EE, Policy, and Irony

24 05 2011

As my crop of silver hair continues to expand, I have become more of a historian, particularly when it comes to cause and effect, and peoples’ behavior.  I step back and observe what is happening and what has happened as a result of this or that policy.  Theories are nice, and they may be well thought out and make sense but if they fail miserably, should we double down and try it again?  Policy isn’t like launching rockets or breaking the speed of sound.

For those things, you can test, observe failure/problems and make adjustments.  For example, Chuck Yeager was the first to break the speed of sound in an airplane.  As he did so, the vehicle, which looked like a beer keg with wings (tap included), shook violently and about blew apart.  Why?  Because it had straight wings, not “delta” shaped wings.  The tap of the keg was led by a shock wave that emanated back in a V, kind of like the wake behind a boat.  The straight wings resulted in the ends leading the beer keg’s shock wave and the portions closer to the fuselage were safely behind the shock wave.  There is a large difference in pressure upstream and downstream of the wave causing instability and the violent vibrations.  They learned.  Sweep the wings back so the entire wing is post shock wave.  All supersonic aircraft have since been designed that way.  Google for pictures of the Blackbird, Concorde, Stealth Fighter, F-14, 22, and a gazillion others and you can see this delta wing design.  You don’t see this on your basic subsonic A320 passenger jet.  Mechanical engineers should already know this.  If not, they went to the wrong school or slept through fluid dynamics.

Policy, on the other hand, does not work this way in my opinion because policy affects infinite variables and you are dealing with peoples’ decisions on a macro basis, not physics.  When accounting for decisions made by 300 million individuals followed by a chain reaction of decisions that is limitless, you will get the same results from the same policy every time.

Keynesian theory (stimulus), for example has failed, what a thousand times, not counting the depression?  But we keep trying.  See this damning report by two Ph.D. economists, one from The Ohio State University and one from the University of Western Ontario.  The Act “saved or created” 443 thousand government jobs and “destroyed” about 1 million private sector jobs.  I wonder if the study was funded by ARRA!  LOL!  Has anyone seen Joe Biden lately?

I could write a book regarding why it doesn’t work on a macro level, but let me just provide some reasons believers give for it not working: it wasn’t enough money ($800 billion is almost $3,000 for every man woman and child in the country – how many flat screen TVs from China do we need?), it doesn’t work during deficit spending, the financial crisis, the Bowl Championship Series, La Nina, Rosie quit The View, people were busy preparing for the apocalypse that failed to materialize over the weekend  – you name it.

Likewise, it’s been a bomb for energy efficiency.

  • Utility and regulatory stakeholders in Iowa opined they couldn’t wait for the funding to stop so people would get off their hands and get in the game again.  Now that ARRA is wearing off, an objective observer can see this happening – the economy improving, slowly.
  • Cash for clunkers miniscule EE impacts.  Over an AESP conference lunch last week, I visited with an engineer from Southern Company, Alabama and he said the Honda and Mercedes plants in their service territory were running around the clock, full tilt.  Post cash for clunker they were running at half capacity.  And savings?
  • A long time ago, I said the money going to EE needs oversight to ensure it isn’t wasted.  Well lo and behold, a few weeks after this we bid as a sub-consultant to evaluate the funds spent in California and won the project.  We haven’t seen a nickel’s worth of work yet.
  • With a business partner’s lead, we pursued pilot work to pursue some ARRA funds, despite my vowing not to pursue ARRA funds.  Result: $130,000 lost in work we will never be paid for.
  • We had a “shovel ready” LEED® project for a new federal building ready to go.  After dragging on for months, our LEED services were value-engineered out of it.  Did the OSU guy capture this?
  • In the past couple weeks we considered going after some DOE EE evaluation work with one of our best clients but dropped out once intelligence revealed a competitor was going to low-ball it with their “government rates”.  Reverse price fixing.  I wonder how the rest of their clients feel about this??

What else is ironic is I would say our industry is quite progressive, yet when politically favored are in power, EE gets the shaft.  Consider WI, which during the recession prior to this one, the Democratic governor Jim Doyle, almost collapsed the state’s energy program by taking HALF the budget dollars rather than cutting spending elsewhere.  In speaking with Californians last week at AESP, the same thing is on the table in Sacramento, with a Democrat uber-super-duper majority.  I said, I bet there’s uproar over that.  Not a peep.  How could this be?  Unions Trumpka EE, get it?

Meanwhile, on the right you have people like Rand Paul with his kooky bill to undo the incandescent ban; Glen Beck waxing hysterically that George Soros will use the CFL as a tool to overthrow the US government and Media Matters will control your smart grid connection; Bush and hydrogen; and of course there is a considerable faction of right wingers that would just as soon gut all EE efforts and drill, mine, build power plants, and power lines willy nilly, and waste resources per market forces.

