Don’t Ask, Don’t Look, Don’t Tell

3 05 2011

It seems like every time I visit my mother, at some point, maybe the night I arrive or the next morning over coffee, she starts dumping the local rubbish on me.  So and so are “separated”.  What’s her name is pregnant.  Jimmy got busted for a DUI.  Ronnie has cancer.  I went to four funerals last week.  And always something about my brothers, who as you may know run a large farming operation, are taking too much risk or can’t possibly afford this or that $300,000 piece of equipment.  Being the anti-gossip and direct guy that I am, I ask, “Mom, why do I need to know these things?” and “You can’t do anything about it anyway, so why bother” and “I’m sure they know what they are doing, having been in the business for thirty years.”  In summary, I don’t need or even want to know.

When I played little league and maybe even high school baseball, we had things like the 10 run rule and the point of that was to cut off the game and get on with something productive because the team getting hammered is never going to come back with any chance to win the game.  It wasn’t for mercy.  It wasn’t to protect the meek from getting clobbered 46-2, which everyone knows would happen if the game continued.

Reality can be unpleasant to painful or underwhelming and I only want to know about it if it affects me and especially if it’s something I can do something about.

The majority of our energy efficiency work includes calculating energy savings and incentives for large commercial and industrial projects and evaluating all kinds (literally) of EE programs.  Here we actually want as much information as we can get to do our jobs because hundreds of thousands of dollars can be in play and we like to get things right, especially when a lot of money is involved.

In some cases, it would be handy if the client accepted what “everything” means.  It’s a little bit like describing what “no” means.  One dictionary defines everything as, “every thing or particular of an aggregate or total; all”.  And we write four memos regarding what “everything” means with respect to what we need.  Everything.  The reports, notes, manufacturer cut sheets, invoices, customer contact information, billing history, the maintenance guy’s favorite past time.

Other times we get a couple pages from a report, which is like grading an engineering exam while being provided with the question, and two equations the student wrote, and no answer.  For example, a project includes the installation of a 500 horse power variable-speed compressor among several other existing compressors.  The duty cycle for the new compressor is provided, but what was going on before the thing was installed?  What other compressors are there now?  Was it just installed to add more capacity?  Answer: “never mind, here is the filtered information we want you to use”.  “The consultant [providing the original study] knows what they are doing.”  Ok.  Let us see how terrifically brilliant they are as we review their work in its entirety.  What’s to hide?  Is this a game?  Is that what this is, Lieutenant Caffey?  Am I funny?  Do I amuse you?  Do I make you laugh?

One of the most important purposes of program evaluations is to provide feedback to improve return on ratepayer investment from the program, an element of which is determining if savings are actually being achieved.  I think everyone has seen sitcoms where the main characters messed something up or broke something and as a result they try to divert attention from it or put a happy face on a troll.  What is the point in that when it comes to evaluation?  I won’t speculate for the answer to that question.  There are many possibilities.

Other times, the findings are plain as the nose on your face – like we metered lighting hours on 25 projects and they indicate an average annual burn time of 2,500 hours and not 4,300 assumed in the program’s deemed savings database.  According to the implementer, the sample was faulty or it was not statistically significant.

We have to face the music at times when others review our calculations.  If something is incorrect or uses inaccurate or non-representative data, or is for some reason generally a mess, we work with the reviewing engineers to make things right and if that means a savings adjustment, so be it.

The bottom line is, there are plenty of opportunities to capture real savings and we as an industry need to ensure we capture these savings rather than manufacturing savings by whatever the motive or reason.

In closing, to quote a guy I agree with 90% of the time, Mark Zweig, a consultant for consultants, “I never wanted to be one of those CONsultants who tells his clients what they want to hear and hopes he never gets fired. I am much more interested in being an INsultant who tells his clients what they need to hear.”

If a client doesn’t want to hear it, it is time for a new client.


Worthless EE tip of the week: disable your auto ice maker in your kitchen refrigerator and save 1% of your home’s electric bill.  I believe there is a heater in the ice cube moulds to melt the ice so it can be flipped out.  Whoopty doo.  Yawn.  If I understand it correctly, they say the ice cube makers pull an extra 84 kWh/year, which is about 10 W.  A refrigerator only averages 50-60W running around the clock.  Have your ice and eat it too.

