New Year’s Energy Resolutions

29 12 2009

Here is a New Year’s resolution for you: resolve to not use an excuse to use New Year’s resolutions.  If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing now.  Put the unused exercise equipment on eBay so it can take up space in somebody else’s closet or under their bed.  Get out and walk or run.  Buy some free weights.  Take the stairs. Do push-ups or stomach crunchers.  Do not cruise the parking lot for the closest possible spot.  Take the always-empty row furthest from the building.

Like energy efficiency, these things aren’t sexy, but they are practically free and very effective.  The barrier isn’t lack of equipment.  It’s lack of commitment.  So can the phony resolution, party safe and responsibly, and we will see you next year.

Cheers, and Happy New Year!

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP

Beer or Air

22 12 2009

Last week these columns featured Wal-Mart and its silencing of critics via green and sustainable business practices.  Are they really saving energy compared to their peers?  Skylights, dimming fluorescent lights, and LED refrigerated case lights triggered by occupancy sensors – but what’s the totality?

Lexus makes hybrid vehicles.  One is a $110,000 sedan with a 5 liter V8 with fighter-jet horsepower weighing in at 20 miles per gallon.  A Caterpillar earth mover may get that kind of highway mileage.  The point is, a facility / organization can be green in name only.  Note that in no way am I inferring Wal-Mart stores are Caterpillar earth movers.

I think to a large extent the sustainability of many facilities and organizations are like those presents under the tree in the food court at the mall that I used to go to in the 1980s.  It looks good, but you know there’s nothing in there.  Conversely, a wrapped present under our office tree that looks like a 12 pack of beer is a 12 pack of beer!  Believe me when I tell you that when a guy whose name is drawn has a choice between a concealed package that looks like beer and one that could contain clothing or worse, like some knickknack, the beer-looking one will be snapped up like my dogs on cheese.

This one always cracks me up: “We are going to follow the LEED® method, but we’re not going to pay for the certification”.  This is foolish.  If an organization is honestly going to follow LEED, the price of registration, documentation, and certification is minimal – like less than buying the custom mats for the new car.  The LEED wannabe process is toothless.  Anything that is worthwhile has a high risk of getting dropped: energy modeling, efficient design, and components that achieve efficiency, and commissioning.  Decent commissioning costs 75 cents per square foot depending on the type of facility.  You’re going to spend $75,000 on commissioning and jump through all kinds of other hoops but skip the few thousand dollars for certification?  This is like getting enough credits to graduate but skipping the degree.  Try explaining that one to the state examining board when you try to get your professional engineering license.

LEED isn’t flawless or bullet proof, but it does serve as a hammer to get people to move and it forces the owner and other stakeholders to make difficult decisions rather than just throwing things out if they are too expensive or difficult.

For energy efficiency, a good rating system similar to the EPA gas mileage ratings is the ENERGY STAR® Label for Commercial Buildings.  Why?  Because it is based on actual energy consumption comparing to peer facilities (on a square foot basis) in the same climate zone.  Earning the ENERGY STAR means the building uses less energy per square foot than 75% of peer buildings.  In addition, ENERGY STAR requires a building inspection by a licensed engineer to ensure the owner isn’t cheating by not providing sufficient ventilation or enough light for required tasks or by letting air conditions drift out of the comfort zone, which believe it or not is well defined.  Registration is free.  The only cost is for the engineering services.  If energy efficiency improvements are needed, there are extra costs for that of course, but there is a return on that investment.

Finally, we at Michaels have developed a custom energy efficiency program that uses actual savings demonstrated by energy bills before and after implementation.  Rather than just doing studies, assisting clients with implementation and moving on to the next project, we monitor savings once after a few months and again after a full year of post-implementation operation.  We don’t run away from results, sweep it under the rug (watch the hand), or just hope for the best.  We embrace real results because we want to know things are working right, and demonstrated success sells more success.  If I’m buying, I want facts and references, not a dog and pony show where promises are made with no follow through on comprehensive savings.

