EE Lemmings

25 05 2010

Automobiles have really changed over the past 30 years, and in some ways for the worse.  Back in the 1970s before hardly anyone purchased imports, imports were small and domestic vehicles were hulking behemoths.  Then it was the second, or was it the third or fourth – doesn’t matter – energy crisis hit in the late 1970s and domestic cars shrunk in a big way.  The Ford Mustang went from a muscle car to feeble runt.  A 1982 Mustang was the first car I owned.  It was also by far the crappiest car I ever owned.

This was the first giant step for domestic auto makers toward import fuel efficiency and of course it was disastrous.  Millions of buyers experienced the same thing I did and did the same thing I did; started buying imports and never went back.

Getting on with the topic at hand – just look at how automakers of all stripes and origins have morphed into the same styles.  Let’s look at how the Ford Taurus (formerly the LTD), Honda Accord, Volvo, and BMW 535 have changed from 1978 through today.



Back in the day, you could look at a silhouette of a car – or better yet, I could draw it on paper and you could tell what brand it was, and I draw as well as I play violin (I don’t think I’ve ever had my hands on one).  In 2010, all you have to do is change the front grille and unless you study cars like an anal-retentive buyer with every issue of Consumer Reports and Buyers Guides for the past five years, you would never be able to tell what brand they are.  They only have a tiny vestige of auto heritage left in about one square foot of the front of the vehicle.

Here’s an entrepreneurial thought: the “import” makers should sell optional “domestic” front ends and leave their stores open around the clock.  This way the few remaining people who wouldn’t be caught dead in an import could sneak in the back door with a big hooded rapper sweatshirt on at 3:00 AM Monday morning and drive out with a car they really want and nobody would ever know it’s an import.  Their parents would let them in the house.

This paragraph is a bit of a guess because I’m not THAT old to know for sure.  Over the same period of 30 years, energy efficiency programs have “evolved”, more like devolved, in the same way.  Back then there were few efficient technologies (products) and energy efficiency required brain power.  A portfolio of programs probably got the most savings from custom measures like upgrading systems and controls, replacing controls, adding heat recovery, changing incandescent lighting to fluorescent and boring building envelope improvements.  Compact fluorescent and T8 lighting, if they existed back then, probably cost as much as the modern laptop   Check out that baby!

In 2010, program portfolios are like modern cars.  Just take the utility logo off one and slap on the next logo and voila, ready to launch.  They typically consist of prescriptive incentives for residential lighting, heating and cooling, appliances, appliance recycling, and maybe ENERGY STAR® new construction; and commercial and industrial prescriptive incentives for like categories plus maybe commercial new construction and retrocommissioning.  Prescriptive measures, those that receive incentive for achieving some equipment efficiency threshold, probably account for 80-90% of savings – more for newer programs, maybe less for mature programs.

Program implementation has become a marketing campaign for technologies; efficient versions of everything available in the marketplace.  There is nothing wrong with this, but codes and standards can drive these.  Take the home furnace.  Is there any need for an 80% efficient non-condensing furnace anymore?  Any contractors who install 80% efficient furnaces should be fined, speaking facetiously.  It’s just stupid.  Compact fluorescent lighting is pretty much in the same category.  This gravy train of easy savings is about to end as incandescent lighting is phased out.  Moreover, I would say the market has already transformed to CFLs and possibly not even for energy efficiency.  Many consumers choose them because they don’t burn out.  Less maintenance and pain in the kiester to keep up with failing light bulbs.  In commercial and agricultural facilities, these maintenance savings swamp energy savings.  People are expensive.  Good light bulbs are not.

Some states are sharply increasing goals and what are program administrators doing in response?  More of the same.  Some are just increasing incentives, even doubling them in some cases.  This is like trying to significantly cut federal spending and taking entitlements and defense off the table.  There isn’t much left to work with.  Cost premium of efficient stuff is only one barrier to energy efficiency.  At some point, you could literally give away efficient stuff and still not meet goals.

Program administrators and utilities need to put everything on the table and go back to the early days of custom efficiency, and comprehensive energy retrofit, retrocommissioning and demand response for commercial and industrial facilities.  Industrial programs are woeful all over the country, including in California.  Measures like “pump off controllers” for oil wells and numerous oil refining measures are complete free riders – measures that would happen regardless of any efficiency programs.

