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

Horse and Buggy EE Programs

8 06 2010

In many states, energy efficiency programs are meeting annual savings goals and their incentive cash is depleted in a fraction of the year.  States where energy efficiency programs are a new offering are especially quick to meet goals.  These states include Ohio, Michigan and Illinois.  These states rely heavily on lighting, which accounts for somewhere in the range of 90% of the total savings.  Even mature states like Wisconsin and California still get well over half their savings from lighting and other prescriptive measures (rebates).  Wisconsin surpassed goals and ran out of incentives last program year.

There are many ways to solve the “excess savings problem” from reducing or eliminating incentives on some things or eliminating program offerings.  In Wisconsin, they are sort of cutting incentives across the board and getting rid of comprehensive energy retrofit in existing commercial and industrial (C&I) facilities, where everyone knows the greatest potential exists.  Comprehensive energy retrofit in WI is dead because they killed feasibility studies.

Wisconsin must know something Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, New York, California, Johnson Controls, Honeywell, Siemens, and dozens of energy service companies (ESCOs) around the country are oblivious to.  These states’ programs rely substantially on comprehensive energy retrofit and it’s actually the holy grail of energy efficiency.  But not in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin instead relies on the discount model.  See Incentive or Discount, January 12, 2010.  The powers that are believe this is the most cost effective (only) way to deliver savings and that feasibility studies once paid for by the program just rot on the customer’s shelf.  But there are numerous ways to avoid this.  You just have to develop an integrated program that holds customers accountable for implementing measures.

When Wisconsin (Focus on Energy, Focus for short) took over the energy efficiency programs from the investor-owned utilities about 10 years ago, one of the goals was market transformation.  Market transformation simply means making energy efficient products and services the normal way of doing business such that ratepayer-funded programs are no longer needed, or their need is greatly reduced.  Market transformation has long since been cast aside.

Instead, Focus has been transformed into something that seems to be directly at odds with its market transformation charter.  Service providers in the market, ones with expertise and no bias (don’t sell stuff) are locked out by an apparatus that cannot work for them.  Eliminating feasibility studies was the equivalent of adding a mote full of alligators around the fiefdom with razor wire atop the castle wall to keep the serfs out.

The idea that feasibility studies are a waste of money is just plainly incorrect.  Nearly all of our feasibility studies are acted on.  Last year we kicked off a retrocommissioning program with three pilot studies – no commitment from the owners whatsoever.  We just wanted to demonstrate potential.  Two of three have already been implemented.  One has almost a year’s savings accumulated with 25-30% electric and gas savings, on their bills.  The third project is close to implementation, which will probably be completed by year’s end.

In another study, we projected 30% savings for a high school. Actual results were 40% savings, indicated by energy bills.  One college campus: 20% gas and electric savings projected, 20% savings realized.  Another campus 15% and 22% electric and gas savings projected, respectively.  Actual savings from bills: 25% and 20%.  A medical clinic with about 25% savings projected:  actual savings in the first 3 months of post-implementation operation total a full half year of projected savings.  Every one of these projects needed measure identification, cost and savings estimates, and return on investment analysis.  We started with a blank slate.

We have a study underway for a huge food processor and are projecting 3.5 million kWh savings, from only a portion of their air handling systems (68 units).  We are looking forward to moving on to the ammonia refrigeration and compressed air systems. This customer has been very progressive with energy projects over the past 7-8 years and is willing to get everything that meets their financial criteria.  In fact, when we delivered the proposal they agreed to move forward with the study on the air handlers but said, “but I don’t think you’ll find anything”.

The bottom line is, a comprehensive program that includes front-end screening, study, Implementation design, implementation, functional performance testing of measures, and customer training will be acted on by customers.  Of the 10 or so projects, including dozens of campus buildings, where we have used this process, savings have been 20% or more in every case, up to 40%, and actual savings from pre and post implementation bill comparisons have always come in above study projections.  Projects include everything from retrocommissioning to major equipment/system retrofits to new controls systems.

Ironically, we completed a “no risk” study with Focus last year including controls, refrigeration and HVAC.  The customer went forward with all recommended measures.  Again, all we started with was a customer that wanted to cost-effectively save energy, a blank sheet of paper.  No “pre-packaged” projects.  I.e., no free rider.

From a program perspective, this is very cost effective because savings are huge and concentrated and studies do not get stranded.  The problem with some (as in, not all) program administrators whether they be third parties or utilities is they are steadfastly wedded to the status quo with a divorce rate Vatican City would cheer.  The typical disjointed process with reams of paperwork and delays at the outset, no assistance between study and implementation, no hook or commitment from customers to do anything with the study, and no functional testing at the conclusion of implementation is doomed to fail.

The solutions to the “waste of money” issue are simple and they work very well, but some administrators and in some cases regulators need to open their minds and ditch their horse and buggy program paradigms.

And by the way, the attribution rate, which is the savings that occur as a result of an integrated program including feasibility studies, is near 100%.  See the food processor guy’s quote above.  He didn’t think we would find anything.  Tell me.  Would these 3.5 million kWh savings have occurred in the absence of a thorough investigation?  How does a customer who buys an efficient boiler have any idea what the incremental cost and energy savings of his new equipment are?  Does that constitute decision making based on energy efficiency?  Perhaps some programs could improve their attribution rates on C&I programs if they would actually lead customers to implement energy efficiency measures rather than chasing contractors, like lawyers chasing ambulances, to capture savings that are going to happen in the marketplace anyway.

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