Finally there is this triple lindy irony: the incandescent ban, signed into law by Bush, hated by right, generally applauded by policy people in our industry, is causing much angst for program people.  It’s taking with it a gravy train of easy savings for EE programs.  An entire cottage industry is developing to rationalize the legitimacy of maintaining these savings.  There’s a problem though.  I can get CFLs on for less coin than the less efficient halogen.  We may actually see incentives for throwing away working incandescent light bulbs (just guessing).

Will the Republicans dismantle our industry?  It’s probably not going to happen in Wisconsin.  A friend (Shaw) of a friend (Koch) of the governor is the administrator!  What a hoot – a story for another day.

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

Cabbage Patch iPad

26 04 2011

The thing that pushed me over the edge this week was a fine blog  post by Elisa Wood.  My comment was that Gavin Newsom’s list of jobs created by resources including coal, nuclear, wind, solar, and EE, does not include return on investment.  Only EE has return on investment for the end user.  All other sources cost the end user, not save the end user money.  But this is not the topic of the day.

I am not a tech geek.  I just want things that are stable, reliable, and relatively fast and snappy.  I will pay for it.  I have long been out of college and therefore, time is scarcer than money so just give me something “fast” and reliable and I’ll gladly pay for it.

I also do not need, and in fact I do not want the latest and greatest thing.  Take Microsoft, which hasn’t had any substantial improvement to the Office suite for ten years – since they added the right-click menus.  It has become more stable and reliable in the past 15 years as reports we wrote used to become corrupted out of the blue and you couldn’t open them ever again.  Congratulations for this achievement!

I am not a Microsoft basher but I don’t think they have innovated (if I may use that as a verb) hardly a single thing.  Operating systems with graphical interfaces, mice, spreadsheets, word processors, web browsers, databases, and you name it; they didn’t develop any of these things and they comprise their bulk of gazillions in revenue and profit.  Microsoft is good at taking others’ ideas and packaging and marketing them, creating monopolies and crushing any competitors, or simply buying them out.  Like I said, I’m no Microsoft basher.

Apple on the other hand has been a major innovator with the Mac, Mac operating system, the iPod, and then really, really with the iPhone.  When the iPhone first came out, I thought “what is the big deal?”  It doesn’t even have buttons.  Then I experienced it as we work with clients who use them exclusively.  I look at my Microsoft kludge of a phone (again Microsoft following, not innovating) and think, wow, the iPhone is about 100x better.  (I now have a Motorola Droid which in many ways is better than the iPhone if you ask me, so my tech world is whole again)

At an AESP conference, I was fortunate to win an iPod touch, which is essentially the iPhone without the phone.  Other AESP-drawing winners of GPSs wanted to trade and I said get lost.  I’m giving this to my wife to replace her crappy iPod wannabee.  The iPod touch gave me hands-on experience with greatness.

Apple has built such a cult following that if they introduced a turntable, the iTable, people would camp out for a week just to be the first to get their hands on one of these 1960s makeovers.  They have already done this – it’s called the iPad.  It’s a ridiculous widget.  Why is it ridiculous, Jeff?

First, because it isn’t a serious business tool (yes, I will get to the consumer thing later).  Thinking we could use one of these possibly for field work surveys, I asked one of our iEverything business partners what he thought of this.  He said, no, it isn’t going to do well with spreadsheets or databases, if they can even be used at all.  It doesn’t even have ports like a USB connection for goodness sake.

Second, I was on a plane headed for somewhere sitting next to a guy watching a movie on an iPad.  I enlightened him by saying, “You know, they make these things that have a convenient platform to prop the screen up reliably for hands free movie watching.  You could just sit it on your tray and sit back and enjoy the movie.  It’s called a laptop computer.”

It’s a large version of a phone without the phone.  It’s a small computer with no capability.

Perhaps most ridiculous, I recall an article in The Wall Street Journal covering the various ways iPad owners can transport their iPads.  One solution was like a fanny pack with a big pouch in which you would carry the iPad along the small of your back.  Good grief!  Don’t use a computer bag.  That would reveal the stupidity of this device.

Conclusion: It’s a clunky, slippery, doohickey that is too large for your pocket, to small for a computer, and you can do little productive work with it.  The second conclusion is, Steve Jobs is a genius for generating a brand that will get people to buy anything with an i in front of it, by the hundreds of millions.

How do we do this with energy efficiency?  It has to have a strong element of “look at how great and cool I am”.  I suggest a web-based application that shows how rich you are becoming, in real time, as a result of your EE genius.  In one pane it would mimic a bank teller slapping down dollar bills as you stuff them in your wallet.  Once you accumulate a bulging wallet full of bills you trade them in for a hundred dollar bill.  You let the hundreds pile up on the counter.  After a while you swap currency for gold bullion and that starts stacking up on the counter.

