Reader Profile: Robert Berninger

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Ask Robert Berninger, director of plant operations, energy, and engineering for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) in New York City, what factor underscores a successful operation, and he will tell you: staff engagement. Nine of his staff have trained for their Certifi ed Energy Manager (CEM), 60 have completed the Building Operator Certifi cate Level-I, 40 have completed BOC Level-II, and 20 have attended the Building Re-Tuning classes from CUNY Building Performance Lab.

Under Berninger’s direction, MSK adopted a comprehensive approach to the many energy processes inherent in a large medical institution, including
the assurance that capital projects implement energy-saving and efficiency measures. The staff works with construction design teams and upper
management to ensure all development meets efficiency and environmental standards and leads an effort in securing electric rate reductions.

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Over a decade, MSK has implemented an array of projects resulting in a total energy savings of $23 million, including a chiller oversight program to help optimize plant efficiency; installation of a Flash Tank, a Demand Controlled Ventilation system and wireless steam trap monitoring system; and the
creation of a Green Team.

“In dealing with the healthcare sector, it’s important to make sure that we operate as effi ciently as possible while staying within the guidelines of the jurisdictional authorities, ensuring we meet the required air changes, proper pressurizations, and providing comfort for our patients,” he says, adding that the goals are basically the same for the laboratories and research center. The Green Team extends the work of Berninger’s team by including MSK staff such as nurses, public relations, and purchasing in the task of focusing on sustainability.

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To choose optimally among the available energy efficiency options on the market from vendors and service providers, Berninger and his staff conduct pilot projects. “If the proof of concept comes to fruition, we expand it,” he says. “We do the investigating beforehand, verify it’s going to work, and call other
institutions that have done the work or something similar to see what their experiences were. We also engage our utility for rebates.” Having an engaged staff has ensured success, says Berninger. “If we can’t get the staff to understand it, engage with it, and keep it going, the greatest ideas will fall to the wayside.”

His efforts have gained attention within the energy efficiency industry. He was named the 2016 Energy Manager of the Year by the Association of Energy Engineers and honored as Corporate Energy Management of the year 2008 by the New York chapter of the Association of Energy Engineers.

What He Does Day to Day
Berninger is responsible for nearly 4 million square feet of MSK facility space in New York City. He oversees 11 managers and supervisors of a total staff of 90 who help him accomplish that task. He spends his days checking energy usage and needs, attending meetings, and doing paperwork, as well as evaluating proposals and examining new ways of saving energy or improving the institution.

What Led Him to this Line of Work
Berninger says he “stumbled upon” a career in energy management. He earned a Bachelor’s degree in marine engineering from State University of New York Maritime College and took a job working on oil tankers. “Then I came ashore and worked for Montefiore Medical Center maintaining their co-generation plant. From there, I moved on to Columbia University and ran the power plant, the boilers, and chiller plants,” he says, adding that at that point, he obtained the Certified Energy Manager certificate. Ten years ago, he took a job with MSK, starting as manager for energy and engineering projects and then as general manager for plant operations, energy, and engineering before moving to his current position.

What He Likes Most About His Work
Berninger says he derives satisfaction from “being able to improve the institution’s energy profile and pass my knowledge on to my staff who have taken it and sometimes surpassed me in what I do.”

His Biggest Challenge
Berninger says his challenge is ensuring that new hires and existing employees understand energy management and operations. “We’re constantly providing training for the staff,” he says. “We run building operator certification courses with CUNY Building Performance Lab once or twice a year. Any
new hires are encouraged to go.”

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