EE, Policy, and Irony

24 05 2011

As my crop of silver hair continues to expand, I have become more of a historian, particularly when it comes to cause and effect, and peoples’ behavior.  I step back and observe what is happening and what has happened as a result of this or that policy.  Theories are nice, and they may be well thought out and make sense but if they fail miserably, should we double down and try it again?  Policy isn’t like launching rockets or breaking the speed of sound.

For those things, you can test, observe failure/problems and make adjustments.  For example, Chuck Yeager was the first to break the speed of sound in an airplane.  As he did so, the vehicle, which looked like a beer keg with wings (tap included), shook violently and about blew apart.  Why?  Because it had straight wings, not “delta” shaped wings.  The tap of the keg was led by a shock wave that emanated back in a V, kind of like the wake behind a boat.  The straight wings resulted in the ends leading the beer keg’s shock wave and the portions closer to the fuselage were safely behind the shock wave.  There is a large difference in pressure upstream and downstream of the wave causing instability and the violent vibrations.  They learned.  Sweep the wings back so the entire wing is post shock wave.  All supersonic aircraft have since been designed that way.  Google for pictures of the Blackbird, Concorde, Stealth Fighter, F-14, 22, and a gazillion others and you can see this delta wing design.  You don’t see this on your basic subsonic A320 passenger jet.  Mechanical engineers should already know this.  If not, they went to the wrong school or slept through fluid dynamics.

Policy, on the other hand, does not work this way in my opinion because policy affects infinite variables and you are dealing with peoples’ decisions on a macro basis, not physics.  When accounting for decisions made by 300 million individuals followed by a chain reaction of decisions that is limitless, you will get the same results from the same policy every time.

Keynesian theory (stimulus), for example has failed, what a thousand times, not counting the depression?  But we keep trying.  See this damning report by two Ph.D. economists, one from The Ohio State University and one from the University of Western Ontario.  The Act “saved or created” 443 thousand government jobs and “destroyed” about 1 million private sector jobs.  I wonder if the study was funded by ARRA!  LOL!  Has anyone seen Joe Biden lately?

I could write a book regarding why it doesn’t work on a macro level, but let me just provide some reasons believers give for it not working: it wasn’t enough money ($800 billion is almost $3,000 for every man woman and child in the country – how many flat screen TVs from China do we need?), it doesn’t work during deficit spending, the financial crisis, the Bowl Championship Series, La Nina, Rosie quit The View, people were busy preparing for the apocalypse that failed to materialize over the weekend  – you name it.

Likewise, it’s been a bomb for energy efficiency.

  • Utility and regulatory stakeholders in Iowa opined they couldn’t wait for the funding to stop so people would get off their hands and get in the game again.  Now that ARRA is wearing off, an objective observer can see this happening – the economy improving, slowly.
  • Cash for clunkers miniscule EE impacts.  Over an AESP conference lunch last week, I visited with an engineer from Southern Company, Alabama and he said the Honda and Mercedes plants in their service territory were running around the clock, full tilt.  Post cash for clunker they were running at half capacity.  And savings?
  • A long time ago, I said the money going to EE needs oversight to ensure it isn’t wasted.  Well lo and behold, a few weeks after this we bid as a sub-consultant to evaluate the funds spent in California and won the project.  We haven’t seen a nickel’s worth of work yet.
  • With a business partner’s lead, we pursued pilot work to pursue some ARRA funds, despite my vowing not to pursue ARRA funds.  Result: $130,000 lost in work we will never be paid for.
  • We had a “shovel ready” LEED® project for a new federal building ready to go.  After dragging on for months, our LEED services were value-engineered out of it.  Did the OSU guy capture this?
  • In the past couple weeks we considered going after some DOE EE evaluation work with one of our best clients but dropped out once intelligence revealed a competitor was going to low-ball it with their “government rates”.  Reverse price fixing.  I wonder how the rest of their clients feel about this??

What else is ironic is I would say our industry is quite progressive, yet when politically favored are in power, EE gets the shaft.  Consider WI, which during the recession prior to this one, the Democratic governor Jim Doyle, almost collapsed the state’s energy program by taking HALF the budget dollars rather than cutting spending elsewhere.  In speaking with Californians last week at AESP, the same thing is on the table in Sacramento, with a Democrat uber-super-duper majority.  I said, I bet there’s uproar over that.  Not a peep.  How could this be?  Unions Trumpka EE, get it?

Meanwhile, on the right you have people like Rand Paul with his kooky bill to undo the incandescent ban; Glen Beck waxing hysterically that George Soros will use the CFL as a tool to overthrow the US government and Media Matters will control your smart grid connection; Bush and hydrogen; and of course there is a considerable faction of right wingers that would just as soon gut all EE efforts and drill, mine, build power plants, and power lines willy nilly, and waste resources per market forces.

