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

Playing with Fire

9 11 2010

I was pretty much like every other 12 year old boy.  I liked fire, explosions, and crashes.  If you think I’m crazy, why are movies sometimes beginning to end filled with the same?  Enough said.  Growing up on the farm there were always plenty of things to burn.  One time I asked my dad if I could burn an old cattle feeder that we no longer used.  No problem.

You never see these things anymore but they were wood structures, like a weekend cabin that could withstand an F4 tornado, except it was all wood, nails and fasteners – solid fuel.  So I loaded it up with 40 or 50 paper feed bags – like the big dog food bags.  This probably would have been enough to get it going and burn it down.  But I’m impatient and I want a big fire.  So I grabbed a milk jug and put some diesel fuel in it and thought, eh, what the heck.  I’ll go half and half with gasoline.  I knew gasoline was risky.

So I sprinkled that all over the pile of paper bags and lit a bag (there was a door on the end about waste high).  I watched the flame creep up the paper until it got into the fuel-soaked portion of the bag.  That started to burn as I watched and then, Fahwoom!  A giant fireball blew up and rolled me back, bass over teakettle like when I was kicked one time by a cow – which may explain my dementia.  Fortunately, I knew I was playing with fire and I was prepared to backpedal real fast.  All I got was singed hair on my arms, knuckles, and eyebrows.  I got what I wanted though!  It was a hell of a fire.

As I mentioned a while back, I’m an efficiency freak, and not just for energy.  I also get riled up regarding economic efficiency and how it could impact our industry.  There are many things that apply the brakes and throw sand in the gears of the economy but I’ll get to that later.

This week, I want to discuss the Federal Reserve (Fed) rather than energy efficiency directly because the stakes are enormous and I think everyone should know what is happening.  For years and years (forever) there has been a lot of concern about the nation’s debt.  Why?  I would guess that 99.9% of Americans think we will need to pay it off sooner or later and that’s going to hurt like a tooth extraction with no painkiller.  If only.

Last week beneath all the election buzz the Fed announced it would buy $600 billion in U.S. Treasuries over the next six or nine months.  This is on top of the $1.3 Trillion it’s already purchased.  These numbers, by the way, are staggeringly incomprehensible.  See what a trillion dollars looks like.   I did a little “measurement and verification” on this and it appears to be fairly accurate.  Furthermore, companies in the U.S. have a total of $800 billion cash on hand.  So in the end, we are talking 2.5x companies’ cash on hand.

What is the Fed?  It’s a mysterious central bank with twelve regional banks run by appointed egg heads who are accountable to no one.  Typically, these people have spent their entire lives in academia, politics, think tanks – i.e., a parallel universe.  They set the federal funds rate – the rate central banks charge one another for overnight loans.  When they talk about cutting or raising interest rates, this is it.  The Fed’s mission is supposed to be monetary stability; to avoid extreme fluctuations in inflation, deflation and the exchange rate of the dollar.  If you have an interest bearing money market fund or certificate of deposit, you already know these interest rates are zero.  Controlling the federal funds rate is all they normally do, but they are now going crazy.

Real lending rates (personal/business loans) for all of us track interest/yield on federal Treasury bonds.  For example, the 30-year mortgage tracks in step with the 10 year Treasury bond (I think).  The 15 year mortgage tracks the 5 year Treasury and so on.  “Real” interest rates are set by the marketplace by buying and selling bonds and other debt.

Never think you can’t lose money in bonds.  Bond prices and interest rates move in opposite directions.  For example, a thousand dollar bond may be issued at 5% interest.  Consider the $50 payout fixed.  In this simple example, it would pay $50 per year in return for your cash and risk.  When interest rates go up to 7%, the value of your bond drops because it’s paying you only $50 per year and the bond price will adjust to reflect the current 7%.  The value of the bond would drop to something probably in the $70s.  The opposite would occur if interest rates drop.