In another pane you have a lot full of Prius and electric vehicles with dead batteries in front of a big box store called “Renewables R Us”.  As you accumulate enough savings and equivalent emissions of these cars / energy sources, King Kong circa 1976 walks onto the scene thumping his chest and roaring.  He picks up an electric vehicle and tucks it under his harm like a football and stomps off, maybe stepping on a couple screaming shoppers making their way to the store as they drop their iPads.  This would represent the equivalent Priuses taken off the road. Next time, Kong comes by but this time tripping on a Prius and falling face first crushing a dozen Nissan Leafs.  After doing the ceremonial thump and roar, he rips a solar panel off the roof and throws it across town, like the subway cars in the movie… followed by stomping off and squashing a few more shoppers.

The app should be exclusive to new chosen makes and models of devices and they are provided by the EE program as part of the incentive.  The devices are sleek and unique so everyone knows, that guy is cool and smart.  The devices would have functionality of iPods, phones, and laptops so they aren’t just a worthless status symbol.

So the next time you are sitting at the gate or in cattle class, your device is screaming – “look at how cool I am” while the inferior, insecure me-too stooge is gawking on, thinking, “Man that guy has some device!”

Copyright 2011


As gasoline prices are clicking past $4 across the country, citizens are crying to the feds to do something.  So what are both the President and Speaker talking about?  Eliminate subsidies for oil companies – as though this will bring down prices!  Again, politics rather than logic rule in Washington.  Prices are high and therefore the oil companies must be punished and somehow reducing profit will lower prices.  Good Grief! – popular with the lemmings but thinkers know better.

P.S.  I believe the “subsidies” they are talking about are tax breaks for depleting wells, which sounds to me like depreciation for assets of depleting value – like our office furniture and computers.  Anyway, let me say that subsidies should go, across the board, but office furniture and computers are the price of doing business and obviously affect profit so depreciation isn’t a subsidy, unless you’re a political hack.

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

Choose Solutions, Not Facts

19 04 2011

State and federal budgets are headed for the cliff to varying degrees with few exceptions.  Here in Wisconsin, we’ve had the Battle Royale fight to the death cage match with the repubs on one side and the unions on the other while the dems were hiding out in a witness protection plan.

Meanwhile at the federal level, we are on a dangerous trajectory unseen in my lifetime.  People have whined about the deficit and debt since my adolescence – the Miracle on Ice days against the Soviet Union.  I kept saying, “It’s not a problem.  It’s not a problem.”  Why?  Because the debt as a percentage of our economy was reasonable, and flat but very few people consider this metric – the one that matters most.  They just clobber each other over the head and call each other names and we have Jay Leno fodder like “pay-go”.

However, this all changed since the meltdown Lehman Brothers in the fall of 2008.  The debt as a percentage of our economy really IS becoming a major concern.  We are staring at $1.6 trillion deficits for as far as the eye can see.  Personally, I think the word trillion should be banned because it sounds inconsequential.  How about $1.6 million million, or $1,600 billion?

Do we cut spending, take away grandma’s pharmaceuticals, sell her home, and set her and her senile dog up in a tent under the bridge, or do we fleece “the rich”.  See, I’ve always believed when politicians talk about “the rich” they mean households with incomes of two freshly college-educated people, say an engineer and a nurse or a school teacher and pharmacist.

As a rational person, I did a little Saturday morning research and some pretty simple math to prove my point.  The chart below containing data from the IRS paints a pretty clear and grim picture for those expecting a free ride from “the rich”.  What it shows is total incomes and numbers of returns (households) by income bracket.  The average income of those in the top 1% is $1.2 million and the next 4% the average drops sharply to $220,000.  My analysis goes like this: suppose we just took everything these people made above $100k, $250k, and so on.  Taking everything in excess of $100k from the top 10% of earners is “only” $2.4 trillion – $800 billion more than the deficit.  I.e., if the government confiscated all household income above $100k, we would have an $800 billion surplus.  But almost no one in this country considers $100k to be wealthy.

So let’s move to $250k, which apparently according to the President is the line between the rich and not rich because he’s said ten thousand times he’s not touching the piggy bank of anyone making less than $250k.  Well guess what; if we take everything in excess of $250k, it doesn’t even balance the budget.  Everything!  Of course if we tried this, no one would make more than $250k.  If we took 90%, there would be very little income over $250k and so on.  Lastly, if we take everything in excess of $1 million, you know, stick it to the rich, it has practically a negligible impact on the deficit.  Hello Pesky!  And remember, this is EVERYTHING above $1 million.

I conclude with facts that raising taxes on “the rich” is akin to fixing the weather-stripping on a large commercial building that is hemorrhaging energy waste.

And so it goes for energy savings.  One has to ask themselves, what can I expect for savings to pay for a renovation I want?  Start by considering you can’t save more than the building or a piece of equipment is using.  Sound pretty ridiculously simple?  Some end users could learn from this.

