Green Will Follow, Then Lead

26 01 2010

Some of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA or “stimulus”) targets energy efficiency and green jobs training.  Wisconsin just announced $2 million in green jobs training.  Oregon: $6 million.  First off, I’m skeptical of these curricula.  Who will be teaching?  What is the curriculum?  At a cost of about $6,000 per graduate, it’s close to one year of in-state tuition and fees at a public university.  Wow.

Who is going to attend these courses?  I would say a significant portion would be laid off construction workers and skilled trades workers.  Once they are trained to weatherize homes, which does require training, no question about it, they will be ready.  But maybe in a year “real” jobs will return, and do you think a construction worker who can make $50k per year will keep weatherizing homes?  I doubt whether home weatherization can compete with that.  But I digress.

The purported goal of these programs is jobs – green jobs.  These jobs will lead us out of the economic funk we’re in.  I disagree.  The green jobs will really begin to flourish once and if the economy ever recovers.

We need a strong economy to spur construction.  We have a design division and within our energy division, we have a sustainability group that provides new construction design assistance and LEED® consulting services.  These would be considered high paying, long term jobs but as the economy is in the tank, these core services have ground to a slow crawl.  These were “green” jobs before green was a color.  Fortunately, our services are sufficiently diversified that we can keep relatively busy backfilling our other service areas.  Other firms aren’t so lucky.  Unemployment among architect, engineering and construction workers is running nearly double the national average.

Furthermore, with the economy in the tank, energy demand is down.  If you don’t believe it, just ask utility employees who are forced to take unpaid furloughs.  With shriveled demand, who needs energy programs?  Sure, in the short term this will have no effect.  If there is a long term, these programs may lose favor with the public, which is and will be squeezing every penny.  I’m sure we have a long grace period per the currently popular “green jobs” movement.

A strong economy will revive construction and manufacturing and this in turn will put pressure on energy supply, prices, and infrastructure; the drivers for demand side management programs and energy efficiency (not to mention the A&E and construction industries).  It will also put money in public and private institutions’ pockets to spend on energy retrofit and energy efficient new construction.  THEN green jobs will really emerge, organically – how about that!

A strong economy will also move institutions from deer in the headlights / survival mentality to a more competitive mindset.  Once this occurs, green will be a key ingredient to the competitive edge and it will lead the way in differentiating product A from product B, retailer 1 versus retailer 2, or A&E firm α from A&E firm β.

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

Dermal Beauty but Ugly to the Bone

19 01 2010

Attending a training session for steam systems a few years back, the class collectively chuckled as the instructor explained why he couldn’t go to the supermarket with his wife anymore.  As they would walk down the aisles he would be explaining how steam is used to make this and that.  See those potato chips, steam is used to peal potatoes rapidly and cleanly – and then he would launch into detail only a thermodynamics class would welcome.  Cheeseballs: puffed up by steam.  Carrot sticks: pealed using steam.  Chocolate milk powder: chocolate adhered to sugar using steam.  Aaaaaah!  Shut up already!  I don’t care how my Cocoa Puffs are made.  (I actually found it to be interesting)

We energy geeks have similar proclivities.  We can’t enter a building without a surface audit:

  • Jeez, these guys are living in the 1970s with T12 fluorescent lighting.
  • I bet there’s no makeup air unit for the pool in this hotel.  I can barely get the door open.  No wonder my room is absolutely freezing.  They probably think they’re saving energy besides.
  • These refrigerated door heaters are running in the middle of winter.  Typical.
  • It’s absolutely roasting in this gymnasium.  Their economizer has definitely been disabled.
  • Every light in that office building is on at 10:00 PM.  I’ll bet the cleaning guys come in and flip them all on for their entire 8 hour shift.