Salesman, get away from me, and no, I don’t want your dopey maintenance plan.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP

Save Energy – Get Out of Jail

15 12 2009

Unless you were living in a cave four or five years ago, you know Wal-Mart was under relentless assault by, I’ll just call them activists.  Complaints included: They weren’t providing health care to enough people.  They weren’t paying overtime.  Their goods were manufactured in sweat shops overseas.  When unions tried to organize their meat cutting operations, Wal-Mart exited the meat cutting business.  Their executives were making too much money.  The company was making too much money.  Part of the real gripe was that Wal-Mart had saturated the rural and small town markets and they had started to impinge into larger markets.  Social elites in university towns did NOT want to sip cappuccinos across the street from Wal-Mart, or see Wal-Mart flyers in the Sunday paper, or perhaps worst of all, they did not want to attract the kind of people who shop at Wal-Mart to their enclave.

It seemed all of a sudden, the whining stopped, overnight.  Why?  I would say their green construction, energy efficiency, and purchasing muscle to get suppliers to become more efficient and green probably shot the knees out of this protest movement.  Suddenly it seems, Wal-Mart had become one of the greatest corporate forces for green business practices in the country.  This was like one of the Hatfields marrying into the McCoys – a reluctant truce between the activist crowd and Wal-Mart.  This was a Joan Rivers kind of a makeover (have you seen her lately?).

I attend a half dozen or so mid-size to major energy efficiency conferences a year.  Wal-Mart’s energy efficiency and green purchasing requirements are showcased at many of these events by keynote speakers.  Ironically, Wal-Mart was lambasted for its hardball thuggery in negotiating pricing deals with its suppliers.  I don’t hear the same for these green requirements.  Playing the green card has gotten Wal-Mart out of protester jail.

Not only has the green card gotten Wal-Mart out of jail, it has new competitors scrambling.  As one case in particular, a grocery spokesperson stated a few years ago that [paraphrasing], “We do not want to become Wal-Mart.  We do not want to compete with Wal-Mart.”  To one extent this was smart.  If you compete with Wal-Mart on price, they would crush you.  However, Wal-Mart’s green initiatives have positioned them to gain market share at the expense of these former non-competitors.  When another company is stealing your customers, it’s competition whether you want to compete with them or not.  Not only is Wal-Mart greening its business and its supply chain, it is greening its competitors.

As the skeptical engineer, I ask myself, are they really saving energy in their stores?  You can see it when you walk into their stores.  As their skylights stream copious daylight, their lighting fixtures are dimmed down to a tiny percentage of full power.  I am told that in some stores as you walk the refrigerated case isles, occupancy sensors flip on their low-power LED case lighting.  Now that is demonstrable energy savings.  Even energy neophytes can see what’s happening there.  Ok.  This is all dandy.  What’s the bottom line?  It appears these stores are not the Toyota Priuses of the grocery and retail world if you look at their “gas mileage”, or energy use per square foot.  There is plenty of room for improvement.

On a completely unrelated note, it seems the State of California is following my advice to see that stimulus money spent on energy efficiency is actually resulting in energy savings (November 17 rant).  The California Energy Commission has issued a $4 million request for proposals to verify savings occur.  I’m sure I influenced that – heyaaah, right.  Hahahaha.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP

Policy to Curb Carbon

8 12 2009

Any carbon-reduction policy that includes paying Washington for permits to emit carbon is the wrong way to go.  Why?  Two words.  Social Security.

Washington has no spending restraint.  Earmark nation is alive and thriving.  Everyone has heard of the Social Security Trust Fund; Al Gore’s “lock box”.  Social Security has been running surpluses in the hundreds of billions of dollars per year for a long time.  If you think your payroll taxes are piling up for your retirement in a bunker under Washington somewhere, you are sorely mistaken.  Our profligate government has been taking the surplus and spending it on everything else, leaving behind “IOUs”.  Those IOUs are worth less than the lint behind my dryer because they will never be paid off.

What’s the point?  Permit revenue (tax) is supposed to be used for R&D for new fuel and fuel efficiency technologies, energy efficiency and so forth, per these bills.  Like social security and the state of Wisconsin’s disaster (see Energy Efficiency Oversight rant), this revenue will be pilfered for any number of other things including, for example, a congressman’s airport, a senator’s library, a study of mating habits of insects, why hog farms smell and so forth.

Instead, the drive to reduce utility-related carbon should come from utility and regulatory administered state programs, where consumers’ money spent to fund the reduction is plowed directly back into energy efficiency and low carbon production of energy.  Regulators and consumer advocacy groups ensure consumers get their moneys worth through independent program evaluations.