If you are on a buildings and grounds committee, you should know a few basic rules of thumb.  I will use schools as an example here.  New construction costs around $150 per square foot.  The cost of lighting and HVAC for the building is probably 20-30% of that cost with HVAC costing $20-$35 per square foot.  People should consider their own energy costs per square foot, but it’s most likely going to be in the $1-$2 per square foot per year.

So put some numbers together to get a SWAG (scientific wild ass guess) of what your return on investment may be for an HVAC system replacement.  At Michaels we call such a limit of savings or return on investment a bracket or a bracket calculation.  For example, if you are paying $1.50 per square foot per year and a new HVAC system costs $30 per square foot, your best possible return is a 20 year payback – that is if you save ALL the energy being consumed now.  It is safe to say that actual payback is twice that long.  Ditto for adding a variable speed drive to a pump.  One of our engineers may consider a variable speed drive for a pump and I may pull out my calculator and within thirty seconds conclude it’s never going to fly.  The motor uses $750 electricity at most, and installing a drive is going to be at least $2,000.  After screwing around with more detailed data and analysis, it will be a 12 year payback and that’s going nowhere.

Imagine being hired to analyze options for an HVAC replacement, considering several alternative systems.  Wouldn’t you know it! The payback was infinite because the new system would cost more to operate in energy than the 90 year old steam system that provides no ventilation and no air conditioning.  The board is shocked at the price tag and doesn’t want to pay for the study!  They were “misled”.  Wha?  I would call it an introduction to the real world, circa 2011.

This is like going to the optometrist because the patient can’t see very well, thinking they need a $100 pair of glasses.  The doctor does his series of tests and he diagnoses cataracts.  The exam costs $150 and the cataract surgery costs $7,000.  Otherwise, the eyes are fine.  The patient is enraged and refuses to pay for the exam.  The patient still wants the eyeglasses – prescribed by said optometrist!  This is a perfect allegory to a real story.

You may be able to choose among solutions, but you cannot rewrite history, pick your own reality, or defy the arithmetic.


Checking in after my rant No Brazil Syndrome, how many radiation-related deaths have occurred as a result of Fukushima’s damage sustained in March 11’s massive earthquake?  Zero.  Meanwhile, in the same period, probably more than 3,000 Americans have died in car crashes and deaths from the tsunami in Japan alone exceed 13,000.

Like most other things, you (you) have infinitely more control over your well being than that thing poses.  Stay out of the sun or wear strong sunscreen, don’t smoke, keep your BMI within better than recommended limits, skip the red meat, wear your seatbelt/helmet, exercise, don’t break the speed limit, check your cholesterol and blood pressure, get your colonoscopies…

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

Don’t Mess with the Stapler

5 04 2011

We, as an industry, have our work cut out for us in coming years.

Months ago an industrial energy efficiency consortium that puts on training events held a two-day workshop on motors.  Motors!  Talking about the common Swingline stapler for two days would be more interesting.  The efficient motor uses less energy in the amount of the difference in the reciprocals of old minus new.  I.e., (1/eff – 1/eff).  Multiply by nameplate horsepower then by 0.5 (don’t ask, just do it) then by annual hours of use.  Bingo!  There are your savings.  Two days!

There are more complex issues that may not be addressed.  One of these issues is, what is it that makes a motor more efficient?  Tighter windings and closer tolerances – I think.  I don’t care because the impacts are infinitesimally small compared to what end users ought to be doing.  This results in less slip, which means the efficient motor actually runs faster.  Here is the dirty secret:  An efficient motor may be three percent more efficient but as it runs faster on a constant speed fan or pump it would increase shaft power – power transferred to the impeller / fan wheel by 9%.  Increasing the load by 9% but doing it more efficiently by 3% does not save energy.  Quite the opposite, actually.  If one changed sheaves, which isn’t going to happen, or if the equipment is properly controlled by a variable speed drive, it may actually save energy.

On the whole, it is highly possible that efficient motors result in greater energy consumption.

Recently, we were meeting with regulatory staff and the topics of lighting and motors surfaced.  Apparently, the investor owned utilities are clinging to, and concocting ways to hold onto savings for efficient motors and lighting; minimum efficiencies for which thanks to the benevolent federal government are being ratcheted up by fiat.  Clinging like Milton and his beloved stapler.

Give me a break.  If programs are still relying on savings from motors, there is a major problem in Denmark.  How about considering what the motor is turning?  The load on the motor could probably be reduced by 50%, while they are going to “save” 3% with a stupid new motor that runs faster and uses more energy.

I can see what is going to happen.  Some utilities are going to whine to the regulators that all their savings opportunities are going away because the feds have ratcheted up standards.  Regulators should respond with the equivalent of “Gee, that’s really unfortunate.  Since you’ve installed all these motors that use more energy over the years, I think we will raise your savings target by one additional percentage point.”  Ironically, I learned that negotiating tactic from a utility.  “You think the penalty is too harsh?  I’ll add 50%.  Would you like to counter that again?”

