Taking on Parmenides

23 09 2010

We do a LOT of energy efficiency program evaluation and measurement and verification work all over the country; make that North America.  Program evaluation consists primarily of process evaluation (process) and impact evaluation (impact).  Our work is almost entirely in the impact side and I know just enough to talk dangerously about process.

Impact is the analysis of what energy savings are really attributable to the program.  This includes verifying the physical installation and determining the actual savings using some sort of engineering analysis.  This actual savings is known as gross savings in the business.  It also includes determining whether the program actually influenced the project to happen.  For example, some would do a project or buy an efficient piece of equipment regardless of the program and just take the money because they can – and hey, they are paying into the program so there is nothing wrong with this in my opinion.  These program-influence factors are applied to the gross savings to determine net savings – savings the program can take credit for.

Largely, evaluation teams consist of economists (impact and process) and engineers (impact) although there are many people with liberal arts degrees in the business as well.

Many times in determining the gross savings we get into spats with program implementers and sometimes utilities regarding what the actual savings really are.  Many times for large custom projects, the energy analysis we have to evaluate varies from pathetic to essentially non-existent.  “We installed a control system.  Savings = 15%.”  That’s it.  Analyze that!  Other times we will have an actual analysis and just plainly an incorrect application of engineering and physics or the operating conditions are much different than originally assumed.

Last week we were preparing to do impact for a huge low income weatherization program.  Past evaluations for that program have turned up results that are only a fraction of what the utilities think they ought to be.

Consider how to estimate heating savings in this case.  A house is heated by natural gas, which is also consumed by other appliances including possibly a stove and a water heater.  The analysis is easy.  You can see on the monthly billing data (gas consumption) how much gas is used to heat the place.  It’s everything above the June through July average.  Savings in this case are more or less proportional to the consumption for heating.  It is as plain as the nose on your face.  But the utilities think otherwise.  While I certainly don’t want to arm them with any arguments, they could use Parmenides, the 2500 year old and dead philosopher.

I took a four credit philosophy course as an undergrad.  The discussions in class seemed bizarre but definitely thought provoking.  If you haven’t studied or read philosophy, you would most likely think it bizarre.  But I am far, far, far (way far) from an expert on the topic.

One thing I remember discussing at length was, what does it mean for a being to be?  Is there really anything that exists other than your mind?

I had to do some “research” to find philosophical terms.   I’m talking about idealism.  Idealism is the argument that your mind is all that exists and that the world is mental itself or an illusion created by the mind.  Sound bizarre?  Not so much if you think about it.

You’ve probably seen the HDTV ads that have stuff jumping out of the screen – like the picture is so real viewers purportedly see footballs flying out of the TV, right at them.  Consider a person comes into my office and I ask him what he sees out the window.  After a looking around to make sure he’s not on candid camera, the answer is: Coney Island hot dog joint and Deaf Ear Records.  “Really?”, I respond.  How do you know?  I can see it.  How do you know it’s not just an illusion?  How do you know it’s not the world’s most expensive and lifelike television?  Good God!  I can go downstairs, cross the street and touch it.  What more do you want?  I can prove motion is an illusion and that you won’t really go anywhere, much less get out of this room, but that’s beside the point right now.  So go ahead and touch it.  What does that tell you?  Why do you call it Coney Island?  It says so.  Really?  How do you know?  I can read it.  Read what?  By touching it?  Why don’t you ask that guy who just got off the plane from Moscow what it says?  You can’t prove anything.  It’s all an illusion formulated in your mind.

The sky is blue.  OK.  But what if blue in your figment-of-imagination world would be green in my world?  Who is ever going to know?  We can both look at the same color and declare it to be the same thing – yeah sure, it’s blue.  But a color is a color only because somebody told you so way back when and you correlated it to what you saw and it has been as such ever since – in your fantasy world.  What is the definition of blue anyway?  My dictionary defines it in part as the color of a clear unclouded sky.  Great.  That doesn’t explain anything.  What color is a blue car under a clear unclouded sky… AT NIGHT?  Why don’t you ask that color-blind 100 lb rodent that is eating the seedling I just planted what color his snack is.

This brings me back to the illusionary energy savings.  Now that we know energy savings like everything else is all an illusion anyway, we can fool ourselves and put any number to it that we want.

Quite possibly, the program evaluation industry may be a gold mine for out-of-work philosophers and theologians!  Utilities could have a team of philosophers to take on the evaluation team’s philosophers.  Engineers and economists on the evaluation team would argue with their counterparts on the implementation team regarding the illusionary savings and the philosophers could duke it out over… something.  See what I’m sayin?  If so, it’s just a figment of your imagination.  These people only exist in your mind.

Epilogue

For more on Parmenides, see this article, and in particular the Achilles and Tortoise paradox.  Since learning that we still earn vacation while taking vacation (eons ago), you never need to return to work.

I earn roughly 3 hours of vacation every week.  So if I take a week off I’ve used 40 hours but earned another three.  I’ll take those three Monday morning, but I’ve earned 0.225 hour during those three hours.  While I take that 13.5 minutes of vacation, I earn another minute.  And it goes on forever, like eternity.  Now do you think this philosophy stuff is stupid?