It’s all supply and demand.  If there is tremendous demand for bonds, the bond price is high relative to the interest rate.  Enter the Fed.

The nearly $2 trillion in bonds the fed will own will be purchased with freshly printed money.  They are buying U.S. bonds with funny money.  Why?  To “stimulate” the economy.  By sopping up bonds like crazy, they get very low interest rates.  The borrower (U.S. Treasury) wants to sell bonds with the lowest possible yield and as long as they have the Fed throwing gazillions at them, it’s easy.

Many of you have probably refinanced your homes at unheard of rates lately as a result of this Fed activity.  That’s great and you should do it but don’t for a minute think the ball-peen hammer isn’t coming around.

Here is the risk.  The huge gamble the Fed is making is artificially driving down the cost of borrowing to spur the economy so people buy stuff.  They hope the economy will get going and people will pay taxes to lower the deficit/debt and have money to invest in U.S. bonds, rather than the Fed doing it all with funny money.

Injecting all this cash into the world economy and “monetizing our debt” is driving down the dollar.  Supply and demand.  More dollars floating around, more supply, means the value declines.  All you have to do is watch commodity prices for the results.  Comparing to a year ago:  Gasoline up 10%, Gold up 23%, Silver up 42%, Copper up 27%, Corn up 55%, Soybeans up 22%, Beef up 13%, Cotton up 117%.  Do you think this escalation is due to supply/demand (although cotton, used to make the greenback is really up)?  No.  They are up in large part because of a weak dollar.  It’s inflationary for us.  You can easily find information on rising food prices in case your trip to the store doesn’t do it for you.

A weak currency is good for trade to a certain extent.  A week dollar generally means a strong yen, euro, franc, pound, etc.  Strong currency means people from these countries can buy American goods for cheap because they exchange their highly valued currency for a lot of our currency and buy our stuff.  The opposite is true for us.  Imports are expensive, which also puts upward pressure on inflation.  This is great until the people buying our debt start to squeal.  Go back to that thousand dollar Treasury bond.  If that is purchased with Japanese yen and the dollar subsequently drops 20% against the yen, the Japanese guy is stuck with crappy dollars so when he cashes out, he gets 20% fewer yen than he would without the devaluing.  Or he can just keep his crappy dollars and hope for the best.

So what the fed is doing is very dangerous.  They are devaluing the dollar.  The Fed can’t keep printing money to buy bonds.  Sooner or later the debt will need to be financed with real money from real investors seeking what has been the safest investment on the planet.  Continuing to use printed money, the currency will continue to fall until foreign investors that are buying like 40% of our debt give us the middle digit and pull out.  Then what?!!  Trillions of dollars will be lying about.  Everyone has cashed out and the U.S. dollar won’t be worth anything because nobody wants them and there are gazillions of them.  Compounding the problem, interest rates will go sky high because the Treasury can’t find people to buy their debt that melts faster than a Klondike Bar in downtown Bagdad on a summer day.  Inflating our way out of debt is easy but devastating.

The Fed and the government have to stop treating employers and investors like lab rats.  We are not stupid.  We can see the lunacy.  And they wonder why they can’t “create jobs”.

I’ll be out buying gold bullion at $1,400 an ounce to hide in an undisclosed location.  Once it takes a grocery cart full of cash to buy a loaf of bread, I’ll be able to buy the bakery with an ounce of gold.[1]


There are other very negative consequences of buying debt with printed money.  First, it takes a lot of pressure off free wheeling congress to control the deficit.  Second, what is the Fed going to do with all these bonds that pay extremely low yields once interest rates start rising?  They are going to lose a gazillion dollars selling worthless bonds, that is if the economy ever gets going.  Who will take that hit?  Sounds a bit like Fannie and Freddie to me.  Taxpayers will be stuck with that bag.

