Don’t Mess with the Stapler

5 04 2011

We, as an industry, have our work cut out for us in coming years.

Months ago an industrial energy efficiency consortium that puts on training events held a two-day workshop on motors.  Motors!  Talking about the common Swingline stapler for two days would be more interesting.  The efficient motor uses less energy in the amount of the difference in the reciprocals of old minus new.  I.e., (1/eff – 1/eff).  Multiply by nameplate horsepower then by 0.5 (don’t ask, just do it) then by annual hours of use.  Bingo!  There are your savings.  Two days!

There are more complex issues that may not be addressed.  One of these issues is, what is it that makes a motor more efficient?  Tighter windings and closer tolerances – I think.  I don’t care because the impacts are infinitesimally small compared to what end users ought to be doing.  This results in less slip, which means the efficient motor actually runs faster.  Here is the dirty secret:  An efficient motor may be three percent more efficient but as it runs faster on a constant speed fan or pump it would increase shaft power – power transferred to the impeller / fan wheel by 9%.  Increasing the load by 9% but doing it more efficiently by 3% does not save energy.  Quite the opposite, actually.  If one changed sheaves, which isn’t going to happen, or if the equipment is properly controlled by a variable speed drive, it may actually save energy.

On the whole, it is highly possible that efficient motors result in greater energy consumption.

Recently, we were meeting with regulatory staff and the topics of lighting and motors surfaced.  Apparently, the investor owned utilities are clinging to, and concocting ways to hold onto savings for efficient motors and lighting; minimum efficiencies for which thanks to the benevolent federal government are being ratcheted up by fiat.  Clinging like Milton and his beloved stapler.

Give me a break.  If programs are still relying on savings from motors, there is a major problem in Denmark.  How about considering what the motor is turning?  The load on the motor could probably be reduced by 50%, while they are going to “save” 3% with a stupid new motor that runs faster and uses more energy.

I can see what is going to happen.  Some utilities are going to whine to the regulators that all their savings opportunities are going away because the feds have ratcheted up standards.  Regulators should respond with the equivalent of “Gee, that’s really unfortunate.  Since you’ve installed all these motors that use more energy over the years, I think we will raise your savings target by one additional percentage point.”  Ironically, I learned that negotiating tactic from a utility.  “You think the penalty is too harsh?  I’ll add 50%.  Would you like to counter that again?”

Ironically, on the same day as the meeting with the regulatory staffer, I received information I had asked for purposes of evaluating the potential for retro-commissioning of a mid-size high school just over 250,000 square feet.  I had asked for the energy records.  The facility is using at least 50% more electricity than it should and 50% more natural gas than it should – easy.  It is using as much energy off peak as on peak.  The power factor is lousy.  With these symptoms, I bet I can call three top, major energy saving opportunities given the types of systems they have.  I’ll just leave it at that because it’s intellectual property available for a price.

I’ll bet my house that we can reduce their energy consumption by at least 30% with well under a five year payback.  It could be one year or three years, depending on what needs to happen to fix the causes of the waste.

Trust me when I tell you, efficient motors and new lighting will not be part of the 30% solution.

Tidbits

On the nearly useless EE front, see which internet browsers are most efficient.   However, the impact on battery life is worth noting.  If you don’t use the overpriced internet during air travel, kill the browser.

The president says federal vehicles will all use “clean” fuel by 2015.  What does that mean?  One percent of the fuel will come from reconstituted plastic grocery bags recovered from a landfill?   Meanwhile, the federal vehicles excluding military, guzzled 7% more gasoline than the previous year, using 322 million gallons of gasoline.  Congratulations.  I’m always pleased to be told how to live by hypocrites to whom no rules apply.

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

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Home Field Disadvantage

16 11 2010

As mentioned on these pages before, stuff that doesn’t work well for me will be tolerated for maybe a couple bad experiences before I move on to something else.  When something starts to go haywire, you don’t want to be around me and you certainly don’t want your children around me.  Probably the worst thing to go haywire is a computer because I know I can’t take my frustration out on the computer since that will obviously make things worse, so the vocabulary gets a little extra spicy.

Back in about 1983, I was shopping for my first car.  Growing up in rural America farm country, 90% of vehicles on the road were made by the big three, now known as the big one and the incompetent and crappy two.  One of the vehicles I test drove among the several Detroit models was a Honda Accord.  This was back when they were the size of today’s Civic Coupe.  I remember it to this day.  It was like the first decent micro or import beer I tested, although I can’t remember what that was if you know what I mean.