Last week I was reviewing American School & University’s “Architectural Portfolio 2009”, a compilation architectural masterpieces, submitted by architects and voted on by a panel of architects and facility managers to “win”, I’m not sure what.  I didn’t care.  Without even experiencing these buildings in the flesh, I found the following to be true:

  • I counted 92 spaces among these dozens of buildings that had not-so-good to very attractive daylighting designs.  The problem; 80 of them were shown with the lights on.
  • The lights were on in some spaces being scorched with direct sunlight.
  • Some entries advertised daylighting as a green feature… with the lights on!
  • One advertised as having exposed structure, e.g., trusses like you’ve seen in about 100,000 other buildings – to reduce finishing materials.  LOL
  • A gym had a great clerestory natural lighting design with fluorescent lighting – all of them burning of course.
  • One featured Low-e glazing.  Now there’s some spacey technology.

You may be thinking, the lights are on just for the photo shoot.  If that’s the case, then why are a dozen or so great photos of daylit spaces with no artificial lighting used?

These daylighting design failures or malfunctions are symbolic and symptomatic of energy efficiency in new buildings.  They are efficient on the surface only, to the untrained eye.  Once you start to dig into the heating and cooling systems, you’ll really start to see waste on a massive scale – across the board in all new buildings?  Probably not, but let me say this: we have been benchmarking buildings the last couple years and new buildings are notorious hogs.

Sadly, a substantial barrier to getting these buildings fixed up is somebody’s ego or “turf”.  That’ll be the subject of another rant but in the meantime if you think your new building (less than 10 years old) is a pig, do some benchmarking to compare it to similar buildings.

On a separate note, I found the controversy over LED traffic lights not working in snowstorms to be a bit amusing.  I see somebody in Colorado has developed a solution – something like a tube to prevent the snow from splatting on the LED surface completely covering the light.  I have another solution: hang a sign that says, “When traffic signal is covered in snow, stop, use your brain, and proceed with caution”.  Snow has plastered road signs for decades.  I’ve never heard of anyone complaining about their complete ignorance and inability to function without road signs – even critical ones like no passing or WRONG WAY – DO NOT ENTER signs.

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

Incentive or Discount?

12 01 2010

I read this article and the thought came to mind, “are energy efficiency incentives really incentives pushing people to implement energy efficiency – or coupons offering a discount for energy efficiency measures?”  What’s the difference?  I would say it’s huge.

Retailers abhor it when the trained shopper waits for deep discounts to buy, obviously at a much lower profit margin.  Likewise, there is nothing airlines hate worse than an airfare war.  Buyers of “American made” automobiles (GM, Ford, Chrysler) have been trained to wait for huge incentives, which is one of the reasons two of three essentially failed.  Again, the price-sensitive buyer waits for the discounts to surface.

Energy efficiency programs to many, if not most consumers really represents a means to discount new stuff they want and they go coupon clipping through their energy efficiency program to get it.  If the coupon isn’t there they will often times wait for it.

The goal of many energy efficiency programs is “market transformation”.  Transformation to what?  Transformation to a free-market no-incentive energy efficiency industry, or transformation to dependency perpetuating programs?  I would argue the latter has occurred to a large extent.  End users demand free money before they implement energy efficiency measures, even if they are excellent investments.  Perhaps this is why some programs have dropped the catch phrase” market transformation”.

What is the problem here?  In short, energy savings are typically invisible and saving money isn’t as attractive as getting free money.  (which reminds me, it always cracks me up when people tell me they like higher withholding on their taxes so they get a check after the first of the year – of their own money)

What’s the solution?  Demonstrate the savings!  How can this be done?  It depends on the level of energy savings.  We have started to track energy bills on all commercial energy efficiency projects we’re involved with.  We can use energy bills because typically, savings estimates are greater than 20% of the bill and we’re not afraid to look at the results.  In fact, we’re looking to the results to build a long case study list to sell more projects.

For the home there are several home monitors that not only track total energy consumption, they track consumption of every circuit in the distribution panel.  So if your kids take 15 minute showers you may be able to meter your water heater and charge them for it.  Think about that!

The other major benefit of monitoring energy consumption is persistence of savings over the long term.  When people have access to energy consumption data, I believe they naturally start to monitor and use less energy, that is, if they care in the first place.

So what is the conclusion here?  Maybe utility and other energy efficiency programs should start incentivizing metering and energy tracking.  There are challenges with this but they can be overcome.  In addition to saving more energy as described above, it will expose snake-oil salesmen.  Everyone could use fewer of these guys.  In fact, that will be the subject of another rant.