In this article, we are informed that most consumers have no idea how much energy it takes to ship from factory to store.  So I thought, what are the energy implications of buying local?  How much transportation energy does this save?  I like strawberries from Watsonville, CA.  A truck hauls 60,000 lbs of strawberries 2,100 miles for roughly 350 gallons of diesel fuel.  The diesel fuel it takes for my pound of strawberries would get me 0.17 miles in my thirty-mile-per gallon car.  Worthless information?  You be the judge.

Finally, there is this article on KFC’s  sustainability efforts.  The company rebranded itself because its former name sounded like a premature heart attack.  Now it offers reserved parking for hybrid cars.  First, people who drive hybrid cars would probably rather walk more, not less which leads me to the obvious second point, a Prius and a bucket of the Colonel’s best with a side order of stents  is not a scene I can paint in my mind.  I was going to stereotype and say KFC lots are full of SUVs, Buicks, Chevys, and minivans but I shall refrain and stick to the google street view facts from a Lakeville, MN (suburb of Twin Cities) store:  4 GM cars, 2 GM SUVs, 2 GM pickup trucks, 3 Chrysler minivans, 2 Chrysler cars, 1 Ford car, 1 Nissan SUV, 1 used defribulator, and zero hybrids.

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

B.A.N.A.N.A.S. – Go Bananas

12 04 2011

This was a dopey high school cheer of my older brother’s and sister’s sporting days in high school.  “Go bananas.  B-A-N-A-N-A-S.  Go bananas!”  How lame.  What does it mean?  I much preferred, “Watermelon.  Watermelon.  Watermelon rind.  Look at the scoreboard and see who’s behind.  You! You! You! You!”  This was always led by the rowdy crowd after the opposing team’s cheerleaders would do a dopey skit, like the banana thing.

One of the first posts I wrote was Renewable NIMBY, that people purport to be in favor of renewable energy unless they have to look at it or pay for it.  In case you’ve been cryogenically frozen since the 1950s, NIMBY means “not in my back yard”.  People really like renewable energy so long as somebody else pays for it and it’s installed in North Dakota, where not so incidentally citizens are experiencing a booming economy by exploiting energy production, mostly on private land.

Last week I became mentally unglued upon reading about environmentalists blocking a paper mill in Port Angeles, Washington, from using wood waste for its strong appetite for thermal energy (steam).  Nippon Paper has reduced its fossil fuel consumption by 88% and virtually eliminated the need for petroleum since 2000.  What a smashing success.  This is beyond President Obama’s wildest dreams for clean energy, reducing carbon dioxide emissions and dependence on imported energy.  Yet environmental groups including the Sierra Club are fighting to shut it down and send 200-plus decent people to the unemployment lines.

Do you consider yourself an environmentalist?  If you’re like me, the answer is, yes but I’m not in the whacko, nut-job category like these Port Angeles protesters are.

Port Angeles is of interest to me as I have visited there several times and I like it.  It’s the last substantial town on the Olympic Peninsula on the way to the Pacific Ocean.  It sits at the base of the Olympic Mountains and rain forests and other fantastic natural beauteous places abound all within an easy day-trip.  It has a fair amount of tourism, but also industry as well and real people.  Like many other industrial cities along the northern tier of states, it is struggling, and this sort of whacko “environmentalism” makes up a good share of the decay.

And consider sustainability, for which I recently read a good definition [paraphrasing]: leave the environment in as good or better condition than you found it, for future generations.  This Nippon case seems to be a poster child for this.  There is much logging on the Olympic Peninsula, from a renewable resource – trees.  They plant seedlings by the square mile growing into beautiful new forests absorbing tons of carbon dioxide.  Nippon uses the remains of local waste rather than fossil fuel to operate its paper plant.

One local whacko, a psychologist which seems to speak for itself, says the biomass plant is for pure greed at the expense of public health.  News alert: she has no idea what she is talking about.  What would she prefer?  Close the plant and landfill the logging waste?  I can all but promise you the emissions from wood waste will have less impact than using any other reasonable energy source.  It will not be like burning a pile of wet twigs and leaves like we used to for roasting hotdogs and burning our eyes out.  It will be clean.  It’s carbon neutral.  Emissions are regulated by the EPA.  Do you think the EPA, which puts carbon dioxide you are producing right now and every minute of the day in the threat category, is going to allow this or any other manufacturer to emit one billionth of the hazardous emissions required to give a mouse a headache?  I’ll let you know when I think the EPA is getting too slack.  That will happen when I return to earth as a Labrador retriever.