The Accord was unlike anything I had driven before.  The suspension was firm and it handled crisply.  It accelerated very well for a car with a small engine.  It was a quite ride.  But it cost $2,000 more than my second choice at the time, a 1983 Ford Mustang so I bought that.  What a piece of junk.  This was a car that was transformed from the 70s muscle car to a wimpy plasticized rattlebox.  It always had some sort of natural frequency in the drive train that vibrated such that the rearview mirror gave me a blurred vision of where I had been.  I took Wrigley’s chewing gum wrappers and rolled them up to stuff behind the chincy dashboard cutout with a cheesy faux wood pattern to keep it from buzzing from the vibration.

Today I have very high expectations for any vehicle I own.  I bought the Acura RSX new seven and a half years ago and piled about 100,000 miles on thus far.  The only things I’ve replaced is oil, filters, tires, wiper blades, a battery, and windshield fluid.  There have been no mechanical or electrical problems but last week the engine light came on and I thought maybe my “luck” was up.  No problem.  I think it was gas-cap issue.

I have no allegiance to buying “American” stuff.  I’m an open-market competition advocate.  It’s my money and I’m going to buy what I think is the best value, including John Deere yard and garden equipment.  It’s expensive.  People have told me this or that brand is just as good.  Sure.  You go right ahead and buy your heap of lightweight, rattly sheet metal, belt-shredding, piece of crap.

In some distant precincts, or maybe its just certain buyers, there seems to be a strong home turf advantage for hiring EE consultants.  Alien firms are virtually locked out of the market.  In some cases we’ve been on projects where we needed to use local engineering firms because they know the market, technologies, and how to handle the vastly different conditions.  Paahleeeese!  Does the first law of thermodynamics not apply on planet Z?  Does water not freeze at 32F?  Do the customers have two heads?  If so just tell us which one to talk to.  We’ll adapt to anything.

There may also be perception that if you have to get on a plane that you can’t be responsive, and that travel time and expense may cost a fortune.  Responsiveness may be an issue on the other side of the ocean seven time zones away, but not in the continental U.S.  Travel expense is also probably an overhyped disadvantage.  It takes more time to drive within some service territories to distant end users than it does to fly some places.  It takes no more time or money to fly to the coasts than it does to fly to Ohio or Missouri.  Actually, flying to coastal destinations is typically cheaper than flying a couple states away because there is far more competition.

In some cases however, there is a need to have a Johnnie on the spot and we make it so, or make it clear in a proposal that we will make it so.  The latter doesn’t seem to work.

Programs that lock out alien firms are doing their ratepayers no favors.  They lock out innovation, new ideas and possibly more efficient and effective ways of doing things.  When we bid on local jobs, we take nothing for granted.  I feel we deserve nothing for merely being one of the closest firms.  Once hired regardless of where, it is our mission to have the client so pleased they wished they’d never have to go out for bids again.

In other cases, I think buyers may have something like Stockholm Syndrome and they become sympathetic to their consultant’s predictably unreliable and tardy work.  This is probably universal and not just for EE work but other consulting and even other businesses entirely.  But hey, the consultant is cheap and the buyer knows what they are getting: crap.  But there are no surprises or disappointments because expectations are lower than Brett Favre’s salvage value.

Tidbits

This just in: USA Today reports that $300 million spent on just over 600,000 appliances ($500 per appliance!!!) is achieving $27.5 million in annual energy savings.  Doing the math, that’s about an 11 year “payback” on program investment.  To put this in perspective, a rule of thumb for EE programs run by utilities is total program cost to savings ratio (“payback”) is 1.5.  Yes, the decimal point is in the right place.  Do we need further reason to lock the federal government out of EE?

The spokeswoman says energy savings were only one goal of the program.  Yes.  The other was a political payout followed by a glut of used appliances and a drought of new appliance sales.

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





Is Theodore Nugent Vegan?

14 09 2010

The EPA since the beginning of time, when I was born maybe, has provided city and highway mileage ratings for light vehicles.  Who among us users of the antiquated medieval English unit system of measurement doesn’t understand miles per gallon?  Who doesn’t know exactly what a mile is and exactly what a gallon is?  I would challenge you to rods, chains, cubits and ells.  My father used to estimate lengths in rods in the farm field.  All I figured out is that a rod x a half mile is an acre.  Very logical.

EPA to the rescue, again.  They are floating the idea of a precise letter grading system to replace the outdated and incomprehensible mileage rating system.  If they succeed with this upgrade, we dolts won’t have to understand complicated numbers and metrics such as miles and gallons.  It will be color coded too so for those of us without a four-year degree in English who have trouble with the complicated alphabet can participate too.  When reciting the alphabet, if I can just get past D, I can typically go the distance.  Once I get momentum, say around H I can usually rattle off all 54 letters – but the colors will take the pressure off my alphabet skills.