Administrators also need to think outside the box with “incentives” as well.  There are many ways to do this but I’ll have to save that for another day because I’m out of time.  But for now, let’s just say to take it to the next level, administrators are going to need custom measures, which requires engineering expertise.  It looks good for us!

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

Law of Gravity, Repealed

18 05 2010

Yay!  I’m outside working on my computer for the first time this year.  Alright, who cares?

Every week I plow through news-clipping services to see what is going on, to build my topic list, which is piling up faster than the weeks pass.  This week I had to shelve 4-5 great topics to again take on the recently arisen climate bill.

Many huge utilities and other giant energy users and associations are lauding the Kerry-Lieberman-Graham bill.  These institutions include the American Wind Association, Duke Energy, Dow Chemical, Florida Power and Light, T. Boone Pickens, National Resources Defense Council, Steelworkers Union, Shell Oil, and Westinghouse. 

Support from some of these groups is obvious.  What stinks to high heaven though is the for-profit giants who support this bill.  Company motives are driven by profit.  Per news accounts, I’ve read Dow has done a fantastic job at reducing energy consumption.  My guess is they are stockpiling carbon credits, like AEP has been doing.  Buy low and sell high.  A climate bill will greatly increase the value of carbon credits.  Rest assured, I would say these companies are positioning themselves to make a killing, not save the planet.

Florida Power and Light is a major wind power company.  You may not realize it, but a huge portion of the wind energy generation in Iowa, Texas and all over the place is owned by FPL – probably by their unregulated arm.  They aren’t building wind farms in Iowa and Texas at a loss so they are jockeying for more of the same.

Westinghouse is poised to tee off on the nuclear power business.  I support nuclear power as it is the only realistic ultra-low carbon source of electricity.  Did you know Westinghouse is 77% owned by Toshiba of Japan?  I didn’t think so.

General Electric ditto both FPL and Westinghouse.  T. Boone’s mind changes direction with the wind.  I’m not sure whether he thinks or talks first.  He was going to invest a bazillion dollars in wind power and then reneged for some reason.  Perhaps it was because it costs more to produce than it costs from conventional plants and he realized there aren’t enough Volvo/Subaru/Prius driving boutique energy buyers.  I.e., not enough demand.  Or maybe he thinks cap and trade isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

I have no idea what the steelworkers are thinking.  Actually, most likely it isn’t the steelworkers that are behind this.  The union bosses are probably peddling this and it looks like a pure political play.  Like many environmental groups, unions are political first, and serve their members second.  Why in the world would they want to raise the cost of making steel in the U.S.?  It’s not good for the steelworker.  It IS good for crony politics.

The common thread in all this is: if we just enact this federal bill it will generate millions of jobs and the land will flow with milk and honey.  I can see water running uphill again.  Washington now has power to repeal the laws of gravity.  I was always skeptical of Mr. Newton.  He is Gordon Gekko with long hair.  Just look at them.

I can’t disagree that it will create jobs.  We would have thousands of workers building and installing wind turbines and a bunch of other junk.  But on the macro level, capital will be pouring into these projects rather than real wealth-generating enterprises.

Alternative energy costs more than conventional energy sources, but an electron is an electron.  It doesn’t taste better, look better, do more work, last longer, or drive better.  People will be paying more for energy, which takes spending money out of their pockets.  Artificially making a commodity more expensive cannot increase net prosperity.  Why don’t we just turn off all the aqueducts and canals that feed California and drain the reservoirs?  Instead, build desalination plants to make fresh water.  Creates jobs right?  Just ask the pecan and almond farmer in the valley.

At least with energy efficiency, even lousy projects, consumers pay less, not more.  And the same “benefits” of “creating jobs” exist because somebody somewhere is making stuff for and implementing these projects.

Here is something 99% of the populous probably doesn’t know: the free market has done an amazing job with energy efficiency.  From 1990 through 2005, the U.S. economy has increased energy efficiency to produce an equal quantity of goods and services using 44% less energy!  Energy intensity in Btu per dollar of gross domestic product dropped 44%.  You may be thinking, “Well duh, half our manufacturing has moved overseas and we’ve become a service economy.” Moved where overseas?  China, you may be thinking?  China’s economic energy  efficiency has increased by 66%!  Of about 150 countries reporting, only 4 became less efficient over the period: Congo, Haiti, Saudi Arabia and someplace I can’t pronounce.