Ironically, on the same day as the meeting with the regulatory staffer, I received information I had asked for purposes of evaluating the potential for retro-commissioning of a mid-size high school just over 250,000 square feet.  I had asked for the energy records.  The facility is using at least 50% more electricity than it should and 50% more natural gas than it should – easy.  It is using as much energy off peak as on peak.  The power factor is lousy.  With these symptoms, I bet I can call three top, major energy saving opportunities given the types of systems they have.  I’ll just leave it at that because it’s intellectual property available for a price.

I’ll bet my house that we can reduce their energy consumption by at least 30% with well under a five year payback.  It could be one year or three years, depending on what needs to happen to fix the causes of the waste.

Trust me when I tell you, efficient motors and new lighting will not be part of the 30% solution.


On the nearly useless EE front, see which internet browsers are most efficient.   However, the impact on battery life is worth noting.  If you don’t use the overpriced internet during air travel, kill the browser.

The president says federal vehicles will all use “clean” fuel by 2015.  What does that mean?  One percent of the fuel will come from reconstituted plastic grocery bags recovered from a landfill?   Meanwhile, the federal vehicles excluding military, guzzled 7% more gasoline than the previous year, using 322 million gallons of gasoline.  Congratulations.  I’m always pleased to be told how to live by hypocrites to whom no rules apply.

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

Burnin Down the House

29 03 2011

Some things in life you have to fully commit yourself to or they will end in colossal failure, or immeasurably small success.  When I was a kid I played Evel Knievel by setting up ramps of 2×12 planks and concrete blocks.  I jumped my bike across maybe a five foot “canyon”.  Note, this was before mountain bikes.  Gary Fischer may have been developing his mountain bike in his garage but there was nothing available on the market.  I used a purple girl’s bike, single speed, no shock absorbers, no foot clips, and certainly no helmet.  Why the girl’s bike?  The consequences of failure on a boy’s bike were brutal.  Hitting the ramp at half speed would end in disaster.  I’m sure similar consequences exist for crazy stuff like ski jumping, doing flips on/with anything.  Even when you have an easy play in sports, you have to let it fly or you’re bound to choke.  There are many things you can’t half do.

Fifteen years ago utility deregulation was the rage.  Deregulation has been a boon to consumers in many industries including airlines, and telecommunications.  It’s been brutal to product and service providers that weren’t prepared for the “free market”.  Plenty of airlines went bust and are gone; Eastern, TWA, PanAm, and Braniff to name a few.  It did allow innovative companies like Southwest to enter the market and develop new niches and business models.

Electric utility deregulation had varied results, mostly in different shades of failure.  The darkest shade of failure, pitch black, was probably California where, you guessed it, they hit the ramp at half speed and crashed and burned badly.  They deregulated wholesale prices but capped retail prices to end users.  The fools who approved this are clueless with respect to how markets work.  You have to have price response to the point of use or the system will collapse.  Healthcare anyone?  Consumers kept buying relatively cheap power, while companies like NRG Energy and Enron held all the aces and could charge what they wanted to the utilities.  Result: bankruptcy across the board for the utilities, an Austrian immigrant body builder took over as the Governator in a recall election.

Deregulation didn’t work for electricity for a number of reasons in my opinion.

  • First, the system was built over many decades on a monopolistic, captive consumer, model.  The cost to enter the market as a provider is huge, at maybe a billion dollars for a 500 MW plant.  Smaller plants would be more costly per unit output. …not exactly like starting a coffee joint.
  • It’s instantaneous production and sale, which means producers can charge the same price – so who would build peaking plants, when base load plants can charge the same as plants that are used much less often?
  • The entire economy was built on consistently low-cost power and therefore the “strike price” (say uncle) would be much higher because power is THAT important to doing business.
  • Finally, generators can’t just pick up and move to where demand is highest.  If generators could package their kWh in six packs, cases, or in bulk quantities to distribute to retailers, grocery stores, drug stores, convenience stores, and for consumers to take home and use as needed, deregulation of electricity would work.

Like all these half baked efforts from child stuntmen to electricity deregulation, end users can’t half do an energy efficiency project and expect decent results.  You can’t replace an HVAC system and put in crap for controls or not commission the system and expect results.  You can’t put in a completely different but proven refrigeration system, skip design review by the EE consultant, skip VFDs, skip heat recovery, and skip functional testing of the system and expect more than barely perceptible impacts.  End users may spend 20% extra to implement a new concept but skip the 1-2% needed to make sure it really works and another couple percent on enhancements to capture much of the savings.