Finally there is this triple lindy irony: the incandescent ban, signed into law by Bush, hated by right, generally applauded by policy people in our industry, is causing much angst for program people.  It’s taking with it a gravy train of easy savings for EE programs.  An entire cottage industry is developing to rationalize the legitimacy of maintaining these savings.  There’s a problem though.  I can get CFLs on for less coin than the less efficient halogen.  We may actually see incentives for throwing away working incandescent light bulbs (just guessing).

Will the Republicans dismantle our industry?  It’s probably not going to happen in Wisconsin.  A friend (Shaw) of a friend (Koch) of the governor is the administrator!  What a hoot – a story for another day.

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

Oil Slick Musings

1 06 2010

It’s been about a month since I prognosticated and reflected on the BP disaster in the golf.  Let’s see how things have unfolded.  My predictions:

  • Political food fight
  • Underestimated disaster
  • Lack of “what if” on BPs part
  • Where is the outrage?

First, I said politicians would engage in a political food fight while Rome burns.   Sure enough, less than a week after that post, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee assembled a dog and pony show to poke executives of BP, Transocean, and Halliburton with a stick in the eye.  Actually, it was like a dog show alright – a dog fight that is – putting these three executives in a pen and let them go after each other.  Fortunately no one was hurt, physically.

This was purely for show.  They wanted to know how this happened.  What good does that do at this point or certainly at that point a month ago?  These senators probably don’t understand how hot dog cart works, let alone hyper complex deep sea oil drilling and the fluid dynamics involved.  At that early point in the game, the executives probably didn’t even know what exactly happened 5,000 feet below the surface.  They were probably lucky to have time to determine what happened on the rig.

Senator Sessions piles on by describing the spectacle had a lack of candor coming from the corporate execs.  How about this: there was a lack of KNOWLEDGE at that point, you bonehead.  Senator Murkowski said this will affect energy policy going forward.  More on this later.

Second, there would be a tendency to underestimate the enormity of the disaster.  The greatest sin of the federal government is not following their own laws.  After the Valdez disaster, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was signed into law to have the federal government equipped and ready for the next disaster.  You can guess what happened as a result of this law: pretty much nothing.  The feds had no fire booms to corral spilled oil and set it afire.  The US went begging around the world for equipment the federal statutes said we were supposed to have on hand.

For the first month, Washington just crossed its fingers and hoped for the best – like shooting the rapids in a canoe.  The worst thing you can do is freeze with the oars out of the water.  That will get you capsized.  Finally, Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, bolts onto the scene declaring the feds will “keep their boot on the neck of BP”, to make sue they “giterdone”.  Now THAT is one thing the feds can do well: put their boot on your neck alright.  What an idiotic thing to say.  He later spews from his oral orifice “if we find out that they’re [BP] not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, we’ll push them out of the way appropriately”.  LOL!  Then what?  We send our fearless congress down to take over?

Senator Nelson of Florida says the administration should “completely take over” the mess.  Colin Powell says the federal government should move in “with decisive force”.   Whadayou talking about man? The government can take over a whacko cult compound somewhere in Texas, but an oil leak? With decisive force?  It seems to me a “decisive force” put the oil rig on the ocean floor.  I think the feds should remove some of their own agencies with decisive force – like the Army Corps of Engineers that has to do an environmental impact study before allowing the construction of berms to protect wetlands from the oil.  How stupid is that?

Lack of “what if” thinking on the part of BP; that water is already far down the stream.  On the flip side of this being such a careless error in design, it will be corrected such that this will never happen again.  Before Valdez, there were hardly any double-hulled tankers.  They are nearly all double-hulled now, with the exception of China, which seems to have trouble keeping lethal quantities of benzene out of its rivers.  Back to my Nuclear Navy experience; Why is the organization so hyper anal about safety?  Aside from the obvious reasons of getting people hurt or killed, if there was a nuclear accident, it would end the program.  Now that is WHAT IF foresight.

Where is the outrage?  It’s starting to grow exponentially.  I believe what held initial outrage down is that the president is Mr. Obama, the guilty private sector company is based overseas, and the great Satan, Halliburton, was actually trying to direct BP away from the course events on the rig that lead to the disaster. The usual villains weren’t present.  If it was Bush, Exxon-Mobil, and Halliburton…hoooo.  Hellfire and brimstone before the thing even sank.  However, this disaster is outliving the politics.  The Democrats are starting to eat their own with Exhibit A, James Carville.