The world as a whole has increased economic energy efficiency by 39%, in just 15 years.  That’s about 2.2% per year.  Real demand for power isn’t rising that fast (in the US).  I don’t think there’s an energy efficiency program in the country that saves that much.  There’s no question programs contributed to this, but I know of no programs driving savings in China.

Competition with some nudging from utility programs seems to be doing a fine job driving energy efficiency.  We don’t need a bunch of clueless Washington bureaucratic hacks who wouldn’t survive in the private sector for 6 months telling us what is good for us.

EE Ignorance

11 05 2010

A few years ago I was on a marketing visit to a hospital for non-energy related services and of course I had to work energy efficiency into the conversation.  “So, have you done any energy efficiency upgrades in recent years?”  “Yes we replaced windows in the old section of the facility and installed new boilers.  We’re all set with energy efficiency.”

Palm, meet forehead.

I could be a lousy salesman but that conversation ended with a pregnant pause.  This was a hospital, probably the most energy intensive type of commercial facility there is, and replacing windows might reduce consumption by 0.01%.  New boilers could do anything from saving some energy to using more depending on how they are controlled.

One of the major obstacles to capturing real and substantial savings in commercial buildings is overcoming ignorance of how these facilities use energy.  They use energy far differently than homes but Joe in the maintenance department or Sally the executive think the way to 10% savings is new windows, new boilers and more roof insulation.  Good luck with that.

When I talk about energy efficiency in commercial and industrial facilities I talk about controls, systems and processes, NOT pieces of equipment and components.  At the end of the presentation I say all boilers are 80% efficient.  All chillers use 0.6 kW/ton.  All lighting fixtures produce 80 lumens per Watt.  Of course this isn’t literally accurate, but the point is, the building can be operating very poorly as a system, such that plus or minus 20% on these performance metrics is dwarfed by poor operation.  The control programming is awful.  The system could use some additional control points and maybe a few components need to be added.  When added up,  the waste generated by these controls and system operations dwarf the few percentage points for the boiler efficiency or one or two tenths of a kW per ton for the chiller.  See The More You Spend The More You Save.

I was reminded of this once again this week as I read this article on the Empire State Building.  The owner says windows are “a key to efficiency”.  Even including the daylighting controls he is talking about, this won’t amount to a peanut of the 38% energy savings they plan to achieve.

Columbia University research declares green and white roofs in NYC “help prevent energy losses”.   That may be factually incorrect but the more arguable thing is, it has a tiny effect on heat transfer through the roof.  Green roofs include plants which require dirt and moisture to grow.  Moist soil has lousy insulating qualities.  The benefits of a green roof include reduced runoff into rivers, lakes, and oceans, transpiration which reduces temperature on the roof’s surface and thus reduces heat island effect, roof life extension, and possibly energy savings if building cooling system equipment is located on the roof.  A white roof will save some cooling energy but costs you some extra heating energy in winter.  See  our Energy Brief “Cool Roofs in Cold Climates“.  I’m not bashing green and white roofs.  I would use one or both on my building, but for reasons other than energy efficiency.  These other benefits pile up.

We surveyed 150 buildings in NYC about 16 months ago and believe me, there is huge potential in the city but it isn’t going to be realized with windows, boilers, and green and white roofs.  Like the Empire State Building probably was prior to this $20 million retrofit, buildings have 1960s and 1970s technologies and crappy old pneumatic controls.  There are steam-turbine-driven chillers, which have to have horrible efficiency because the steam pressure is so low.  The heat rejection would be massive.  According to my calculations, with a perfectly efficient turbine and an efficient chiller, the cost to operate a steam driven chiller would be twice that of an electric chiller at the same efficiency.  Why?  Because of the relatively very low steam pressure (compared to power plants) the steam-driven chiller uses.  If I were to use real numbers, this could easily balloon to 6x the cost.  E.g., these old chillers are probably half as efficient as a new one- tops, and the turbines won’t be perfect like I assumed.