This presents a major untapped opportunity with EE programs.  The above refrigeration case was for new construction.  Based on experience in several new construction programs providing services, evaluating programs, and doing retro-commissioning after the fact, I conclude new construction programs generate very little return on program dollar.  The “savings” are relative to essentially an arbitrary baseline.  But what is the market doing all by itself?  Actual attributable savings are relative to what the market, not a consensus reference point developed for something else (energy codes, which aren’t enforced anyway).

We will be doing a new construction market baseline study as part of a major utility program evaluation this summer.  I’ve been in this business long enough to bet a lot of money that most “savings” associated with new construction programs are happening anyway in absence of any program.

So what should programs be doing?  Burn down the house and start over.  Erase 70 years of one bad idea piled on another and start from scratch with a clean slate.  Rather than nibbling around the edges with some stupid occupancy sensors, daylighting sensors, extra insulation, and an efficient chiller (all of which are good but very limited ideas), develop means to completely raze and rebuild (pun intended) building and system designs.

Look, A&E firms are reticent to incorporate changes that make a difference.  Once an A&E team has been selected, they will want to charge exorbitant prices to make significant changes.  To some degree, I don’t blame them.  They charge double in part because of fear of the unknown and in part because they don’t want to do it.  It’s also due to the cheap and crappy market that consumers have been demanding for decades.  They don’t get paid enough to change and programs can’t afford meaningful change either.

Buildings need to be built with systems that are much simpler, low cost, and inherently difficult to dork up.  I have little to no doubt that we can develop a refrigeration and HVAC systems for grocery stores that will reduce energy consumption by about 40% compared to today’s status quo, for both gas and electricity.  The systems would be simpler, with fewer compressors, fewer condensers, fewer fans, less piping and less refrigerant loss.  It would be rugged and difficult to screw up.  If stores were built with this design en masse they would cost no more than the crap that goes in them now.  How?  Because of the simplicity.  Think of it this way.  Look at the power transmission systems built in the 1960s and earlier.  The towers are built as trusses with a bazillion small pieces of iron all bolted or riveted together with a bazillion times 100 fasteners.  What are they made of now?  One giant hunk of steel containing probably no more steel than the old ones.  They are cheaper to build, transport, install, and maintain, and they are probably stronger than the over-designed kludges of the past.  I’m saying something very similar can be done with building design.  

And you can’t develop the concept, hand it over to a contractor and not look at it again until the non-performing results start to come in.  It has to be shepherded through the design/development and commissioned.  THIS is what new construction programs ought to be doing.  But it takes a customer that wants to hit the ramp at full speed, and quit nibbling a little here and a little there with some LED lights and super duper low-e windows and a white roof.

Soon, we will be releasing a white paper that discusses the evolution, or I should say devolution of building design over the past 100 years, and what I am promoting going forward.  Get ready for that.


In an update on A Frivolous Novelty, the all-electric Nissan Leafs are flying off lots at the brisk pace of about 70 per month.  No need to check the decimal point.  That is correct.  About two or three per day, worldwide.  The average Nissan dealer probably sells two Altimas per day, by noon.  Save yours today!

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

Pregnant Snake Armpits

1 03 2011

Although I don’t appreciate talking about it, we have a black list of companies and organizations for which we will not again partner with, work with, or bid their request for proposals.  What type of activities land somebody on this list?

Companies or organizations that take our business development efforts and give it to someone else.

We are working on retro-commissioning for a major player in the Midwest grocery market.  As with most of our investment-grade studies for energy retrofit or retro-commissioning, we like to use contractors to provide us with pricing because we expect they will get the work and therefore, the pricing is going to be more accurate in addition to having accountability for the prices at implementation time.  The contractor was very reluctant to help because he was afraid he would help develop pricing and concepts and then somebody else would get the work.  I laughed out of familiarity with such shenanigans.

Unfortunately, while working on the grocer project, we were victims of just what the contractor was talking about, on a different project.  We had completed an energy study for a quasi non-profit, quasi-government outfit (Jeff, how many times do you have to get burned before you learn?) and we were moving into developing the design and provided a proposal.  We had already pretty well nailed down the scope of the project.

Inject another righteous government agency to “help” this end user.  Well, they took our developed scope of work and put out a competitive request for proposals with OUR work on it.  So now we’re faced with throwing away all the development we had already done just to be competitive with the other bidders who were handed this on a silver platter.  As I wrote last week, it’s a rainy day in hell when a government outfit takes anything but the low bid, otherwise known as the cheapest, crappiest system imaginable; one that meets only the major recognizable features, like equipment efficiency.    There are plenty of places to cut cost on the design and on the project itself.

That agency is blacklisted.

Companies that use our credentials to win a job and then dump us like a cheap date.

Last year we had “teamed” with a local architect on a LEED project for a new nearby federal facility.  I must digress for a moment.  This project was in progress when the “stimulus” was passed – you know the one that was supposed to break loose the shovel-ready projects.  If this wasn’t shovel-ready, I don’t know what was.  The plans and specifications had been lying about for year or two waiting for approval to proceed.  It drug on for months once the stimulus passed.