Some carpers on the same side of the political spectrum whine about greedy corporations sending jobs overseas.  Hmm.  I wonder how these Nippon-protesting whackos and their ridiculous protests play into this?  Consider how far into nutland this is.  At the UW-Madison, we just spent millions of dollars to convert a district steam plant from burning coal to biomass – the same sort of thing these people on the Olympic Peninsula are protesting.  If it’s good enough for Madisonians, trust me, it’s good enough anywhere.

NIMBY in some precincts is giving way to BANANA – “build absolutely nothing anywhere, near anything”… by whining halfwits and cretins killing our society – WHACKOS©.

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

No Brazil Syndrome

23 03 2011

AAAAAAAAHHHH!  Turn it off!  Turn it off!  Turn it off!

Disclosure: I am not a nuclear physicist but I do have the equivalent of a MS degree in nuclear engineering from a classified (as in secret) U.S. nuclear laboratory.

A week ago I was sitting here writing my blog in the aftermath of the Japanese devastation: Billions of dollars of damage, at least 10,000 fatalities, and parents finding their deceased children or elderly parents in smashed vehicles and destroyed buildings.

What is the media absolutely obsessed with?  Why of course, something they know absolutely nothing about.  I have never seen such an onslaught of talking heads blathering about things for which they have no expertise.  Zero.  A woman on TV, a “nuclear industry journalist” talks about “nuclear fire”.  What the hell is that?  There is no such thing.  A common fire is carbon and/or hydrogen getting together with oxygen to form the diabolical carbon dioxide and water vapor, and heat.  This DOES NOT HAPPEN in nuclear anything.  Note some pure metals burn, as in colorful fireworks, but a damaged reactor core is not fireworks.

In another broadcast, one talking head called the Fukushima incident a national security issue, to the United States.  You have got to be kidding me.  I’ll tell you what a threat to national security is: ethanol.  That’s right.  Nothing will turn out rebellion like food shortages, which sparked the Egyptian chaos.

Other sensationalizing includes talking about the nuclear danger while showing pictures of natural gas explosions at an oil refinery.  Nice.  One hundred percent, no connection and no comparison.

How many people have died as a result of the boogeyman, direct nuclear radiation at Fukushima?  Zero that I am aware of.  Nobody died from Three Mile Island either.  Even Chernobyl, the most massive nuclear power plant disaster ever only caused about 50 deaths per The Guardian (UK) and Time magazine.  More on Chernobyl later.

Even if you are an intelligent but nuclear-ignorant reader, you have to ask yourself, what are they talking about?  For instance, the Wall Street Journal reports that at one point radiation levels at the gate of the nuclear complex in Fukushima was 11,000 microsieverts per hour equivalent to what a person receives in 11 years.  What?!  They are comparing a rate (in units per time), to units.  It’s like saying I drove 90 miles per hour to work today, the equivalent of what I would drive in a week.  What?

It goes on to say the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s dose limit is 10,000 microsieverts “per nuclear event”.  What is that?  The reader doesn’t know but it sounds scary and sells.  The average person gets 6,200 microsieverts per year from background junk – by just being alive and on planet earth.  People working with radiation on the job are limited to 50,000 per year.  Add all that up and tell me what you get.  It’s all hype.

Although I have not heard because the press knows nothing, it sounds as though the Fukushima nukes are boiling water reactors.  Although I believe most nukes in the U.S. are not boiling water reactors, the Fukushima and U.S. reactors are thermal nuclear.  A thermal nuclear reactor simply means the fuel Uranium isotope U-235 will absorb a “thermal” neutron and become unstable.  When it becomes unstable, it fissions, splitting into two daughter products; an array of atoms from all over the periodic table.  With daughter products come other radiation, namely alpha and beta particles, gamma rays, neutrons, and of course, a lot of heat (E=mc^2 stuff).

A thermal neutron is one that has given up most of its kinetic energy after it was emitted from a fission or puked out of an unstable daughter atom of some sort.  They lose energy by bouncing off water molecules like billiard balls.  The water serves as the moderator, as in, lessening the intensity of something – and it is also the coolant that takes heat from the reactor to generate steam.  Once neutrons are released, they are either absorbed by the fuel to make more fissions, leak out of the reactor core, or get absorbed by control rods or “poisons”.

A nuclear reactor is a highly stable system.  If it weren’t, it would be a bomb.  Therefore, a reactor WILL NOT EXPLODE!!!!  So what were the explosions at Fukushima then?  I’ll get to that.