So what is the solution to widespread ignorance of commercial and industrial facility operation, systems, processes, controls, and how to reduce energy consumption?  Send me an email and I will tell you.  It works really well.

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

Disaster in the Gulf

4 05 2010

Like millions of people around the world, I have been following the slow nightmare that is unfolding in the gulf.  Many topics and thoughts come to mind.

First, our company mission is “make every project a positive experience for our clients”. It’s simple but guides everything we do.  When there is a potential mistake or an angry client calling or emailing us complaining about something we are involved with, it’s a code red in our office.  Engineers and managers meet immediately to plot the course of events leading to where we are and we clearly define the problem and plot a course to make amends.  We focus on the immediate problem and take corrective action later as necessary.

Unfortunately, as usual, the political class engages in a food fight while Rome burns.  Many politicians’ first reactions are to figure out how to get the political upper hand, not collaborate to mitigate the effects of the disaster.  Bush was tarred and feathered for Katrina as though he started the storm and drove it right into New Orleans on purpose.  It is true however, that corporate America, including Wal-Mart, was quicker to provide relief than the government.  This current disaster is in many ways very similar, EXCEPT it is unfolding in super slow motion.  It’s already been two weeks since this started.  It will be interesting to see how this administration is treated in the court of public opinion.  Thus far, it has mainly been right wingers flinging their verbal nunchucks, but apparently so has the New York Times!  Whoa.  So President Obama may be headed for a similar unfounded meat grinder.

Second, there is a tendency to underestimate the disaster.  This was true with Katrina and it is unfolding once again with this mess.  First it was a thousand barrels a day.  Then 5,000.  As of Saturday, it was floated that it may actually be 25,000 barrels a day.  One of the best business books I’ve read is “Winning” by Jack Welch, long-time CEO of General Electric.  He dedicates a chapter to crisis management and the first of five responses to a crisis is to assume it is much worse than it seems.  Again, I’ll refer to my days in the nuclear Navy.  The tiniest of “incidents” were formally reported and acted on.  This may include lessons learned, more training, somebody’s head rolls, or a procedure changes.  The incident might be the first in what would have to be about six mishaps carried out “perfectly” with precisely the right timing.  And, IF all that were to happen there may be equipment damage or worse.  There is safety mechanism on top of safety mechanism, but regardless of how many layers there are, mishaps are taken very seriously.

Which brings me to the third thing; apparently the rig lacked an emergency shut-trigger to close a valve because it was too expensive.  A 2003 report by the Minerals Management Service said these triggers “are not recommended because they tend to be very expensive.”   The trigger costs $500,000.  Let’s see.  At current leak rates and oil prices, about $500,000 worth of oil is currently leaking every day and it’s costing BP $6 million/day to manage the disaster.  The rig was worth $560 million.  $500,000?

For the love of Pete!  The government declares a $500,000 safety device is too expensive for private industry.  Wow!  Write that one down.  Is this the same government that shakes down 75-year-old grandmas trying to get on an airplane?

Aside from the government, it seems BP has major culpability in this disaster.  Mistakes and accidents always have, and always will occur.  This seems like a major oversight or act of negligence.  It seems like such an obvious safeguard – like dangling from the side of a building on a stepladder hanging from ropes 100 feet in the air – you use a safety harness in case of falling.  (You would have to see this to believe it but I watched it across the street while the telecom people were installing cellular phone transmitters on an elevator penthouse).  Any other oil companies that don’t use these devices can thank their lucky stars and better get with it.

Fourth, where is the outrage?  Exxon got whipped for at least 15 years after Valdez.  Maybe it’s because Valdez is pristine and nobody lives there.  This spill will affect millions on the coast and wreak financial havoc on a great many businesses, so what’s the big deal?

Every president since Nixon has run on a promise to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but yet with the exception of recessions, our dependence has increased every single term.  Recessions don’t seem like a good way to reduce oil imports.

President Obama made the right decision a few weeks ago to allow for expansion of offshore exploration.  If we are going to reduce dependence on foreign oil, domestic production has to be part of the mix, like it or not.  The disaster with the Deepwater Horizon was borne of negligence and stupidity.  If somebody can engineer to dig an 18,000 foot well under 5,000 feet of water and move the oil ashore, somebody can surely find several ways to absolutely kill a leak.

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