These letter/color coded flashcards are supposed to level the playing field so electric vehicles can be rolled into the rating mix, of course to account for completely different fuel mix than petroleum-based fuel and operating cost.  But the truth is, this is absurd and I’ll get to that in a moment, but it is also a political bone for the makers of “electric” vehicles.  Process, objectivity and simple mathematics are out the window.  Subjectivity and political pandering are unwelcome aboard.

Most people who are major electric vehicle advocates probably think they are emission free.  It is true if you draw your box around the vehicle, but the electrons need to come through the box from somewhere.  Indeed, according to a local dealer of electric all-terrain vehicles, they are emission free.  An electric ATV is probably the most ludicrous application for an electric vehicle I’ve seen yet.  Show me an environmentalist shopping for a camouflaged electric ATV to drag his lifeless victim of senseless violence out of the woods and I’ll show you Ted Nugent gobbling down “mmm mmm good!” tofurkey in a PETA ad.

I veered off-road there a little – cheesy pun alert.  Electric vehicles do reduce carbon emissions, barely in some cases, depending on the electricity generating fuel source.  With Wisconsin’s mix, an efficient hybrid or even diesel is most likely to have lower carbon emissions than an electric alternate would have.

So let’s examine the examples in the Autopia piece.   Apparently, if the vehicle is electric, it automatically gets an A+.

They indicate 100 mpg equivalent based on 34 kWh to move the vehicle 100 miles.  The 100 mpg equivalent is completely bogus because it does not account for electric generation efficiency, which is typically 30-40% on average depending on generation sources.  It is therefore more like 30 mpg, which is not surprisingly about the same as a decent conventional car – which is why the net emissions are about the same per our earlier analysis:  Electric Vehicles – Clean & Efficient. Oh no, the carbon emissions for this teacher’s pet are zero.

The other thing is that the driving range of the gasoline-vehicle is conspicuously missing from the second set of stickers.  The range of the electric vehicle is 99 miles, which of course looks like it is maxed out, all the way to the right, as high as it can go.  For the gasoline report card? – nothing.  It seems to me the range on the gasoline model should be about 700 miles, and that is generously low because it is set by the limits of the frail driver.  The machine could go for at least 7,000 miles maybe with periodic 5 minute refueling stops, until the owners manual says it’s time to rotate the tires.

The other perverse irony in this is that the cheap cost of operating the electric vehicle is largely due to the cheap fuel cost: of FOSSIL fuel and uranium.

In summary, take the benefits of inexpensive coal but not the carbon baggage that comes with it.  None of it!  Zero emissions.

As my JV basketball coach used to say, “if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, what a wonderful world it would be.”  Ice cream would have no calories.  Three quarter pound Penn State burgers from Sloopy’s, and fries with mayonnaise would give you six pack abs, bulging biceps and a year-round tan.  Dogs would always poop in the weeds where there would be no deer ticks and they wouldn’t shed or puke on the carpet, eat your favorite sandles, or scratch up the hardwood floor.  We wouldn’t need deodorant.  Teenagers would teach their parents how to maintain financial solvency and control every wild urge their former hormone-saturated bodies have.  Favre would retire.

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





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





Dermal Beauty but Ugly to the Bone

19 01 2010

Attending a training session for steam systems a few years back, the class collectively chuckled as the instructor explained why he couldn’t go to the supermarket with his wife anymore.  As they would walk down the aisles he would be explaining how steam is used to make this and that.  See those potato chips, steam is used to peal potatoes rapidly and cleanly – and then he would launch into detail only a thermodynamics class would welcome.  Cheeseballs: puffed up by steam.  Carrot sticks: pealed using steam.  Chocolate milk powder: chocolate adhered to sugar using steam.  Aaaaaah!  Shut up already!  I don’t care how my Cocoa Puffs are made.  (I actually found it to be interesting)

We energy geeks have similar proclivities.  We can’t enter a building without a surface audit:

  • Jeez, these guys are living in the 1970s with T12 fluorescent lighting.
  • I bet there’s no makeup air unit for the pool in this hotel.  I can barely get the door open.  No wonder my room is absolutely freezing.  They probably think they’re saving energy besides.
  • These refrigerated door heaters are running in the middle of winter.  Typical.
  • It’s absolutely roasting in this gymnasium.  Their economizer has definitely been disabled.
  • Every light in that office building is on at 10:00 PM.  I’ll bet the cleaning guys come in and flip them all on for their entire 8 hour shift.