Nearly all neutrons released are instantaneously released upon fission of U-235.  These are called prompt neutrons.  A tiny fraction are delayed neutrons that have an average of seven seconds (roughly) delay between a fission and their release.  Without the delayed neutrons, a reactor would be unstable, it would go prompt supercritical – boom.  The delay provides just the right balance so the system can have feedback and self correct.  How does it do this?  Fluctuations in water density.  When heat transfer is reduced (less turbine power and electricity production), the water moderator/coolant gets hotter and less dense.  Fewer water molecules in the reactor mean fewer collisions for neutrons.  More of them leak out of the reactor.  Fewer are absorbed by U-235 to fission and produce heat.  The coolant cools, gets a bit denser and the fuel starts to give off more energy again.  Beautiful.

What about those explosions at Fukushima?  Spent fuel is not like a half burned log.  It essentially looks the same as fresh fuel but its composition changes slightly after all the U-235 fissions occur.  But it is radioactive, which simply means daughter products are still puking out alpha and beta particles, neutrons, gammas, and relatively low levels of heat.  At Fukushima, spent fuel is kept in a pool above the reactors apparently.  Why?  No idea.  But the radiation ionizes the water that keeps it cool and shields radiation.  Ionization of water produces hydrogen, which is explosive, and takes practically nothing to set off.  This caused the explosions and release of low level radiation to the atmosphere.

How about the fuel?  Both the spent fuel and the fuel still in the reactors need to be cooled because of the decay heat.  Otherwise, they will melt, sort of like a pillar of wax.  The fuel will NOT explode.  Remember, to maintain a chain reaction, to remain critical, requires water to moderate neutrons.  If there is no water, the neutrons all get away BUT there is also no cooling.  If there is no water and there is not enough air cooling, fuel damage (distortion) may occur, but I don’t know if it would melt.  It would have to exceed 3,300F – pretty hot – ~600F hotter than the melting point of steel.  Regardless, it isn’t going to melt through to the core of the earth like Doctor Evil’s subterranean nuclear-tipped Vulcan drill, and explode.

How about the radiation?  Radiation is given off by physical matter.  It isn’t a mysterious uncontrollable cloud of cancer.  Direct radiation from the nuclear plant falls off with the cube of distance from it.  For example, to reduce exposure in half, one would have to move from 1.0 mile to only about 1.25 miles away.  At 2 miles you would only get about 12% of the radiation compared to one mile.

This radiation hype reminds me of the lead-tainted toys from China.  While there is no excuse for having lead contaminating toys, it is harmless, unless you grind it up and mix it in Johnnie’s oatmeal or he snorts it like cocaine.  Similarly, a person almost has to come in physical contact with or ingest radioactive material.  Radon, which Iowa has more of than any other state, has to be inhaled and by chance the radon has to release a harmful alpha particle while it’s in your lungs.  The radon isn’t harmful.  The particles it spits off are and they have to be spit out while in your lungs.

Practically anything will stop alphas and betas; skin for example will.  Alpha and beta damage typically requires ingestion.  Neutrons are more penetrating but water will knock these down quickly, which is why water is used outside the reactor to shield neutrons from getting away.  Gammas can have a lot of energy and may take thick lead or concrete to stop – hence lead shielding around reactors.  Damage can occur just by being in close proximity to gammas.  Just don’t carry things like Cobalt 60 in your pockets.  So like the powdered lead, for the general public danger from Fukushima is really only going to come from radioactive air-borne contamination.  How do things get air borne?  An explosion is a good way but explosions occurring at these plants are due to hydrogen as discussed above.  It is nothing like a bomb where all daughter products are released and air borne.  Radioactive daughter products are likely well contained in the fuel at Fukushima.  Daughter products, many of which are gaseous, would first need to blister and rupture the fuel pellets and THEN get out of the fuel’s cladding.  However, blisters are not going to grow when the reactor is shut down as these were.

Get a grip.  The chance of adverse health effects from nuclear power plants is less than being attacked by terrorists, which is much lower than dying in a plane crash, which is much lower than being struck by lightening, which is much, much lower than dying in a car crash.  If you are concerned about nuclear plant health effects, you ought to also be on the lookout for man-eating chickadees, and certainly bananas, which are radioactive by nature.

Lastly, the only time “Chernobyl” should be used in reference to this Fukushima incident is, “Fukushima bears no resemblance to Chernobyl, whatsoever.”  Chernobyl was a carbon, not water, moderated reactor.  When carbon gets too hot, unlike water, it ignites – go boom.  Chernobyl had no containment vessel either.  The reactor actually blew to bits.

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