Yes.  I think that is the role of government.  To help ensure people don’t get ripped off.  If the feds get the money, who is going to watch them?  They have a dismal record of self-policing.  In fact, they practice bookkeeping methods that would land corporate accountants in jail.  Imagine if a corporation took employees’ contributions to their 401ks, replaced it with corporate bonds and called it revenue (ala the Social Security raid).  Without this switcheroo (watch the hand), those surpluses from the 1990’s were actually deficits.

Thanks to Wisconsin, we have a case study in failed government takeover of energy programs.  Let’s demand to avoid this scenario by ensuring Washington only gets the lint behind the dryer to control carbon.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP

What’s the Game?

1 12 2009

Hypothetical:  Our company has about 40 employees.  We’re going to split into 4 teams and have a tournament.  What’s the game?  We have cyclists, runners, a guy who thinks he can play golf, a guy who throws hammer but not when I’m around, skiers, people who fish, people who hunt, play cards, Sudoku, video games, Frisbee golf, and play board games.  We’ve played softball games (poorly) when the economy was good.

We have people who were born when I was in college.  We have people who were in college before I was in the first grade.  Female, male, burley, squirrelly, short, tall, and I’ll just leave it at that.

What’s the game?  Downhill skiing?  A century bike ride?  Marathon?  Pinochle?  Trapshooting?  Ice hockey?  Mini-golf?  Bumper cars?  Crossword puzzles?  Pong?

Have you figured it out yet?

I’m talking about cap and trade.  What are the rules and which companies and individuals are going to benefit and who is going to get creamed?  How on earth can this be developed equitably?  For years I’ve been proclaiming that when this bill is debated, it will be the mother of all lobbying efforts.  Yes there are bills already out there.  I spent 2-3 hours browsing Waxman-Markey until I was on the cusp of a seizure.  If you dare: I read peoples’ synopses of the bill and those aren’t clear either and they tend to be all over the place.  Regardless, this thing won’t go into law as written anyway.  There are other competing bills.  Whatever we end up with, if anything, will be “lobbied up” beyond recognition.

How does the game start?  Apparently, a large portion of the credits would be given away with a few being auctioned off by the government.  Do the freebies get distributed to the companies with the best and highest paid lawyers and lobbyists?  (the answer, at least in part is, for sure)  Does everyone get credits according to the trailing year’s energy consumption?  What about the misers who are already very efficient?  What about companies that have a legacy of spewing lots of emissions and are on the verge of building or buying a bunch of new plants or efficient equipment (such as certain utilities that tend to favor it)?  Will they get hit with a windfall profits tax?  Can I just take my money I’ve made with my manufacturing plant and quit and sell my freebie allotment on the “free market”?

Let’s get back to the portion that will be auctioned.  The energy market is very inelastic; that is, consumption changes little with price in the short term.  Sales of things that are necessities such as energy have little dependence on price.  For example, there is practically no relationship between gasoline prices and consumption.  When prices are high people keep driving, complain, and have less money to spend on other things.  Therefore, I would surmise that this auctioned portion is going to cost A LOT.  The EPA projects credits will cost $11-$15 per ton to begin with.  This is on the order of a penny per kWh – maybe 10% of energy cost.  This is either (1) not going to move companies to do much for energy efficiency or (2) at a more likely much higher cost, move companies to do something.  Something will include some combination of energy efficiency, raising prices on products and services, or offshoring to some “rogue” country like China or Mexico that has no cap and trade.

My interpretation from Waxman-Markey is that cap and trade applies to major energy users and distributers only, as far as I can tell: electric and gas utilities, petroleum, chemical, cement, silicon, aluminum, and other very energy intensive industries.  It seems to me if we wanted an effective “market based” solution, this would apply everywhere carbon is consumed.  What are electric and gas utilities going to do to reduce carbon?  Electric utilities will move away from carbon fuels over time – renewable, and realistically nuclear.  Gas utilities will… Gas utilities will… Sorry gas utilities.  Your days are apparently numbered.

Cap and trade sounds great because it sounds like a “market based solution” to reducing greenhouse gasses.  It reminds me of when we were considering designing and building a new office building for our company.  It was all fun and interesting until the hard reality of finding a decent place to build in or near downtown.  My guess is this dreamy cap and trade idea will hit a brick wall when it comes time to set up the game and rules.  I would suggest a different and more reasonable and realistic approach.  Next Time.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP