Experience Myth

17 05 2011

Now that I’m an old man, defined as being over 40 years of age, career half over, graduated from college 20 years ago, kids of classmates are graduating from high school, kids born when I was partying in college are graduating from college, and other depressing facts, I can say experience in anything can be almost worthless and in some cases, it is worth less than nothing.

At Michaels, we have interfaced with engineers, particularly ones who were in sales and it was stunning how little they knew about buildings, control systems and how equipment and systems use energy.  It reminds me of when I was a kid; I would sit in wonderment about how automobiles were manufactured.  How do they make that dashboard, the top of which was a large as a kitchen table?  How do they make the thin auto body pieces parts?  It was like rocket science to me.  There must be some magic computer like Hal that made all this stuff happen.  I have to wonder whether this is the case with some “energy engineers”.

Likewise, these guys who had been in their industry for many years and were suddenly recruited into the energy efficiency business seem to think energy savings is some nebulous, random, stab in the dark.  In former lives they may have served as experts for their companies but anyone who could spout off the dimensions of a two square inch square would be viewed as Einstein.  For purposes of energy analyses, the savings equal the cost of what they were selling divided by the maximum acceptable payback for the customer.  (It takes somebody with 5 years of post k-12 education to do this?)

For one such real guy, the baseline, or the existing conditions are arbitrary.  That’s just the way it is.  When asked what the operating conditions were prior to implementation of the project, the response, “what do you think they should be?”  Head, meet brick wall.

In other cases, an engineer may seem to know an energy model (spreadsheet) is not meant to be used for the specific application of the technology, say a variable frequency drive, but they use it anyway because that’s all there is for variable frequency drives.  Everything is a nail as seen by the hammer.  Meanwhile, I’ve seen new graduates come in and almost immediately run circles around guys with three or more years of experience.

So what does it take to be a great energy efficiency engineer (or occupation x)?  First it takes commitment to excellence, which sounds like a bunch of crap, but what I mean is the engineer does not accept anything he/she doesn’t fully and deeply understand.  If results look weird, they have to find out exactly what is going on.  Is it an error or is it some unforeseen, non-intuitive characteristic that is driving the results to be different than expected.  This trait is absolutely essential.  And they know when enough is enough.  One can’t spend hours finding a half dozen “errors” that have negligible effect on a complex energy model.

A non-essential but very helpful aspect is having strong mentoring and being surrounded by knowledgeable engineers who know what they are doing and conform to the above themselves.

Recently while writing a proposal for a large EE program evaluation, the minimum experience requirement for key team members, constituting maybe three or four main actors directly responsible for the outcomes, was five years direct experience in evaluation.  Surprisingly, I would probably pick about the same number.  A new grad can learn a heck of a lot in a year or two and by year three or four be running some good size projects.  Not so ironically, this is about the time engineers become eligible for licensure.

Does this mean anyone over 40 should get their afghan and find a rocker and sit on the porch all day talking about AM radios, eight track tapes, VCRs, and never getting out of school for anything short of six feet of snow (almost true by the way)?  Some folks probably should but in other cases, the answer is, of course not.  Talented old people were once smart 20-somethings.  I’ve never come across anyone who didn’t have it in the 20s but later found it in their 30s or 40s.

Experience is not enough.  Firms need to demonstrate they know what they are doing with work examples, references for similar work, and lists of clients and how long they have been clients.  For many cases with big projects, one needs to describe the difficulties and challenges of the project and how they will be overcome.  That takes experience.

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

Fortune 100 Energy Efficiency

30 03 2010

One of the downsides of the surging awareness and growth in energy efficiency and renewable energy, in my opinion, are all the Johnny Come Lately energy services arms of giant corporations.  Companies include Lockheed Martin, United Technologies, Eaton, and Chevron.  These giants have revenues of $45 Billion, $53 Billion, $12 Billion and a meager $176 Billion, respectively.  Poor Chevron’s revenue dropped from $275 Billion from the year prior.  Maybe they should focus on their core business and leave the energy saving to the rest of us.  Among these, only measly Eaton isn’t in the Fortune 100 (Eaton comes in at 207 on the Fortune 500).

Why do these giants want to get into energy efficiency?  Revenue from their energy efficiency services wouldn’t show up on the first six significant digits of their total revenue, but yet this is huge business compared to peons like Michaels Engineering and dozens of other service providers.  Lockheed probably charges the government more for one tire on an F-35 joint strike fighter than we earn in a year with 40 people.

On the other hand, these behemoths have to get huge projects like those for large college campuses or military bases to be worth their while and to be cost effective to carry their crushing overhead.  This leaves plenty for us little guys to fight over.

On the third hand, they provide competition for the other titans of performance contracting, including Trane, Honeywell, Siemens, and Johnson Controls, and I’m all for that.

Having provided technical support and program evaluation for dozens of utilities, I don’t think we have yet seen any requests or applications for incentives from these giants, for their customers.  Why would they leave all this free money their customers could claim on the table?  Could it be they don’t want anyone looking at their underbelly?  Customers should demand this.  But then again, customers are typically state and federal government entities.  Even though these incentives are theirs to lose, it’s really ours.  So who cares?  What a racket.

Of course most of these huge companies, except Lockheed and Chevron I believe, use performance contracting to peddle their wares, whether customers need the stuff or not.  As mentioned last week, they’ll “give away” studies and other services, and sometimes even equipment to hook (or harpoon) these customers.

Within the past couple years, one of these performance contractors had seduced a local school district by offering them “free” equipment in exchange for maintaining their buildings’ heating, cooling, and control systems over 10-20 years.  What were they thinking?  Remember last week; nothing is free.  The whole spectacle can be most vividly portrayed in Warner Bros’ Hansel and Gretel episode on Bugs Bunny.   Guess who the characters represent.  As soon as reality set in and the invoices started coming for the maintenance services, the district wanted out yesterday.  Another happy customer.

On a couple unrelated notes:

A group of scientists wants to create a new unit for energy savings, the “Rosenfeld”.  He may have been a great guy, but I would vote no on that.  All the units and named thermodynamic cycles I can think of are named after one or two-syllable names, and Rosenfeld doesn’t just roll off the tongue.  Joule, Newton, Volt, Tesla, Kelvin, Rankine, Curie, Diesel, Otto, and Watt.  The only major oddball I can think of is Fahrenheit.  There should be a contest to replace that.  He deserves it because it’s such a stupid scale.

The Rosenfeld thing would replace kilowatt-hours, three billion of them to be exact.  What about Mr. Watt?  This is a diss to him.  What is special about three billion kWh: it’s supposed to be the annual output of a 500 MW power plant.  Per my calculations, it’s closer to 4 billion kWh.  And who is ever going to use this metric?  “The results of our study indicate that you can save 0.00016 Rosenfelds with a two year payback.”  I think they would eject us from their building and not pay us for such pathetic looking savings.

So there you have it, a “Rosenfeld” is too long, too much, incorrect, goofy, and it runs roughshod over Mr. Watt.

Then there’s this laugh out loud headline, suitable for an article in The Onion.   “Warning Biofuel Targets May Hit Oil Industry”.  Just think about that for a moment.