Energy Star Black Eye

6 04 2010

For years, beginning in the 1990s through just a few years ago I considered ENERGY STAR® to be fluffy foo foo feel good goo – kind of like eating meringue smothered in corn syrup after chopping wood all day.

Then they introduced the ENERGY STAR rated homes and ENERGY STAR rated commercial buildings.  Both of these seem to be solid “programs”.  ENERGY STAR for commercial buildings is based on energy intensity, which is energy consumption per square foot, climate region, type of facility and a few other things.  To “earn the ENERGY STAR” commercial buildings must be in the 75th percentile of energy efficiency by energy intensity AND buildings must be inspected by a licensed professional engineer to ensure the occupants or owners aren’t cheating by starving the building of fresh air, sufficient lighting, or comfortable temperature and relative humidity conditions.  This is solid.

Then the ENERGY STAR label for appliances started to carry some weight with me, although I have an ENERGY STAR rated dehumidifier that won’t shut off automatically anymore and I otherwise have no idea what about it saves energy.

Unless you’ve been cryogenically frozen like Austin Powers for the past 30 years and were thawed out yesterday, you know the government has been throwing money at ENERGY STAR rated appliances as fast as the presses at the US mint can churn out $100 bills.

Recently some ENERGY STAR warts were exposed.  The famous electric space heater with feather duster and fly strips passed as an air purifier.  This is ironic because electric resistance is the most wasteful source of space heat and a feather duster kicks up dust, just sort of moves it around – not good at air purification.  The other infamous example that passed was the gasoline-powered alarm clock.

For an organization that has eight pages of how and how not to use their brand, including how to use ENERGY STAR properly in a statement, and how to use the logo, this is a major scandal.  The insouciant reaction to this fiasco is unfortunately not surprising to me, as this is the federal government we are talking about.  An ENERGY STAR spokeswoman states the approvals of these bogus products did not pose a problem for consumers because the products never existed. There was “no fraud”, and she said she doubted that many of the 40,000 genuine products with EnergyStar status had been mislabeled.

Come again?  These ridiculous examples get through the “screening” process, but don’t worry, the 44,000 products with the label are all ok.  I think this woman needs to take a statistics class or maybe some taekwondo six sigma courses.

This is another blithe example of no accountability at the federal government.  If something like this happened in the private sector some big heads would roll.

Snooty congress people haul all sorts of people they don’t like in front of them to call the kettle black.  Examples: Mark McGuire, Jose Canseco, Roger Clemens (why their “crime” rises to a federal level is beyond me), Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer and half of Microsoft, automotive executives, and most recently, evil corporations who are going public with the hit they will take to earnings due to the passage of the healthcare bill – reporting which ironically congress made them do in their kneejerk reaction to Enron with the passage of the millstone known as Sarbanes Oxley.

The problem is the government has a horrible record of policing itself.  I went into this in an earlier rant, or maybe it was while I was in a deep sleep one night; the purpose of government is to protect people from being ripped off.  When they start delivering products and services, in this case ratings, who’s going to oversee that?  Look at this ENERGY STAR scandal.  The government didn’t protect us from getting ripped off, but instead was complicit in it.  I don’t know of a single energy efficiency program in the US that is administered by a state agency – except for Wisconsin, which controlled the energy efficiency purse strings for a while and then, you guessed it, they stole the money to fill budget gaps they were too cowardly to fix the right way.  Programs are administered by utilities, consultants, and/or non-profits and overseen by state agencies.  Yes.  This is how things should work.

This guy says to scrap the ENERGY STAR immediately.  I don’t know if I would go that far.  As mentioned above, I think the intent is very positive for consumers.  Instead it should be privatized, turned over to a non-profit or consortium to manage and police.  This is how commercial equipment is rated.  Organizations include the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, and the American Gas Association.

If the ENERGY STAR “program” were turned over to the private sector and a scandal of these proportions broke, you can bet the executives of the organization administering it would be singing to Henry Waxman right now.

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





Need Not Miracles

23 02 2010

Thousands, make that millions of people, including some smart people and congress people, when talking solutions for our energy efficiency low-carbon future are continuously babbling about “technology” that will save us all.  Bill Gates says we need Miracles.  Whadahyou talking about man?  The White House announces $130 million for a new building energy efficiency effort – “a multi-agency initiative to spur regional economic growth while making buildings more energy efficient.”  It will be “an Energy Innovation Hub focused on developing new technologies to improve the design of energy-efficient building systems”.  Get ready for cold fusion to reemerge.

Let me tell you somethin’, we don’t need to throw bazillions of dollars into developing these new magic elixirs – not now anyway.  We need the public and organizations to take action with the “miracles” that are already on the shelf at your local home improvement center or mechanical and electrical contractors’ warehouse.  You saw last week’s rant on people at Boulder lead to the energy efficiency trough but refusing to drink.  This is the problem.  Why develop a bunch of other junk that people won’t buy?

I’ve been in the energy efficiency market for 14 years and there has really been very little progress in energy efficient products or technologies for commercial buildings during this period.  Why?  In large part because there are physical and scientific barriers.  Boilers and furnaces were available in the 90% plus efficiency then as they are now.  Electric motors run in the mid 90% efficiency range.  There is this theoretical barrier of 100% efficiency that Mr. Gates may think is just a nuisance.  Maybe it’s just that nobody has thought about it hard enough.  Chillers, lighting, variable frequency drives, compact fluorescent lighting, energy recovery – there have been no major breakthroughs with this stuff in 14 years.  Prices for some things have come down a lot and quality has improved.  The thing is, these technologies have become very cost effective as prices have dropped and energy costs risen.  Just use them already!