Since we lab rats won’t behave like they do in a text book, things may not pick up for years and years.  See Japan which has tried this for what, 20 years?  They have enormous debt.  Government tried to stimulate the economy about a dozen times.  People aren’t spending due to deflation.  Stuff just keeps getting cheaper as they sit on their cash.  This with the Fed’s activity has dropped the value of the dollar by 15% against the yen since April of this year.

U.S. officials are being lectured around the world about these reckless policies.  The death spiral of 2008 was all due to ruthless, evil banks, we are told.  Well the Fed has had interest rates very low for a long time, in addition to congress pushing home ownership onto people who can’t afford them.  We had a stock market bubble in the late 1990s.  A commodity bubble just before the 2008 collapse and the housing bubble just popped.  Another commodity bubble is building and I would say the late stock market run-up is building a bubble as well.  Stocks are rising as companies are improving earnings by slashing costs – laying off people.  This won’t last as companies have limited costs to cut.

When will these people look at past policies and the ensuing results and learn from history, rather than their bogus theories?  The economy is not like physics where there are laws like gravity, speed of sound, and conservation of energy.  The economy has a huge macro human element.  The most accurate prediction of what will happen can be found by looking back at history.  I remember as I sat on the sidelines in the late 1990s while people were paying insane prices for stocks.  Valuations were far, far outside historic norms.  But we were in a different era.  Sure, Sonny.  The NASDAQ composite has gained minus 50% since then.

Thinking hyperinflation could never happen here is short sighted and dangerous.  Nobody imagined 9/11, the submersion of New Orleans, or last summer’s unstoppable oil spill.  The Fed didn’t prevent the 1930s from happening and they won’t stop the next one either.  In response to the 1929 stock market crash and recession, Hoover did exactly what gave us 10 years of misery; raised taxes sharply to cut the deficit and Smoot Hawley to cut off trade with the rest of the world.  We are trending toward the same thing all over again.  HELLO!

Lastly, I’ve said before that we need a strong economy and demand for energy to have a strong EE industry.  We’ve done ok through this recession but no one will care about EE when the dollar isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on, or we spend the rest of my career in a grinding contraction like Japan.


Back in March I railed against daylight savings time because it doesn’t save energy.   National Geographic referenced reports saying the same.  But one study claimed there was savings: The Department of Energy.  The hell you say!  It saves precisely 0.02% total energy consumption.  This reminds me of predicting CO2 levels by viewing 500 year old tree rings.  The reported precision is about 1000X greater than they can possibly measure or calculate with confidence.  I wonder how many millions of dollars somebody got to build a model that would support the answer they pulled out of the air to start with.

[1] Do not construe this as investment advice.  Roll your own dice at the casino of the Federal Reserve.

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

Dow Chemical Finds Free-Market Religion

27 07 2010

I was going to talk about sane solutions for ground transportation this week and I was going to lead with a tidbit, but that snowballed into the entire rant of its own.

Last week I was reading The Wall Street Journal on my 1994 organic cotton-stuffed futon when I had a “Ha!  You scheming, scamming, shysters!” moment.    In Law of Gravity Repealed, I accused for-profit corporations who are in favor of carbon caps of essentially getting in bed with the political hacks in Washington to form the rules of the game such that they come out ahead of their competitors.  First off, this is a really stupid and naïve strategy that has been demonstrated time and again.  The saying goes if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.

Companies have three choices when a bill that will deeply affect their business is being debated: (1) fight it with everything they’ve got, (2) help form the legislation whether it will be good for them or not, and (3) ignore it and hope for the best.  I would say that most times when they cede power to the government and think they can come out ahead, they get burned badly.  This happened with big pharma and the insurance industry with the recently passed healthcare bill.  Big pharma thought they could greatly increase their sales with 30 million new customers.  What idiots.  Hello?!!  And they suppose Washington is going to let them charge “market” rates for these 30 million new customers carried entirely by the government.  What morons.  With perhaps the exception of utilities that will be able to more easily recover costs due to their monopoly status, other large corporations will get burned in the same way with any cap and trade bill that is passed.  The exception may be General Electric where the pathetic CEO Jeffrey Immelt is putting all the company’s chips on successfully bribing a majority in Washington to save the company.  Otherwise tell me, how is a HUGE energy consumer like Dow Chemical or producer/user like Exxon Mobil going to come out on top.  Don’t mess with Washington.  You’ll get the horns.