Do I criticize the administration’s performance?  Not so much but they ought to shove federal bureaucrats out of the way and lock them up till this is over; or better yet, maybe lock them up until they are eligible for retirement.  A major problem with the country is people think the government should ride to the rescue for everything that goes wrong.  If we want the government to handle everything well, it will do nothing well.

Another thing that will be a mistake at best and a fiasco at worst is turning Eric Holder loose on a witch hunt in the region before the oil stops flowing.  Who is he going to pursue?  Probably engineers and their supervisors who know more about this particular situation than anyone on planet earth, which incidentally may not be Holder’s home.  This is just what we need – the people who need to spend every waking hour working to find a solution will be harassed by Holder, who has the demonstrated competence of Barney Fife and the subtle charm of a rabid bat.

Unfortunately my next prediction, actually a guarantee, is the feds will of course impose more regulation on the oil industry.  You may be thinking “damn right”.  But wait a minute.  We already had an entire agency (Minerals Management Service) with two missions (1) oversight to prevent disasters like this from happening and (2) to make sure the feds get their cut of the oil revenue.  Well guess what, these guys were going to ballgames and taking gifts on the largess of the companies they are supposed to be regulating.  And while they’re not at the ballgame, they were watching porn at work (not making this up).   So I ask, do we just need more of this, or another agency to look over the agency who’s supposed to be policing all this?  Oh wait, we already have that.  It’s called the Department of Interior.

One solution already has been to split the MMS into two: (1) a fee collecting arm and (2) a safety arm.  Why?  Because collecting money and safety are at odds with one another; it’s a conflict of interest.  Think about that.  What private sector business doesn’t have the same “conflict of interest”?  Go to nearly any manufacturing or labor/machinery intensive facility or even retail and you will see signs of xx days without a work-related injury.  As visitors, we have to even sit through safety training courses prior to going on site at some places.  Aside from caring for workers, injuries are just plain expensive and money losers.  And since when do these vagarious chums care about federal revenue?  What is in it for them?  Are they getting kickbacks?  Does the mafia control MMS?  Safety is number 1 out here.

Like the “solution” to this disaster, we will get laws that punish everyone but the guilty, ala Sarbanes Oxley as a result of Enron.  Nevermind that Enron broke a million laws already on the books.  But like doctors who fill prescriptions, legislators write bills, and a lot of really bad ones, because after all, they have to do something.  Innocent bystanders who follow the rules pay for the sins of the guilty to what end?  In this case everyone who uses transportation or buys things gets hit.  I.e., everyone but the Amish.

What will prevent this particular accident from ever happening again:  (1) BP pays for the cleanup, (2) determine what failed and/or failed to work, and (3) develop a method that is 99.9% assured of killing a well, with five more backups of equal probability of success in series.  This type of disaster will not happen again, if for no other reason, it will take billions out of shareholders’ hides to clean up this colossal mess.

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

Jacque – Fix My Car

3 02 2010

There is a running joke in our business that electrical engineers don’t know anything about energy efficiency.  It is only a joke.  One of the sharpest energy guys I have interviewed was a physics major who started on the ground floor of an energy efficiency consulting firm filling orders of equipment they also happened to sell.  In 10 years he worked his way up to really understanding how buildings and their complex systems work and he became a manager of a team of energy engineers teaching his group how buildings work and how to model them.

This article made laugh out loud.  MBAs developing energy management plans and reducing businesses’ carbon footprint.  Maybe I need an MBA to consult with my doctor prior to my next gallbladder surgery.  I can see it now.  Replace lighting in a half million square foot manufacturing plant (nothing wrong with that) and install 100 kW of photovoltaic and dedicate a focus group to reduce energy consumption.  Meanwhile there are what we call piles of cash ablaze scattered about the plant in the form of process, system, and controls waste, on both the supply and demand ends of energy consuming systems.

Beyond shutting things off and installing equipment that is more efficient than option A, energy efficiency is domain of the physical sciences.  The root of energy efficiency expertise is calculus, followed by physics, and core courses in thermodynamics, heat transfer, and fluid dynamics.  If job candidates have anything less than Bs in any of these courses we discard them as candidates.

Arm an engineering graduate with an MBA and you may have a powerful weapon to put out these fires.  An MBA could make a rousing case to embrace energy efficiency as a profit enhancer, risk reducer, and marketing tool – much better than I can.  But there are already enough engineers in our business who don’t know what they are doing.  We evaluate their work all the time.  We don’t need political scientist MBAs cluttering up our market.  I might as well look up a culinary chef to do a wheel alignment on my car.  Jacque Pepin, are you available?

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