The Department Of Energy’s Efficiency-Based Reality Show Is Great Television

It’s Navy vs. Air Force in a battle over air-conditioning units and food waste biodigestion.

The Department Of Energy’s Efficiency-Based Reality Show Is Great Television
[Photo: via US Department of Energy]

I’m beginning to think the Department of Energy’s reality show–SWAP–should be on cable. Watching teams compete to find energy-efficiency improvements in each other’s buildings is good entertainment. The production quality on the latest episodes of Better Buildings Challenge SWAP is high end. And the tension between the teams in the second season–the Air Force Academy vs. the Naval Academy–is appropriately collegial, yet pleasantly spiky.


The Air Force Academy visits the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland first, then the Navy team travels to the Air campus in Colorado Springs. The teams find plenty to fault in each other’s fridges, air conditioning units, ventilation shafts, and food waste practices. “It’s a bit like having a big sister here picking on everything we do. It took a little effort not to comment back,” says Col. John Christ, head of civil engineering at the Air Academy at one point.

“I’m surprised how protective I was of our spaces,” says Karen Flack, head of the engineering department at the U.S. Naval Academy. “This is a beautiful campus, and I didn’t want them to find much.”

SWAP–which is in its second season; the first pitted Whole Foods against Hilton–proves that even organizations that are “doing a lot” can do more, notes Maria Vargas, head of the DOE’s Better Buildings program, which commissioned the show. “An openness to continual improvement, and really letting the other team see behind the scenes, is core to the ‘SWAP,'” she says.

The Air Academy was impressed with the Naval Academy’s food waste bio-digester which produces enough methane to significantly offset heating bills at the campus. The Naval Academy was inspired by the Air Academy’s discrete rooftop solar panels, which cover a third to a half of its electricity demand on a sunny day. “Lots of times, people don’t want solar panels on roofs because it changes how the building looks. But these panels, flush with the roof, were something the Naval Academy thought was a huge opportunity for them,” Vargas says.

SWAP, easily the DOE’s most effective vehicle in years, is moving on to cities next. In the new year, Atlanta and Boston will provide the teams for another energy-efficiency face-off. We can’t wait. The show just needs a bigger audience.

See the first episode here.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.