Last week I was reviewing American School & University’s “Architectural Portfolio 2009”, a compilation architectural masterpieces, submitted by architects and voted on by a panel of architects and facility managers to “win”, I’m not sure what.  I didn’t care.  Without even experiencing these buildings in the flesh, I found the following to be true:

  • I counted 92 spaces among these dozens of buildings that had not-so-good to very attractive daylighting designs.  The problem; 80 of them were shown with the lights on.
  • The lights were on in some spaces being scorched with direct sunlight.
  • Some entries advertised daylighting as a green feature… with the lights on!
  • One advertised as having exposed structure, e.g., trusses like you’ve seen in about 100,000 other buildings – to reduce finishing materials.  LOL
  • A gym had a great clerestory natural lighting design with fluorescent lighting – all of them burning of course.
  • One featured Low-e glazing.  Now there’s some spacey technology.

You may be thinking, the lights are on just for the photo shoot.  If that’s the case, then why are a dozen or so great photos of daylit spaces with no artificial lighting used?

These daylighting design failures or malfunctions are symbolic and symptomatic of energy efficiency in new buildings.  They are efficient on the surface only, to the untrained eye.  Once you start to dig into the heating and cooling systems, you’ll really start to see waste on a massive scale – across the board in all new buildings?  Probably not, but let me say this: we have been benchmarking buildings the last couple years and new buildings are notorious hogs.

Sadly, a substantial barrier to getting these buildings fixed up is somebody’s ego or “turf”.  That’ll be the subject of another rant but in the meantime if you think your new building (less than 10 years old) is a pig, do some benchmarking to compare it to similar buildings.

On a separate note, I found the controversy over LED traffic lights not working in snowstorms to be a bit amusing.  I see somebody in Colorado has developed a solution – something like a tube to prevent the snow from splatting on the LED surface completely covering the light.  I have another solution: hang a sign that says, “When traffic signal is covered in snow, stop, use your brain, and proceed with caution”.  Snow has plastered road signs for decades.  I’ve never heard of anyone complaining about their complete ignorance and inability to function without road signs – even critical ones like no passing or WRONG WAY – DO NOT ENTER signs.

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





Water Runs Uphill – I Think Not

5 01 2010

This week – a little diversion into engineering.  Go ahead.  Shake those goose bumps out.

There are three universal laws of thermodynamics but I’m not going to explain them all now or you might fall asleep and hit your head on the table.  I will only cover one of them.

A law is essentially a theory of something that has never been disproven.  One of these laws indicates the direction of all processes.  Heat travels from hot to cold.  Water runs downhill.  However, heat can travel from cold to hot and water can go up hill if you add energy.  Think of your air conditioner and water tower.  One way to define this law is, your refrigerator won’t work unless you plug it in – add energy.

A second way to explain it is all processes are irreversible, which means, you may be able to extract energy from water flowing down hill, as in a hydroelectric dam, but it will take more energy to pump it back into the reservoir because of losses and inefficiencies.  More so, once the kinetic energy in your moving car is absorbed in your brake pads as heat, that energy won’t do anything for you.  It’s a complete loss.

Irreversibility means you can’t get more USEFUL energy out of a system than you put in.  Electricity is the most useful source of energy because it is most flexible.  You can make heat with it, turn a motor, or run your refrigerator.  I would say fuels are next as they too can be converted relatively efficiently to other forms of energy, including electricity.  Heat is the least useful.

The second law described above applies to everything and not just energy.  Consider our business of energy efficiency consulting.  If it weren’t for the second law, we wouldn’t have a job because energy efficiency would happen by itself.  Designers and contractors would know how to build absolutely the most efficient systems.  Knowledge is like energy.

Cash is like electrical energy.  The $20,000 check you write for a new car can also be used as a down payment on a house.  However, once you drive the car off the lot, it goes down in value by 10-30%, instantly.  Why?  Because you need to find a buyer and that takes energy – either from you or from a car dealer.  Labor and services are energy.

What’s the point?  The point is, artificially and rapidly increasing the cost of energy with carbon tax or cap and trade is an irreversible process too.  Some argue that increasing the cost of energy would be good for the economy.  This is like saying you can get water to run uphill without a pump.  It assumes people react rationally to the price increase by being more efficient with their processes.  If people behaved rationally, we wouldn’t need energy efficiency programs.  See above.

Consider a manufacturer’s perspective. If we raise the cost of doing business by excessively increasing energy prices, the manufacturer can do any number of things, probably some combination of all of these: pay employees less than they otherwise would, raise prices of their product (pass the cost through to the consumer), reduce energy consumption, or move offshore / across the border.  For every option I can think of, somebody has less money in their pocket.  Somebody may end up with more money in their pocket but I’m telling you, the net is less total wealth because it is an irreversible inefficient allocation of capital.

