boost that figure to 10 or even 30 percent.

It’s capital efficient. Energy management systems are usually based on information technology (just look at Google PowerMeter, Microsoft Hohm and GridPoint). Companies can bring these devices and software offerings to market with relatively little investment. This contrasts sharply with the more capital intensive business models you see in the solar, wind, energy storage and green materials industries.

It’s knowledge efficient. We already know how to do it. Most energy management solutions can be achieved with readily-available, off-the-shelf technologies — sensors and controls, data management software, simple user interfaces, etc. To be sure, the ultimate winners will have some sort of “secret sauce” — powerful analytics or a swankier user interface, for example — but no major breakthroughs are needed.

Despite all of these advantages, energy efficiency markets have yet to take off. There’s a great deal of buzz and activity, but consumer adoption is still slow going. And many companies, especially newer entrants, are having a tough time. Here’s a quick look at what needs to happen to unleash the potential of energy management businesses:

Adopt industry standards to encourage incremental adoption, lower costs and spur innovation. If industries can agree on basic architectures — like how different components of the electrical grid talk with each other — the size of the available market will increase dramatically. Barriers to adoption will come down, and interoperability will grow markets for individual components (with no vendor lock-in), reducing costs over time. And of course standards will open up the ecosystem to more companies, large and small, driving more innovation.

Create compelling, packaged, and gradually-adoptable solutions. Energy management is a solution not a product. It involves the interaction of hardware, software, various services — and in ways that vary from building to building and home to home. There is usually no spec sheet, no canned installation manual, no easy-to-scale sales training package included. Every sale and every delivery requires many skilled individuals coordinating their actions for a substantial period of time.

To scale energy management and efficiency practices, packaged and replicable solutions need to be devised. Common customer pain points need to be addressed. And consumers need to be able to see quickly and clearly what they are getting before they are asked to invest more time or money. The challenge here is to create packages that are generic and flexible enough to fit the needs of a large number of consumers, yet specific and tailored enough to deliver high-quality, measurable results.

Be more creative with business models and channels. We need to move away from the idea that energy management is an extension of utility-led smart meter deployments. Telecommunication, security and consumer electronics companies are all getting involved in the energy efficiency and monitoring space as well. It’s not a utility-dominated arena anymore. And it doesn’t have to follow the traditional energy service company model. Vendor financing programs, pay-for-performance agreements and ongoing service options are being combined with new technologies to make it easier for consumers to choose the right energy efficiency programs for them over months and even years.

If the three conditions listed above are met, the resulting scale, diversity and interoperability will galvanize competition and draw in global resources, setting up a cycle of continuing higher performance and lower costs.

It’s become a cliche to say that there is no silver bullet for the world’s energy problems — that everything is equally important and urgent. But phasing and prioritization are important. We absolutely need to invest in clean energy generation, storage and other technically vexing areas. But it is possible for us to make huge reductions in our energy use and environmental footprints in the near term — and at little risk — by emphasizing management and efficiency in our homes and businesses, starting today.