To get back on track regarding last week’s WSJ –  [reprinted in this news source because it is no longer available on the WSJ’s website]  Dow Chemical, one of the companies I mentioned a couple months ago has seen the political light, which is actually the dark side because there is no bright side in Washington.

Suddenly when cap and trade was shelved last week and Harry Reid started talking instead of a wimpier policy to encourage the use of natural gas, Dow found free-market religion.  Using natural gas in place of nearly any other fossil fuel will reduce CO2 emissions.  But wait!  Dow is suddenly opposed to reducing greenhouse gasses.  In a letter supported by many companies and other “special interests”, they write to call on the Senate “not to include any provisions in energy legislation that would ‘artificially’ increase demand for natural gas in the power and transportation sectors.”  Let’s see.  Cap and trade; artificial pricing pressure and market manipulation.  Nope, I’m not seeing any difference here.  I don’t understand Dow’s reversal.  What happened to the do-gooder spirit?

Purely guessing, Dow probably has millions of carbon credits that are worthless without cap and trade.  They may also think they can increase their insulation sales with its passage.  I would also like to see the other corporate signatories on that letter.  T Boone is most likely not a signatory.

In another non-irony, the National Corn Growers Association also opposes the “artificially” high priced natural gas.

[Courtesy pause here while you finish laughing out loud]

I cannot think of more manipulated markets than the ones for corn and ethanol.  First, federal programs to pay farmers to NOT produce crops have been around for decades.  I recall as a kid, we had to “divert” xx% of baseline corn acres.  So what did we and everyone else do – diverted the acres where nothing grew (sandy patches) or acres that were at high risk of being flooded.

Second, there is the fattest sacred cow of them all: ethanol.  The ethanol lobby that includes weaklings like Archer Daniels Midland along with the Corn Growers Association has bagged a permanent 50 cent per gallon subsidy courtesy of me and a few million other Americans, the taxpayers.  In addition to this handout, it may be the most trade-protected industry in the country, save for maybe sugar.  Imports would be slapped with an insurmountable 54 cent per gallon tariff so we can’t import cheaper ethanol from places like Brazil where cane-sugar-derived ethanol has allowed them to be energy independent since 2006.  A 50 cent subsidy plus a 54 cent tariff on imports: more than a dollar a gallon direct artificial price manipulation.  I can’t think of a more favorably manipulated market than the one the corn industry has.

To demonstrate the damage heavily manipulated markets wreak, many ethanol companies went bust starting a couple years ago as the price of their feedstock, corn, soared to record highs.  Nobody saw those prices coming.  Maybe they should have hedged against the risk of soaring feedstock prices  – whoop!  Can’t do that anymore because of the recently passed financial overhaul.  More manipulation and interference…

Epilog:  I’m practically from Iowa and my family has grown a lot corn for many years.  Even though it is all fed to livestock, the artificial upward pressure on the corn market would seem to help because it makes growing livestock more expensive, driving down meat and poultry supply and improving prices.  But like the tobacco industry that was strictly controlled with government quotas, farmers would benefit from the trashing of government manipulation.  Income rises and surprise!  Farms get smaller – just what everyone seems to want!

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

Black Monday Stampede

10 03 2010

July 1992: Tickets for U2’s ZooTV show at RFK stadium in Washington, DC go on sale by Ticketmaster.  The tickets are snapped up in a few hours, as fast as the phone lines could handle the traffic.  This was before anyone knew what the internet was (no Al Gore jokes).  Fortunately, a second date was announced and the roommate waited for the crack of 12:00:00 AM for a shot at the second batch, successfully.

