Porcupine or Super Bowl, I Doubt It

4 01 2011

Although it’s a bit like the chicken and egg, my most important task is recruiting and retaining top talent.  We have a machine in place to land top talent from college campuses.  I’m quite convinced of that.  But with the sort of growth we are undergoing, we also need to recruit staff, primarily engineers at this point, with substantial experience and expertise in energy-using systems.  This would be easy if there were engineers in the market with 5-10 years experience like guys we have in that range.  It isn’t the case.

I work extensively with a recruiter and I provide constant feedback on candidates she forwards to help her better understand what we are looking for.  I’ve also written rambling explanations of what we are looking for.  Sometimes I get concerned that she thinks we are impossible to satisfy.  Well, we are almost impossible to satisfy.

First, a mini rant on recruiters.  I’ve been told by probably three recruiters that they, unlike their competition, will thoroughly vet candidates, ensure they meet our every qualification and then after a few weeks they will present a miracle list of 4-5 candidates all of whom we would just love to have on staff.  They would be so good, we might take two – even if we only need one and then we would be crying because we’d have to turn the other three down.  Fuggedabahdit!  The recruiter’s selling point is that they are supposed to save me time by not having to wade through a few dozen candidates.  Bull.  All this miracle recruiting service does is delay the process because the dream team they present to me has no more usable talent on average than 50 people a neophyte recruiter fresh out of college could find for us.  Give me the 50.

Back to my recruiting exploits; last week I was writing up a two column table for our recruiter, with one column describing what we want and the other what we want to avoid.  In the “don’t bother” column I essentially concluded we don’t want anyone from the competition, which generally speaking is where one should first look.  I’m talking about competition in the energy efficiency program business.

Why is this?  Quite frankly, because the engineering on average in this industry is poor, but it is also poor to a large extent in the systems design industry.  On the other hand, at least in the design industry, things have to be made to somehow work.  They may work like crap and waste energy up the wazoo but at least there is a required problem “solving” element.  In the EE sector, engineers can operate in a parallel universe their entire career – which brings to mind the myth of experience, a topic of another rant.

How do I know the engineering in the EE industry is poor?  Because we do a lot of program evaluation across the country, from east coast to great lakes to the west coast and beyond  – close to 20 utilities in about a dozen states.  Even stuff that a sociologist should be able to pull off is screwed up – like verifying a variable freq drive has auto controls installed, or knowing the difference between a heat recovery wheel for fresh air and a heat recovery wheel for dehumidification unit installed (unit is a god-awful pick for a northern climate anyway – design engineer should be fined, maybe spend a couple nights in jail too).  The latter resulted in a massive incentive for gas savings in a new construction program.  Uh, ouch!

So what sort of experienced people are we looking for?  Smart engineers with high GPAs but not too much experience; generally engineers who understand how systems work, how they use energy, and how they should be controlled – really understand it.  In general, best candidates come from smaller firms where they have interaction with the guy at the top and mentoring by people who know what they are doing.  On the flip side, competition sets up offices in states where they start running programs and they hire “experienced” engineers to work in those branch offices.  All I’ll say is it’s not worth looking at these candidates.  It’s probably as hard as finding a porcupine in my woods – I did experience a real live (and real big!) porcupine in the wild here in cheesehead land so although not impossible I’m not sure whether I’ll see another one or see the ViQueenies win a super bowl in my lifetime.

Why not too experienced?  Because engineers are either good or crappy and if they are good, they care about what their clients think and after being taken to the woodshed a few times for things the client doesn’t like they become calloused cynical curmudgeons unwilling to bend or change.  They play it safe.  This is typically not conducive to saving energy.  Let me know if you need an explanation as to why experienced but crappy engineers are no good.

To be sure, there are definitely excellent engineers in the industry.  We work for some of them as subs.  Others have reviewed our work for program QC and they are very good.  After throwing stones in my glass house I must break a few windows.  Admittedly, we’ve gotten comments back from outside engineering firms that make me think the guy on the other end must think we’re idiots.  However, rather than whining, crying, and denying, we get the things resolved and take long term corrective action.

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