Yes, but what if the tax is  plowed back into energy efficiency?  There is overhead (losses and irreversibility) associated with that.  You have to pay somebody to run the programs, market, manage, and somebody needs to monitor the results to ensure people aren’t getting ripped off.

But Jeff, aren’t you making the case against energy efficiency programs?  Answer: no.  Why, you hypocrite?  Because cheap energy and all resources for that matter are finite and scarce.  Cash, the most valuable asset is generated through the use of resources.  At some point, resources become scarce to the point prices rise rapidly and irreversibly so.  I would therefore argue that energy efficiency programs are like the regenerative aspect of a hybrid car.  It lessens the irreversibility of resource depletion but does not eliminate it.  Spending money to save energy costs less than buying energy, uninhibited.  The tank will still run empty.  It will just take longer to get there.

The bottom line is, whatever the carbon abatement policy is, the goals cannot outrun the spread of energy efficiency knowledge throughout the economy.  Creating a “free market” with an arbitrary cap on carbon (oxymoron alert) is a bit like driving from point A to point B by stomping on the gas pedal with a blindfold on.  Let’s take the blindfold off and keep the tempest in Pandora’s Box.

See December 8 rant on energy efficiency policy.

Prospective hires – this includes a free answer to one of the quiz questions we ask during interviews.  Mention this rant and receive a bonus correct answer!

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





Save Energy – Get Out of Jail

15 12 2009

Unless you were living in a cave four or five years ago, you know Wal-Mart was under relentless assault by, I’ll just call them activists.  Complaints included: They weren’t providing health care to enough people.  They weren’t paying overtime.  Their goods were manufactured in sweat shops overseas.  When unions tried to organize their meat cutting operations, Wal-Mart exited the meat cutting business.  Their executives were making too much money.  The company was making too much money.  Part of the real gripe was that Wal-Mart had saturated the rural and small town markets and they had started to impinge into larger markets.  Social elites in university towns did NOT want to sip cappuccinos across the street from Wal-Mart, or see Wal-Mart flyers in the Sunday paper, or perhaps worst of all, they did not want to attract the kind of people who shop at Wal-Mart to their enclave.

It seemed all of a sudden, the whining stopped, overnight.  Why?  I would say their green construction, energy efficiency, and purchasing muscle to get suppliers to become more efficient and green probably shot the knees out of this protest movement.  Suddenly it seems, Wal-Mart had become one of the greatest corporate forces for green business practices in the country.  This was like one of the Hatfields marrying into the McCoys – a reluctant truce between the activist crowd and Wal-Mart.  This was a Joan Rivers kind of a makeover (have you seen her lately?).

I attend a half dozen or so mid-size to major energy efficiency conferences a year.  Wal-Mart’s energy efficiency and green purchasing requirements are showcased at many of these events by keynote speakers.  Ironically, Wal-Mart was lambasted for its hardball thuggery in negotiating pricing deals with its suppliers.  I don’t hear the same for these green requirements.  Playing the green card has gotten Wal-Mart out of protester jail.

Not only has the green card gotten Wal-Mart out of jail, it has new competitors scrambling.  As one case in particular, a grocery spokesperson stated a few years ago that [paraphrasing], “We do not want to become Wal-Mart.  We do not want to compete with Wal-Mart.”  To one extent this was smart.  If you compete with Wal-Mart on price, they would crush you.  However, Wal-Mart’s green initiatives have positioned them to gain market share at the expense of these former non-competitors.  When another company is stealing your customers, it’s competition whether you want to compete with them or not.  Not only is Wal-Mart greening its business and its supply chain, it is greening its competitors.

As the skeptical engineer, I ask myself, are they really saving energy in their stores?  You can see it when you walk into their stores.  As their skylights stream copious daylight, their lighting fixtures are dimmed down to a tiny percentage of full power.  I am told that in some stores as you walk the refrigerated case isles, occupancy sensors flip on their low-power LED case lighting.  Now that is demonstrable energy savings.  Even energy neophytes can see what’s happening there.  Ok.  This is all dandy.  What’s the bottom line?  It appears these stores are not the Toyota Priuses of the grocery and retail world if you look at their “gas mileage”, or energy use per square foot.  There is plenty of room for improvement.

On a completely unrelated note, it seems the State of California is following my advice to see that stimulus money spent on energy efficiency is actually resulting in energy savings (November 17 rant).  The California Energy Commission has issued a $4 million request for proposals to verify savings occur.  I’m sure I influenced that – heyaaah, right.  Hahahaha.

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