Come to think of it, this one too was in our hip pocket and they bid the work out again.  I’m not sure why because the design was 90% completed but I suppose some milestone had passed and federal statutes required a rebid or something.

So now that it’s competitive, once again after doing a bunch of development and front end work, we have to cut cost to beneath the cheap and crappy level.  So our client, the architect asked us to chop our down our price.  We provided a counter offer and waited.   And waited, and waited.

We already had 20 or so LEED projects under our belt compared to near zilch for the architect.  Finally, we get a hold of the scumbag, er, I mean client, and he says, oh yeah, “The good news is, we won the project.  The bad news is, you aren’t on the team.”  This is lower than a pregnant snake’s armpit.  (stolen from the aussies and modified by me).


Companies or organizations that use our proposal in attempt to beat “their” firm down in price.

This one is more difficult to nail down but let’s just say if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…  A large organization pursued by a bunch of consultants / contractors has been working with a provider for years and maybe they want a new or modified service, or maybe it’s just the same stuff they’ve been provided with many times.  Now they suddenly want a proposal from us.  This is either a Sarbanes Oxley corporate requirement (ok), process to actually evaluate invited bidders (ok), charade to fake a bureaucrat into thinking the chosen one was competitively selected (not ok), or a hammer to beat down the firm they know they are going to hire (not ok).  Essentially, we are wasting a bunch of our time to benefit only the buyer.  The other bidder(s) gets screwed too.

Blacklisted after a few of these – typically takes a few rounds of abuse to have this scam come into clear focus.

Wolves in sheep clothing.

Over the years we’ve been pursued by numerous companies that would like to partner with us.  It would be a marriage made in heaven.  Next step: an initial public offering on the NASDAQ!  Uh huh.  Sure.  These dirt bags just want access to our clients and for some reason, controls companies and performance contractors make up a substantial portion of this bunch.

Show me the money before I lift a finger or you are blacklisted.

A better way.

Recently a business partner stated it well, “What do we have in business and life but our reputations?”  And I always say to our company’s people, you best treat well everyone you work with in the company, our clients, and even the competition.  You never know who will one day be your client or supervisor, employee, or maybe someone you want to partner with, or get help from.

Everyone involved in business transactions should benefit – consultant, owner, utility, shareholders, and contractor.  Clearly and unfortunately, some entities think they can get ahead while screwing others and thinking they are getting a good deal or making extra profit.  Sooner or later these outfits run out of victims to exploit.  It shouldn’t be a fixed pie that everyone fights over.  It should be a pie from which everyone’s slice grows.


It appears Sacramento is contemplating the same fateful robbery of EE program dollars by hocking the stream of energy efficiency money.   In WI, this grab actually happened and crippled programs.  Ironically, or maybe not so, they would be both carried out under Democrat governors.

Outrage of the Week

Maybe I should start an outrage of the week?  Well here is the inaugural.  The DOE is calling it “Market-Driven Solutions” to work with behemoths like Target and Wal-Mart to develop new efficient rooftop heating and cooling units.  Is this the same Wal-Mart with $420 billion worldwide sales and $14.4 billion in annual earnings?  Chu, you have got to be kidding me.

Like General Electric, why doesn’t Wal-Mart get back to what they used to do well; innovate, rather than going to Washington with its hand out.  Time to put a “strong sell” on Wal-Mart stock.  They’re washed up.

This is a free market solution: an RFP for manufacturers of rooftop units to develop units that meet Wal-Mart’s specifications, reliably, and supply them with heating and cooling equipment for the next 100 stores.  After 100 stores, the incumbent has a huge advantage for (hopefully) proven success.

A portion of the $1.6 trillion, or as I like to say $1.6 million million, deficit is funding this kind of crap.  This wouldn’t be funny even if it weren’t true.

Oxymoron of the week: “DOE facilitates market-driven solutions”.

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

RFPs from the Edge

22 02 2011

Last month, the one session I attended at the AESP national conference was how to write a better request for proposal (RFP).  It was sort of a forum led by our friends at Tetra Tech.  Essentially, it was full of people like me, for whom a major responsibility is business development and marketing – responding to RFPs.  For a while I sat there like a lump, thinking, eh, just deal with it and quit whining.  Toward the end of the session I started getting fired up.