Contest

Above I said I can prove motion is an illusion.  That was a lie, at the time.  Since I’m telling you it was a lie, it isn’t, is it?  On “The Big View” website, number 3 from Zeno attempts to prove motion is an illusion.  For $10, explain why his hypothesis is wrong.  The best answer wins, unless they are all horrible.  Prize money will be split in case of a tie.  If there are 10 or more correct answers, it wasn’t difficult enough so no prize.  Contest ends September 30, 2010 AD.  Send responses to kjk@michaelsengineering.com.  There is a 50 word limit.  Responses that are too long will be rejected.

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

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Soothsayer: Analyze This

7 09 2010

How many times have you read “we can create 40 million jobs and reduce our energy consumption by 90% if only we did x, y, and z.”  Lester in this article says by 2035 we can double our fuel economy.  Well I should hope so!  Lester is actually one guy that is conservative in his estimates/goals.  David Goldstein in the same article says we can decrease our energy consumption by 88% by 2050.  Now where does he or any other egghead come up with these numbers?

I had to laugh out loud regarding the results of an energy efficiency potential study I studied a couple years back.  This expensive study was to be used for energy efficiency program planning for the subsequent five years for a state which shall remain anonymous to protect guilt.  For commercial and industrial (C&I) programs, imagine a graph with two sets of data on it.  The bars represent the programs’ goals for the trailing and forward-looking five years each, and a line represents achieved savings over the trailing five years.  For the trailing five years the savings ran about double the goals, increasing a little each year – something like 5% per year.  Well guess what the goals were going forward – about double where they were at the time increasing about 5% a year.  Stupendously genius!  If I failed to explain clearly, the goals were just an extension of the past 5 years.  You could lay a ruler over the past five years’ points and draw a straight line to get the goals going forward.  Man, I wonder how much they were paid for that report.  At least a half million dollars, I’m sure.

Soothsayers who predict energy savings potential two-three decades out or more must subscribe to the same methodology, otherwise how can you possibly project what the savings potential is beyond ten years.  Engineers, good ones anyway, subscribe to a rule that says extrapolating data beyond the data set – into the future in this case –  is very dangerous.  The further out one gets, the huger the error.

I am confident that the world’s economies will become more efficient with time, if for no other reason, less energy consumption means more profit.  However, the savings curve over time may approach a limit of something like 20%-30% savings compared to today because there is a severe shortage of professionals with degrees in the physical sciences, e.g. engineering, who are knowledgeable regarding C&I energy-using systems and savings potential.

Here is an article that includes 10 ways to improve the energy efficiency of a commercial building.  As I read this typical list, I can tell the author most likely doesn’t know squat about outing real energy-saving opportunities in C&I facilities.  Do energy audits, use more efficient equipment (duh!), maintain equipment efficiency (duh!), insulate, and brainwash occupants.  These things can save substantial energy if the lights are on 24/7 and the chiller was made in the 1960s and it’s plugged with airborne fuzz including dandelion seeds and the like.  This list reads like a good set of tips for homes.

Where are the real savings?  In system design and control.  Heating sources have been approaching 100% efficiency for a long time.  It is also going to be difficult to cost-effectively produce chillers that are much more efficient than you can get on the market today.  You’ve got to pump water, move air, control temperature and humidity, and provide ventilation.  Until humans create artificial intelligence to control systems, these things always waste substantial energy regardless of how efficient, well maintained, how many audits you do, or how “aware” of energy your people are.

Then there are manufacturing facilities, some of which I swear were built by the seat of somebody’s pants and controlled by no one.  Compressors are running at pressures higher than they need to be.  Cooling water and heating water streams are mixed before a portion goes to a cooling tower and the other portion goes to a heat exchanger.  Pumps and fans are grotesquely oversized.  Equipment is controlled in series rather than parallel.  Chilled water is used to cool things to 110F.  Operators’ fault?   Maybe not.  These facilities operate for profit, and productivity including simply keeping the line going, is king.  Staff in these facilities run from one fire to the next.

I don’t know if I have ever seen “green jobs” and “engineer” in the same article.  Green jobs always seem to refer to people who weatherize homes or work at a wind turbine, electric vehicle battery, photovoltaic, or some type of renewable energy plant.  This is fine by me as I really don’t want that moniker.  However, this is symptomatic that at least 50% of energy consumption in all buildings is misunderstood at best and virtually out of control at worst.

Rather than or maybe in addition to job training for the green economy, how about some electives or advanced degrees even for engineering schools?  Six credits of electives or a masters degree in energy efficiency would go a ways.  It wouldn’t take me long to generate a high level curriculum.  Rather than throwing hundreds of billions at technologies and industries that are bad ideas (e.g., food-generated ethanol), how about investing in some smart people who can critically analyze and provide solutions to greatly reduce energy consumption COST EFFECTIVELY WITH NO TAXPAYER SUBSIDIES?!

