Need Not Miracles

23 02 2010

Thousands, make that millions of people, including some smart people and congress people, when talking solutions for our energy efficiency low-carbon future are continuously babbling about “technology” that will save us all.  Bill Gates says we need Miracles.  Whadahyou talking about man?  The White House announces $130 million for a new building energy efficiency effort – “a multi-agency initiative to spur regional economic growth while making buildings more energy efficient.”  It will be “an Energy Innovation Hub focused on developing new technologies to improve the design of energy-efficient building systems”.  Get ready for cold fusion to reemerge.

Let me tell you somethin’, we don’t need to throw bazillions of dollars into developing these new magic elixirs – not now anyway.  We need the public and organizations to take action with the “miracles” that are already on the shelf at your local home improvement center or mechanical and electrical contractors’ warehouse.  You saw last week’s rant on people at Boulder lead to the energy efficiency trough but refusing to drink.  This is the problem.  Why develop a bunch of other junk that people won’t buy?

I’ve been in the energy efficiency market for 14 years and there has really been very little progress in energy efficient products or technologies for commercial buildings during this period.  Why?  In large part because there are physical and scientific barriers.  Boilers and furnaces were available in the 90% plus efficiency then as they are now.  Electric motors run in the mid 90% efficiency range.  There is this theoretical barrier of 100% efficiency that Mr. Gates may think is just a nuisance.  Maybe it’s just that nobody has thought about it hard enough.  Chillers, lighting, variable frequency drives, compact fluorescent lighting, energy recovery – there have been no major breakthroughs with this stuff in 14 years.  Prices for some things have come down a lot and quality has improved.  The thing is, these technologies have become very cost effective as prices have dropped and energy costs risen.  Just use them already!

Other innovative system designs such as displacement ventilation and chilled beam cooling systems have been refined but I don’t think they were born in the past 14 years.  But even an “efficient” system can waste energy like congress can.  See previous posts “Dermal Beauty, Ugly to the Bone”, “The More You Spend, The More You Save”, and “LEED and the Not Happenin’ Energy Savings”.

Rather than developing miracles that many think are just sitting there waiting to be discovered, let’s use cost-effective technologies we have right now.  Compact fluorescent bulbs use 70% less electricity than incandescent, but they still only take up 30% of unit sales with the rest being incandescent in the screw-in category.  And this is in CA where programs have been running forever.  Beyond that, you would be amazed at how many variable frequency drives are spinning away at or near 60 Hz (that’s full speed) because of some bonehead control setpoint; heating and cooling systems fighting one another like a car traveling down the road with the brakes applied; many pieces of large “efficient” equipment like huge air compressors online blowing off compressed air (wasting it) or otherwise running at full capacity when only a tiny fraction is needed; it’s dogs and cats living together – mass hysteria!

McKinsey  determined that the U.S. can cost effectively reduce energy consumption by 23% compared to BAU (business as usual – I like that one).  To become zero carbon, the first thing that needs to happen is minimize consumption through energy efficiency with existing technologies, system design, and controls optimization.  Once this happens, money that used to fly out the window to pay energy bills piles up so fast that renewable sources can be purchased, even though it may not be cost effective.  I’ve been through the exercise using a college campus as an example.  The perverse thing is that the more money an entity is wasting on energy, the easier it is to become carbon neutral.  How can this be?  There is a huge cash flow going to pay energy bills.  Much of that can first be cost effectively captured through energy savings.  Since more waste is eliminated, more cash piles up and renewable sources can be purchased sooner as the last leg to carbon neutral.  Of course you don’t want to be wasting energy in the first place, but if you are….

Why isn’t this happening?  There are enough barriers and discussion to fill a rack of encyclopedias but I’ve had enough for this week.

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





This is not Tee-ball

16 02 2010

Carbon taxes or cap and trade seem to have been a foregone conclusion in our industry of energy efficiency.  I’m not so sure.  I, like many other engineers in the energy efficiency business have always been cynical about global warming, which for some reason is now known as climate change.  I would argue that a relatively small portion of anti-carbon people are true believers, that carbon is having or will have a significant effect on the climate and I have no problem with that.  What I do have a problem with is the vast majority of people and organizations who portend to be doing the right thing and saving us all from ourselves when in actuality they are in it largely for the financial gain or political reasons.

The past year has seen one body blow after another to the climate change movement.  In November, we were served with Climategate out of the University of East Anglia, “the worst scientific scandal of our generation” per the London Telegraph.  Penn State’s leading climatologist Professor Michael Mann, Mr. Hockey Stick, is under investigation for falsification of data.  Nothing significant came out of Copenhagen, except let’s party again sometime.  The press had a field day reporting on the carbon spewed to put on that convention.  Phil Jones, head of the Climate Research Unit, dropped some bombs in an interview with the BBC.   Washington gets drubbed with a one-foot snowstorm it seems every week.  Actually, all 50 states have had snow on the ground and all 50 states most likely had snow on the ground at the same time – last Friday!  Wow!  Has that ever happened before?  And last but not least, this is subterranean on the average person’s list of concerns so who has the political will to push this?

Most people who want climate regulation do so as long as they can either make money on it or have somebody else pay.  Not even eco-friendly (supposedly) Boulder, in a league with Berkeley, Caracas, and Havana is willing to put money and action where their mouths are.  And this is a college town, so you know they are well cushioned from the lousy economy.  These people aren’t even willing to shell out what is the equivalent of one night out for dinner for an energy audit of their home – a heavily subsidized audit at that.  The art dealer drives a Prius and uses compact fluorescent bulbs but refuses to close his door during the heating and cooling seasons – “the most basic of conservation measures”.  I can see it now.  Auditor:  “Uh, close that door.”  There’s probably a picket line on the street right now.  One UC professor says Boulder deserves credit for trying.  No.  Credit for trying ends when seven-year-olds graduate from tee-ball.