March 1, 2010:  Federally funded rebates become available for efficient appliances in Iowa and Minnesota.  Phone lines jammed with 10 times expected volume and internet traffic at 100 times expected traffic took down the website of the contractor running Iowa’s program in the first hour, within minutes of opening.  Ultimately, Iowa’s share of the funds was gone within 8 hours.  Minnesota’s program dragged on until the next morning.  It was a Wal-Mart-style black Friday digital stampede.  Thank goodness for (don’t use Al Gore jokes) technology – I didn’t see any reported injuries or fatalities.

Some of these federally funded appliance incentives run two to ten times utility incentives.  What were they thinking?  Combined with utility incentives the total can exceed 50% of the purchase price for crying out loud.  See “Policy to Curb Carbon” (government doesn’t know how to do energy efficiency) and “Incentive or Discount” (people trained to wait for handouts to buy).  This is pretty much a giant transfer of wealth from people paying taxes to people taking the rebate checks, and I don’t begrudge the people taking the money.

Apparently the people who designed these state programs, which are actually handouts at these rates, don’t understand the market and/or supply versus demand.  Obviously they gave away too much money and taxpayers got far less than they should have for their “investment” in terms of reduced energy consumption, emissions, and sales and in some cases manufacturing here in the states.

And to top off the environmental benefits of the appliance programs, participants are to send their old appliance to the scrap heap, with self-policing enforcement.  Who’s going to do that?  They will either end up with a second refrigerator or freezer in the basement or the old stuff will show up on Craig’s list.

Recall cash for clunkers last summer.  The intent there was to offer a total of $1 billion incentives, up to $4,500 per vehicle and it was planned to run from late July through November.  Within a week or two the billion dollars was gone and congress quickly shoveled in another $2 billion.  THAT was all gone by Labor Day.

While attending the International Energy Program Evaluation Conference in Portland, OR, last fall I was engaged in a small group discussion – was cash for clunkers a free rider?  A free rider is somebody who takes an incentive for something they were going to do anyway.  This is considered to be a waste of incentive money.  That’s arguable in this clunker case because it more than likely moved the purchase date forward for buyers, but I also think it’s the wrong question to ask.  The more appropriate question is, was it cost effective?

Answering the free rider question, Edmunds estimates that of the 690,000 cars purchased through the cash for clunkers program only 125,000 were incremental.  That is, only 125,000 transactions took place that otherwise would not have.  The rest just displaced a sale that was going to happen soon anyway.  Figuring in free ridership, the taxpayer cost per vehicle was $24,000.  And then consider this: the average trade-in value of the clunkers was about $1,500, which may be worth $1,800 for sale to the next guy.  All these cars were destroyed.  That comes to $1.2 billion in destroyed working assets.  So the feds spent $3 billion to increase profits by car dealers by perhaps $125 million and destroyed $1.2 billion in assets.  Annual energy savings for these 125,000 vehicles would be roughly $120 million.  And maybe the domestic automakers lost a little less money as a result of the program.  Woohoo!

To be fair, the cash for clunkers program may have resulted in the purchase of more efficient vehicles than would otherwise be purchased.  Hardly.  The average fuel economy of cars sold through the program was 25.4 mpg.  The corporate average fuel economy for cars is 27.5 mpg and with light trucks included, it is 23.5 mpg.  In other words, these “efficient” cars were essentially average.

And the doozer of them all: free golf carts thanks to tax credits and sundry other incentives for electric / high mileage vehicles. 

These aren’t incentives.  They are gifts from frugal people to people who probably don’t need this crap.  But good for them, I say.  You have to play the game that’s put in front of you.

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

Policy to Curb Carbon

8 12 2009

Any carbon-reduction policy that includes paying Washington for permits to emit carbon is the wrong way to go.  Why?  Two words.  Social Security.