Tidbits

Here is an all-to-familiar story of misguided priorities.  BWI Airport is spending $21 million on an energy savings performance contract and they are leading off with the installation of a bunch of solar panels.  Meanwhile, they are probably wasting energy as though they want to get their “fair share”.  I also just came off a conversation where a former science teacher at a school district is pressing for a remote, net-metered wind turbine – and they want the utility to pay for it.  Uhuh.  Another LOL moment.  They’ve done a grand total of zilch to optimize their facilities’ energy consumption as well.

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





From Jack Wagon to Hobo

31 08 2010

A couple weeks ago, the National Academy of Sciences released a study that summarized the findings of the general public’s perceptions of energy consumption and potential savings from various end-uses in their daily lives.  You can check out the curves in the linked article above and take my word for it or risk brain damage reading the thing.  To me there are several significant findings, none of which surprise me.  These are in no particular order and are only a subset of the findings.

  • Finding #1 – When asked open ended questions about ways to save energy, people overwhelmingly selected curtailment measures over efficiency.  Shut stuff off.  Unplug it.  Drive less.  Relax and take it easy (love that one but don’t watch a 56 inch plasma while lying on the couch).  Conserve energy – so the answer to “What is the single most effective thing you can do to conserve energy?” is conserve energy.  I think I would have yelled at them like the Geico drill sergeant.
  • Finding #2 – People can reduce energy consumption by 30% “without waiting for new technologies, making major economic sacrifices, or losing a sense of well-being.”  Well I don’t know about the “making economic sacrifices” part of this.  Viewing average residential end uses of electricity, the easy stuff is lighting and… lighting.  I don’t see anything else on there that doesn’t require sacrifice, more work, or spending a lot of money.  Lighting accounts for 15% of consumption.  Assuming this is all incandescent, replace it all with compact fluorescent for about 2/3 savings, or 10%.  We’re one third the way there.  Space cooling could be reduced a couple percentage points tops without sacrifice, well, make that 0% without sacrifice.  You would have to set your temperature up all the time.  Setting the thermostat up is going to save practically nothing because heat transfer due to temperature differences outside versus inside are relatively small.  Clothes dryers?  You would have to line dry.  That is a sacrifice if you ask me.  The rest you are either going to be able to do very little or a bunch of nickels and dimes will add up to a few percentage points.The only way to get to 30% is to select efficient equipment when replacement is needed anyway.  Throwing away a working furnace and air conditioner with efficient models won’t pay for itself.  Spending extra for an efficient model when you need a new one anyway will.
  • Finding #3 – Turning off the lights when leaving the room is considered by the general public to produce attractive savings.  The paper says there is actually very little savings from this.  Hide the kids and maybe the spouse too!  I’m not buying this one.  The study is 25 years old coincidently.
  • Finding #4 – People relate to curtailment, using things less more than using efficient stuff by a margin of 5:1.  The top three items are turn off the lights, conserve energy (and call the sergeant), and drive less.  If you’ve ever thought of it, efficient vehicles are more efficient, all else equal.  The Mini Cooper get’s great mileage, comes with leather seats, manual transmission, and is one of the best resellers on the market.
  • Finding #5 – People do not understand which things in their home are energy hogs.  They are fairly accurate with light bulbs, stereos, and computers and they actually think laptops use as much as a desktop.  My laptop uses about 25W.  You can barely read the paper by a 25W compact fluorescent light.  What cracks me up is they think the central air conditioner and electric clothes dryer uses only about two or three time more energy than the laptop!  You see that huge hulking plug for the dryer?  The reality is the dryer uses about 100x more energy.
  • Finding #6 – Tuning up your car twice a year saves 100 times as much energy compared to driving 60 mph rather than 70 mph for 60 miles.  First, this is misleading.  My car wouldn’t even use two gallons in that distance for either speed.  Second, who tunes up a car?  That’s from the 1970s and earlier when engine control was mechanical.  Everything is digitally controlled nowadays.  It works or it doesn’t.  I haven’t “tuned up” my car in the seven years I’ve owned it and it gets 34 mpg now like it did when it was new.  Change air filters and keep the tires a few psi below the maximum shown on the sidewall.
  • Finding #7 – People think a truck uses as much energy to move freight as a train does when in reality trucks use about 20 times as much per ton-mile.  This magnitude surprises me.  What’s the difference?  Rolling resistance.  Trains have almost none while trucks have a lot.  The rest is mainly drag and I’m sure stop and go traffic is a killer for trucks as well.  Airplanes use roughly 200 times more than rail.  Is buying carbon credits getting expensive to buy off your guilt for taking an airplane? – Become a hobo.  And isn’t the checked-bag charge for flying stupid?  Shouldn’t people be charged or not based on their weight plus that of all their crap?
  • Finding #8 – A virgin glass bottle doesn’t require a whole lot more energy than a recycled one but the public thinks it does.  My guess is recycling plastics doesn’t save a lot of energy either.  I would also guess recycling paper saves more, somewhere between aluminum and glass or plastic.  Not generating garbage for the landfill is as important as the energy savings to me.

One conclusion out of all this is we need to do a better job of informing end users that saving energy doesn’t mean freezing in the dark or taking a shower once a month.  I would say these concepts apply at least ten times more for commercial and industrial energy efficiency.  There is all kinds of waste in these facilities that do zero to provide better anything.

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