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

Advertisements




This is not Tee-ball

16 02 2010

Carbon taxes or cap and trade seem to have been a foregone conclusion in our industry of energy efficiency.  I’m not so sure.  I, like many other engineers in the energy efficiency business have always been cynical about global warming, which for some reason is now known as climate change.  I would argue that a relatively small portion of anti-carbon people are true believers, that carbon is having or will have a significant effect on the climate and I have no problem with that.  What I do have a problem with is the vast majority of people and organizations who portend to be doing the right thing and saving us all from ourselves when in actuality they are in it largely for the financial gain or political reasons.

The past year has seen one body blow after another to the climate change movement.  In November, we were served with Climategate out of the University of East Anglia, “the worst scientific scandal of our generation” per the London Telegraph.  Penn State’s leading climatologist Professor Michael Mann, Mr. Hockey Stick, is under investigation for falsification of data.  Nothing significant came out of Copenhagen, except let’s party again sometime.  The press had a field day reporting on the carbon spewed to put on that convention.  Phil Jones, head of the Climate Research Unit, dropped some bombs in an interview with the BBC.   Washington gets drubbed with a one-foot snowstorm it seems every week.  Actually, all 50 states have had snow on the ground and all 50 states most likely had snow on the ground at the same time – last Friday!  Wow!  Has that ever happened before?  And last but not least, this is subterranean on the average person’s list of concerns so who has the political will to push this?

Most people who want climate regulation do so as long as they can either make money on it or have somebody else pay.  Not even eco-friendly (supposedly) Boulder, in a league with Berkeley, Caracas, and Havana is willing to put money and action where their mouths are.  And this is a college town, so you know they are well cushioned from the lousy economy.  These people aren’t even willing to shell out what is the equivalent of one night out for dinner for an energy audit of their home – a heavily subsidized audit at that.  The art dealer drives a Prius and uses compact fluorescent bulbs but refuses to close his door during the heating and cooling seasons – “the most basic of conservation measures”.  I can see it now.  Auditor:  “Uh, close that door.”  There’s probably a picket line on the street right now.  One UC professor says Boulder deserves credit for trying.  No.  Credit for trying ends when seven-year-olds graduate from tee-ball.

Furthermore, last fall Boulder voted into the city council people who plan to moderate the environmental initiatives.  At the same time they voted down a simple public low-interest loan program for low-interest loans.  Now to meet their objectives, they plan a take a sharp marketing turn from environmental benefits to saving money.  Touché.

So let’s get honest.  Energy efficiency and being green is probably 80% financial benefit and 20% hobby for individuals, and for most businesses and institutions it is 99% financial benefit.  Wal-Mart isn’t reducing energy costs and holding its suppliers to green standards to save the world.  Certain utilities aren’t promoting cap and trade to save future generations from catastrophe.  People don’t pay for LEED® and put their plaque in the closet.  I would say that only a very small percentage of the public and a larger portion of our tiny energy efficiency industry are passionate about reducing waste, preserving natural resources, and minimizing environmental impacts – AND willing to live accordingly.  The rest is pure financial gain, but there’s nothing wrong with that, unless crises are manufactured and lying is involved.

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