Here are some guidelines for writing RFPs:

  • If you’ve already decided who you are going to hire but have to go through an RFP process as a formality to keep some government wonk off your back, just issue the RFP with a one-week deadline with an impossible pile of content to gather so it is obvious to everyone who knows anything (i.e., not the clueless wonk), that the RFP is a charade.  I have plenty of opportunity without being duped into writing a proposal for which we have no chance.  And whatever you do in this scenario, don’t extend the deadline because some clueless bidder doesn’t “get it” and asks for an extension.
  • If you are going to extend the deadline, do it days before the deadline passes.  One thing that really smoked my butt last summer was having a deadline extended with about three hours to go for the 5:00 deadline.  This was obviously to accommodate some whining  bidders.  The RFP had been out for weeks.  If a bidder can’t manage their time better than that they deserve no chance at the project.  Is that how you would handle the actual work should you win?  I wrote as much in our proposal on that one, sparing the name calling, however.
  • If you are going to extend the deadline, do it before the original deadline.  That is correct.  We recently submitted a proposal on a Friday, the due date.  We added to the proposal that we had not received the questions (from bidders) and answers (from buyer) for the proposal.  Samples of this Q&A are discussed in You Are So Fired.   As a result of not having the Q&A, we wrote that if there is something we didn’t get from the guy who promised we would get the Q&A, have mercy on us.  The next Tuesday here came the Q&A and an extension to the next Thursday, two days away.  Good grief!  And it had MAJOR implications.  See next bullet…
  • If there is a deadline for completing the actual project, PUT THIS IN THE RFP! (please)  The RFP discussed in the previous bullet was for a quarter million dollars with no project timeline mentioned in the original RFP.  We provided two scenarios: first to complete it by late fall for one price and second to finish early the next year.  In the Q&A provided after the due date, the report was to be completed by June 30.  Nice.  If I had known that I probably wouldn’t have even bid the thing because it’s too aggressive and practically impossible to deliver.  Did I mention this was an ARRA (“stimulus”) project.  Makes sense that it makes no sense.
  • Either provide a very detailed scope of work or budget, or both.  If neither is provided, you have nothing to bid on.  This may sound like a “duh” but some RFPs want innovation and therefore leave the approach wide open, which is ok, but unless the RFP comes from congress, which knows no limit on spending, please give me a number to work with.
  • Know what you are doing.  We were recently teaming with another firm on a proposal for a relatively huge pile of work.  The constraints on cost per project and per unit of savings were about 40% lower than industry standards.  For example, a rule of thumb is that a program should deliver savings for about 1.5 times the energy cost per unit.  They were talking about something more like 0.8 times cost per unit.  C’mon.  This will be a case of hopefully getting the project and then explaining their plan is naive and needs a reality pill.
  • Keep it linear not a convoluted, semi-parallel piece of junk.  Some RFPs have an approach, scope of work, form of proposal, with a total of about 4 separate lists of things to cover.  I want to be sure to cover everything and present it clearly but this gets a little difficult when the format detailed in the RFP is a mess.  It doesn’t flow like I want because the RFP is a heap of junk.
  • Don’t mislead or outright lie about selection criteria.  When I see an RFP from a government entity with a proposal selection process that puts less than 50% scoring on cost, I know nobody put any thought into that.  Sometimes it’s a laughable 20% of the weighting.  It would be a rainy day in hell when a government entity doesn’t select the lowest cost proposal.  Quality and ROI rarely (and I do mean not always) matter to government entities, which is why we skip most of them.  I did fall for the ARRA one above, like a dope.
  • And of our wonderful utility clients, tell the purchasing / sourcing departments we are not designing a power plant, transmission system, or even a measly substation.  We don’t need to carry $20 million in professional liability insurance.  This may be asking for the impossible too, but ask the legal department to be reasonable.
  • Finally, for cry sakes hire the firm / team with the best proposal.  In the past year, we assembled a team to do a study for a regional energy efficiency consortium.  Our team put a lot of thought into the proposal and developed an outstanding approach and work plan.  I knew who our competition would be.  A firm that had done a million of these and they would switch covers on the last report, make some adjustments for the region and tell them what they tell everyone else.  If you kid yourself long enough, you’ll start accepting it as correct.  At some point you have to go to the streets and find out rather than tweak the last edition.  Our approach was to get real data from the ground up.  We lost to the mass-market provider and in the post mortem, the consortium rep couldn’t tell us a single reason why we weren’t selected.  In fact, she only told us how much they liked our proposal, over and over.  Head, meet wall.


I was in Austin, TX last week for my first real visit to the state.  Per my experience, there is no shortage of traffic.  Per the locals, the city likes sprawl.  It features a nice downtown and believe me when I tell you I’ve never seen so many people running in the morning darkness as there were in Austin.  Not in New York, Washington DC, Columbus, Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, Minneapolis, Denver, Tucson, Phoenix, San Diego, Sacramento, Portland, or Seattle.  The only thing that I’ve experienced that was close was in the hills outside Silicon Valley.  And the Austin dudes are fast.  I was passed by three women in one six miler – four if you count one that pulled out in front of me and pulled away.  Fantastic!  These women were probably in their running prime but I’m not going to whine about my age till I’m at least 60.  But the average high temperature in July/August is 96F, which to me in WI, is a god-awful 4-H day, hazy, hot, humid, heinous.

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