Furthermore, last fall Boulder voted into the city council people who plan to moderate the environmental initiatives.  At the same time they voted down a simple public low-interest loan program for low-interest loans.  Now to meet their objectives, they plan a take a sharp marketing turn from environmental benefits to saving money.  Touché.

So let’s get honest.  Energy efficiency and being green is probably 80% financial benefit and 20% hobby for individuals, and for most businesses and institutions it is 99% financial benefit.  Wal-Mart isn’t reducing energy costs and holding its suppliers to green standards to save the world.  Certain utilities aren’t promoting cap and trade to save future generations from catastrophe.  People don’t pay for LEED® and put their plaque in the closet.  I would say that only a very small percentage of the public and a larger portion of our tiny energy efficiency industry are passionate about reducing waste, preserving natural resources, and minimizing environmental impacts – AND willing to live accordingly.  The rest is pure financial gain, but there’s nothing wrong with that, unless crises are manufactured and lying is involved.

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





Paying to Lose

9 02 2010

Jenny Craig customers do it all the time – pay money to consume less.  This may make perfect sense to people who understand customers’ needs, but to others it seems really stupid to pay somebody to help use less of something.  This is a bit like utility programs that spend money for customers to use less of their product.

The vast majority of our energy work comes from referrals and repeat clients.  On numerous occasions, we seemed to have customers at the tipping point, only to have them bail out at the last minute.  Why?  The utility introduced us to the client, and knowing that we are more or less paid by the utility to provide energy efficiency services to the end user, they believe this is a conflict of interest and/or they don’t trust the utility to lead the end user to use less of the utility’s product – power or gas.

Memo to end-users:  Utilities have to generate energy savings.  They have no choice.

Investor owned utilities are in most states fully regulated monopolies.  The only way a consumer can buy from another utility in regulated states is to move to a different service territory.  This isn’t very practical for a school, hospital, or pretty much anybody.  In exchange for a virtually guaranteed consumer base, utilities’ profits and prices are essentially determined by regulators and consumer advocacy groups.

Saving energy, or using energy efficiency as a resource, is less expensive than building power plants, transmission, and distribution systems, Willie Nillie.  Therefore, regulators and consumer advocacy groups require the utilities to run energy efficiency programs.  As a result, utilities that run energy efficiency programs can either exceed goals or come up short.  Guess which outcome the regulators want to see.  Get it?  If they come up short, raising prices and building required infrastructure becomes really difficult politically – it’s difficult enough anyway.

“Yes, but they’ll just cheat or make up savings”, some people may think.  Wouldn’t be prudent.  Programs have third party evaluations to determine program cost effectiveness and actual savings compared to utility-claimed savings.  Lousy energy-saving estimates will come back to bite the utility hard.  This is detrimental to their next rate case, which is a request to raise prices and therefore, profit.

Smart utilities will genuinely encourage and achieve greater savings for their customers, first because they have no other choice, but second because reducing their customers’ costs improves their bottom line.  Like paying taxes, it is better to have a customer that pays a little less than none at all after they flee the service territory or go broke.  Moreover, if the customer is more profitable, eventually they will expand their business and use more energy, but efficiently.

To sum things up, utilities have to save energy or making return on investment for their shareholders gets really difficult.  Saving energy for customers also improves the bottom line resulting in long-term customers that will hopefully expand business in the utility’s service territory.

When the utility wants to help you save energy, believe it.

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





Jacque – Fix My Car

3 02 2010

There is a running joke in our business that electrical engineers don’t know anything about energy efficiency.  It is only a joke.  One of the sharpest energy guys I have interviewed was a physics major who started on the ground floor of an energy efficiency consulting firm filling orders of equipment they also happened to sell.  In 10 years he worked his way up to really understanding how buildings and their complex systems work and he became a manager of a team of energy engineers teaching his group how buildings work and how to model them.

This article made laugh out loud.  MBAs developing energy management plans and reducing businesses’ carbon footprint.  Maybe I need an MBA to consult with my doctor prior to my next gallbladder surgery.  I can see it now.  Replace lighting in a half million square foot manufacturing plant (nothing wrong with that) and install 100 kW of photovoltaic and dedicate a focus group to reduce energy consumption.  Meanwhile there are what we call piles of cash ablaze scattered about the plant in the form of process, system, and controls waste, on both the supply and demand ends of energy consuming systems.

Beyond shutting things off and installing equipment that is more efficient than option A, energy efficiency is domain of the physical sciences.  The root of energy efficiency expertise is calculus, followed by physics, and core courses in thermodynamics, heat transfer, and fluid dynamics.  If job candidates have anything less than Bs in any of these courses we discard them as candidates.

Arm an engineering graduate with an MBA and you may have a powerful weapon to put out these fires.  An MBA could make a rousing case to embrace energy efficiency as a profit enhancer, risk reducer, and marketing tool – much better than I can.  But there are already enough engineers in our business who don’t know what they are doing.  We evaluate their work all the time.  We don’t need political scientist MBAs cluttering up our market.  I might as well look up a culinary chef to do a wheel alignment on my car.  Jacque Pepin, are you available?

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