Other innovative system designs such as displacement ventilation and chilled beam cooling systems have been refined but I don’t think they were born in the past 14 years.  But even an “efficient” system can waste energy like congress can.  See previous posts “Dermal Beauty, Ugly to the Bone”, “The More You Spend, The More You Save”, and “LEED and the Not Happenin’ Energy Savings”.

Rather than developing miracles that many think are just sitting there waiting to be discovered, let’s use cost-effective technologies we have right now.  Compact fluorescent bulbs use 70% less electricity than incandescent, but they still only take up 30% of unit sales with the rest being incandescent in the screw-in category.  And this is in CA where programs have been running forever.  Beyond that, you would be amazed at how many variable frequency drives are spinning away at or near 60 Hz (that’s full speed) because of some bonehead control setpoint; heating and cooling systems fighting one another like a car traveling down the road with the brakes applied; many pieces of large “efficient” equipment like huge air compressors online blowing off compressed air (wasting it) or otherwise running at full capacity when only a tiny fraction is needed; it’s dogs and cats living together – mass hysteria!

McKinsey  determined that the U.S. can cost effectively reduce energy consumption by 23% compared to BAU (business as usual – I like that one).  To become zero carbon, the first thing that needs to happen is minimize consumption through energy efficiency with existing technologies, system design, and controls optimization.  Once this happens, money that used to fly out the window to pay energy bills piles up so fast that renewable sources can be purchased, even though it may not be cost effective.  I’ve been through the exercise using a college campus as an example.  The perverse thing is that the more money an entity is wasting on energy, the easier it is to become carbon neutral.  How can this be?  There is a huge cash flow going to pay energy bills.  Much of that can first be cost effectively captured through energy savings.  Since more waste is eliminated, more cash piles up and renewable sources can be purchased sooner as the last leg to carbon neutral.  Of course you don’t want to be wasting energy in the first place, but if you are….

Why isn’t this happening?  There are enough barriers and discussion to fill a rack of encyclopedias but I’ve had enough for this week.

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





Beer or Air

22 12 2009

Last week these columns featured Wal-Mart and its silencing of critics via green and sustainable business practices.  Are they really saving energy compared to their peers?  Skylights, dimming fluorescent lights, and LED refrigerated case lights triggered by occupancy sensors – but what’s the totality?

Lexus makes hybrid vehicles.  One is a $110,000 sedan with a 5 liter V8 with fighter-jet horsepower weighing in at 20 miles per gallon.  A Caterpillar earth mover may get that kind of highway mileage.  The point is, a facility / organization can be green in name only.  Note that in no way am I inferring Wal-Mart stores are Caterpillar earth movers.

I think to a large extent the sustainability of many facilities and organizations are like those presents under the tree in the food court at the mall that I used to go to in the 1980s.  It looks good, but you know there’s nothing in there.  Conversely, a wrapped present under our office tree that looks like a 12 pack of beer is a 12 pack of beer!  Believe me when I tell you that when a guy whose name is drawn has a choice between a concealed package that looks like beer and one that could contain clothing or worse, like some knickknack, the beer-looking one will be snapped up like my dogs on cheese.

This one always cracks me up: “We are going to follow the LEED® method, but we’re not going to pay for the certification”.  This is foolish.  If an organization is honestly going to follow LEED, the price of registration, documentation, and certification is minimal – like less than buying the custom mats for the new car.  The LEED wannabe process is toothless.  Anything that is worthwhile has a high risk of getting dropped: energy modeling, efficient design, and components that achieve efficiency, and commissioning.  Decent commissioning costs 75 cents per square foot depending on the type of facility.  You’re going to spend $75,000 on commissioning and jump through all kinds of other hoops but skip the few thousand dollars for certification?  This is like getting enough credits to graduate but skipping the degree.  Try explaining that one to the state examining board when you try to get your professional engineering license.

LEED isn’t flawless or bullet proof, but it does serve as a hammer to get people to move and it forces the owner and other stakeholders to make difficult decisions rather than just throwing things out if they are too expensive or difficult.

For energy efficiency, a good rating system similar to the EPA gas mileage ratings is the ENERGY STAR® Label for Commercial Buildings.  Why?  Because it is based on actual energy consumption comparing to peer facilities (on a square foot basis) in the same climate zone.  Earning the ENERGY STAR means the building uses less energy per square foot than 75% of peer buildings.  In addition, ENERGY STAR requires a building inspection by a licensed engineer to ensure the owner isn’t cheating by not providing sufficient ventilation or enough light for required tasks or by letting air conditions drift out of the comfort zone, which believe it or not is well defined.  Registration is free.  The only cost is for the engineering services.  If energy efficiency improvements are needed, there are extra costs for that of course, but there is a return on that investment.

Finally, we at Michaels have developed a custom energy efficiency program that uses actual savings demonstrated by energy bills before and after implementation.  Rather than just doing studies, assisting clients with implementation and moving on to the next project, we monitor savings once after a few months and again after a full year of post-implementation operation.  We don’t run away from results, sweep it under the rug (watch the hand), or just hope for the best.  We embrace real results because we want to know things are working right, and demonstrated success sells more success.  If I’m buying, I want facts and references, not a dog and pony show where promises are made with no follow through on comprehensive savings.

Salesman, get away from me, and no, I don’t want your dopey maintenance plan.

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