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

Green Will Follow, Then Lead

26 01 2010

Some of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA or “stimulus”) targets energy efficiency and green jobs training.  Wisconsin just announced $2 million in green jobs training.  Oregon: $6 million.  First off, I’m skeptical of these curricula.  Who will be teaching?  What is the curriculum?  At a cost of about $6,000 per graduate, it’s close to one year of in-state tuition and fees at a public university.  Wow.

Who is going to attend these courses?  I would say a significant portion would be laid off construction workers and skilled trades workers.  Once they are trained to weatherize homes, which does require training, no question about it, they will be ready.  But maybe in a year “real” jobs will return, and do you think a construction worker who can make $50k per year will keep weatherizing homes?  I doubt whether home weatherization can compete with that.  But I digress.

The purported goal of these programs is jobs – green jobs.  These jobs will lead us out of the economic funk we’re in.  I disagree.  The green jobs will really begin to flourish once and if the economy ever recovers.

We need a strong economy to spur construction.  We have a design division and within our energy division, we have a sustainability group that provides new construction design assistance and LEED® consulting services.  These would be considered high paying, long term jobs but as the economy is in the tank, these core services have ground to a slow crawl.  These were “green” jobs before green was a color.  Fortunately, our services are sufficiently diversified that we can keep relatively busy backfilling our other service areas.  Other firms aren’t so lucky.  Unemployment among architect, engineering and construction workers is running nearly double the national average.

Furthermore, with the economy in the tank, energy demand is down.  If you don’t believe it, just ask utility employees who are forced to take unpaid furloughs.  With shriveled demand, who needs energy programs?  Sure, in the short term this will have no effect.  If there is a long term, these programs may lose favor with the public, which is and will be squeezing every penny.  I’m sure we have a long grace period per the currently popular “green jobs” movement.

A strong economy will revive construction and manufacturing and this in turn will put pressure on energy supply, prices, and infrastructure; the drivers for demand side management programs and energy efficiency (not to mention the A&E and construction industries).  It will also put money in public and private institutions’ pockets to spend on energy retrofit and energy efficient new construction.  THEN green jobs will really emerge, organically – how about that!

A strong economy will also move institutions from deer in the headlights / survival mentality to a more competitive mindset.  Once this occurs, green will be a key ingredient to the competitive edge and it will lead the way in differentiating product A from product B, retailer 1 versus retailer 2, or A&E firm α from A&E firm β.

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