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

Water Runs Uphill – I Think Not

5 01 2010

This week – a little diversion into engineering.  Go ahead.  Shake those goose bumps out.

There are three universal laws of thermodynamics but I’m not going to explain them all now or you might fall asleep and hit your head on the table.  I will only cover one of them.

A law is essentially a theory of something that has never been disproven.  One of these laws indicates the direction of all processes.  Heat travels from hot to cold.  Water runs downhill.  However, heat can travel from cold to hot and water can go up hill if you add energy.  Think of your air conditioner and water tower.  One way to define this law is, your refrigerator won’t work unless you plug it in – add energy.

A second way to explain it is all processes are irreversible, which means, you may be able to extract energy from water flowing down hill, as in a hydroelectric dam, but it will take more energy to pump it back into the reservoir because of losses and inefficiencies.  More so, once the kinetic energy in your moving car is absorbed in your brake pads as heat, that energy won’t do anything for you.  It’s a complete loss.

Irreversibility means you can’t get more USEFUL energy out of a system than you put in.  Electricity is the most useful source of energy because it is most flexible.  You can make heat with it, turn a motor, or run your refrigerator.  I would say fuels are next as they too can be converted relatively efficiently to other forms of energy, including electricity.  Heat is the least useful.

The second law described above applies to everything and not just energy.  Consider our business of energy efficiency consulting.  If it weren’t for the second law, we wouldn’t have a job because energy efficiency would happen by itself.  Designers and contractors would know how to build absolutely the most efficient systems.  Knowledge is like energy.

Cash is like electrical energy.  The $20,000 check you write for a new car can also be used as a down payment on a house.  However, once you drive the car off the lot, it goes down in value by 10-30%, instantly.  Why?  Because you need to find a buyer and that takes energy – either from you or from a car dealer.  Labor and services are energy.

What’s the point?  The point is, artificially and rapidly increasing the cost of energy with carbon tax or cap and trade is an irreversible process too.  Some argue that increasing the cost of energy would be good for the economy.  This is like saying you can get water to run uphill without a pump.  It assumes people react rationally to the price increase by being more efficient with their processes.  If people behaved rationally, we wouldn’t need energy efficiency programs.  See above.

Consider a manufacturer’s perspective. If we raise the cost of doing business by excessively increasing energy prices, the manufacturer can do any number of things, probably some combination of all of these: pay employees less than they otherwise would, raise prices of their product (pass the cost through to the consumer), reduce energy consumption, or move offshore / across the border.  For every option I can think of, somebody has less money in their pocket.  Somebody may end up with more money in their pocket but I’m telling you, the net is less total wealth because it is an irreversible inefficient allocation of capital.

Yes, but what if the tax is  plowed back into energy efficiency?  There is overhead (losses and irreversibility) associated with that.  You have to pay somebody to run the programs, market, manage, and somebody needs to monitor the results to ensure people aren’t getting ripped off.

But Jeff, aren’t you making the case against energy efficiency programs?  Answer: no.  Why, you hypocrite?  Because cheap energy and all resources for that matter are finite and scarce.  Cash, the most valuable asset is generated through the use of resources.  At some point, resources become scarce to the point prices rise rapidly and irreversibly so.  I would therefore argue that energy efficiency programs are like the regenerative aspect of a hybrid car.  It lessens the irreversibility of resource depletion but does not eliminate it.  Spending money to save energy costs less than buying energy, uninhibited.  The tank will still run empty.  It will just take longer to get there.

The bottom line is, whatever the carbon abatement policy is, the goals cannot outrun the spread of energy efficiency knowledge throughout the economy.  Creating a “free market” with an arbitrary cap on carbon (oxymoron alert) is a bit like driving from point A to point B by stomping on the gas pedal with a blindfold on.  Let’s take the blindfold off and keep the tempest in Pandora’s Box.

See December 8 rant on energy efficiency policy.

Prospective hires – this includes a free answer to one of the quiz questions we ask during interviews.  Mention this rant and receive a bonus correct answer!

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