Washington has no spending restraint.  Earmark nation is alive and thriving.  Everyone has heard of the Social Security Trust Fund; Al Gore’s “lock box”.  Social Security has been running surpluses in the hundreds of billions of dollars per year for a long time.  If you think your payroll taxes are piling up for your retirement in a bunker under Washington somewhere, you are sorely mistaken.  Our profligate government has been taking the surplus and spending it on everything else, leaving behind “IOUs”.  Those IOUs are worth less than the lint behind my dryer because they will never be paid off.

What’s the point?  Permit revenue (tax) is supposed to be used for R&D for new fuel and fuel efficiency technologies, energy efficiency and so forth, per these bills.  Like social security and the state of Wisconsin’s disaster (see Energy Efficiency Oversight rant), this revenue will be pilfered for any number of other things including, for example, a congressman’s airport, a senator’s library, a study of mating habits of insects, why hog farms smell and so forth.

Instead, the drive to reduce utility-related carbon should come from utility and regulatory administered state programs, where consumers’ money spent to fund the reduction is plowed directly back into energy efficiency and low carbon production of energy.  Regulators and consumer advocacy groups ensure consumers get their moneys worth through independent program evaluations.

Yes.  I think that is the role of government.  To help ensure people don’t get ripped off.  If the feds get the money, who is going to watch them?  They have a dismal record of self-policing.  In fact, they practice bookkeeping methods that would land corporate accountants in jail.  Imagine if a corporation took employees’ contributions to their 401ks, replaced it with corporate bonds and called it revenue (ala the Social Security raid).  Without this switcheroo (watch the hand), those surpluses from the 1990’s were actually deficits.

Thanks to Wisconsin, we have a case study in failed government takeover of energy programs.  Let’s demand to avoid this scenario by ensuring Washington only gets the lint behind the dryer to control carbon.

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

Tax Deduction Pennies

21 10 2009

Recently, we received our umpteenth “request for proposal” (RFP) to provide the engineering required to capture the elusive $1.80 tax deduction on new or remodeled buildings.  We spend a lot of time, money and effort to drive business through our doors but I’m not sure I want to see another one of these.

Like the rest of the universally incomprehensible tax code, the engineering piece of this is relatively complex.  If we did this all the time, it wouldn’t be a problem.  But it seems we get the next RFP just as the rules are overwritten in my long-term memory banks.  What do we compare to?  Does this apply to both retrofit and new construction?  Does retrofit compare to new construction baselines or actual pre-project conditions?  How do these partial incentives for HVAC, envelope, and lighting work?  How do the two lighting approaches work?  What suffices for demonstration of percent savings?  Half day – gone.

To do the engineering right, which is the only way we do things, it takes a lot of energy modeling time and expense (with the exception of the isolated lighting calculation).  Also, consider:

  • It is impossible to save anywhere near 16.7%[1] with envelope measures , relative to energy code, so you’re left with 50% total building savings.  As a side note for COMMERCIAL buildings, in many if not most situations, it is not cost effective to save energy by adding insulation, and you can save some but not much with enhanced glazing.
  • We need to save 50% of the total building consumption with HVAC and lighting, but on average per benchmark data, HVAC and lighting only account for 67% of building operating energy cost.  See where I’m going with this?  Your combined HVAC and lighting savings need to be 75% more efficient than baseline!  There’s a reason LEED has about 50% set as the threshold to capture all possible energy points!  You have to use a genius designer, perhaps have deep pockets, plus all the stars have to align for a “lucky” baseline system to have a shot at 50% savings[2].


  • Only the lighting power density approach for a $0.60 per square foot deduction is worth pursuing.
  • The threshold for the rest needs to be reduced, to perhaps 30% savings, which is still impressive and also certainly not something one can achieve without trying.

[1] End users can get partial deductions for (1) envelope, (2) HVAC, and (3) lighting, by saving 16.7% of the total for any of the three.  This 16.7% is one third of 50%..

[2] We are actually shooting for all 10 LEED 2.2 points on one project, but “only” 42% savings are needed for that.

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