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.

1978

2010

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

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