9 02 2011
An overarching theme of the Energy Rant is that much energy policy has a feel-good foundation of fluff.  Last week I ranted about the feel-good dream of having plentiful, inexpensive renewable energy.  This will take a miracle because conventional sources are still huge and growing.  We have enough coal, natural gas, tar sands, oil shale, and offshore energy to last beyond our kids’ great grandchildren.  Of course most readers of this are champions of energy efficiency, but energy efficiency also has too much feel-good fluff.

Consider compact fluorescent lights, which despite my rant about it’s mandate a few weeks ago has been a fantastically successful development from the private sector sped along with the aid of EE programs.  That market has been pretty well transformed, especially in states with high rates and years of EE programs behind them.  Here’s the “problem” – the program has been successful.  The market is transformed.  Programs can no longer take credit for it but they don’t want to let go of the “savings”.  Well c’mon! 

This guy’s letter from the National Resources Defense Council illustrates this.  He is responding to a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece describing the “ineffectiveness” of California CFL programs.  An independent evaluation of the program demonstrated that savings were much less than claimed.  Sounds familiar per our first hand evaluation of some similar programs.  He says the op-ed is based on a “consultant report that makes arbitrary and unsubstantiated reductions to the benefits of the compact fluorescent lamp program”.  Well if that isn’t the cat calling the kettle black.  Talk about unsubstantiated.  I’m sure there’s nothing in the report to back up its conclusions.  The guy probably hasn’t even read the executive summary.

Per our experience, this hack’s comments are unfortunately not uncommon.  Utilities, program administrators, and implementers do not want to be told their programs are saving less than they claim – as they almost always are.  I’m not sure who did the above evaluation in California but I will bet my house that they did not underestimate savings because: (1) it jibes with results we see for similar programs and (2) evaluators do not hammer savings for fun because it can lead to confrontation.  We tell it like it is; not how someone wishes it would be. 

We’ve recently completed impact (savings) evaluations for programmable thermostats; let’s just say in a state with a temperate climate – a state that has been lampooned in this rant a couple times.  A programmable thermostat is 98% a heating-energy-saving technology.  In the referenced temperate climate, where you can heat the entire house with a toaster oven, or at most your basic kitchen oven, what do you expect?  Even in states that need heating, the attributable impacts can be tiny.  Reasons for poor attributable savings include customers not using their furnaces; they were the programmable thermostat, programmable thermostats replacing programmable thermostats, and programmable thermostats in permanent override. 

Impact evaluation for residential end users is often done by billing regression, which is a sexy term for comparing the bills before implementation to the bills after implementation and making appropriate adjustments.  Consider evaluation for programmable thermostats with the only gas-using device in the home being the furnace.  Billing regression is the ONLY way to go.  Any engineering analysis is going to have much lower precision and confidence.  But noooo!  The program people didn’t like the regression results.  Can we “engineer” savings? NO! 

The other thing I’m seeing is rules changes to capture more savings.  Incentives are limited by total dollars per year per customer, minimum paybacks, and maximum percentage of measure cost.   This of course protects against free riders.  Then there is the incentive itself – how much incentive is there per kWh, kW, or therm saved?  Some utilities are greatly increasing incentives, lowering payback limits, and increasing annual payout limits.  Does this result in more attributable energy savings?  Probably not much.  Evaluations will probably show they are mainly making more projects eligible and thus claiming more savings.  I estimate free ridership will go up a lot.  Program evaluators walking into the evaluation of these “upgraded” programs should prepare for pushback and maybe a little firestorm in some cases. 

Some utilities whine to regulators that they’ve already done a great job of saving energy and all the easy stuff is gone (hence the expanded pay out and slackening rules discussed above).  I don’t buy it.  First, their 20th century programs are running low on remaining opportunity.  Could be, but there are alternatives if they AND the regulators would open up to program innovation.  Second, opportunities are created every day by engineers, architects, contractors, building owners, tenants, the milkman, janitor, cooks… you name it. 

I haven’t seen any studies yet but I would bet there is more opportunity for cost effective measures in NEW buildings – ones that are already built.  You just need to be capable of seeing the hand in front of your face and know how to “read” – i.e., understand what you are looking at.  Buildings are loaded with opportunities we find but rarely see coming out of programs.  Why?  Perhaps because in many cases there is no equipment to sell.  Examples:  grocery store has a main air handler maintaining 75F in the space and at the same time an adjacent one is struggling to maintain 70F.  The little one is cooling like crazy in the summer and pumping cold outdoor air all winter to try to get to 70F while the main unit is burning gas like crazy to make up for it.  Obviously, this is an incredible opportunity and a very simple concept.  Somebody just has to LOOK.  And THINK!  This is far more common than a congressman would ever imagine.

In another program evaluation, the administrators were whining about the difficulty of capturing gas savings even though programs are new to the state.  Good grief.  The only reason gas savings are “difficult” to capture is there is no gas lighting technology.  So as directed by the utility, I provided maybe a dozen major gas saving opportunities that apply to many facilities, I think all of which were for commercial and industrial end users.  “Oh, we are already aware of and understand these technologies and applications”, say the implementers.  Uh huh.  Sure.  And we haven’t seen any yet for some reason.  Reminds me of Cliff Claven
written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP

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.


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?


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  There is a 50 word limit.  Responses that are too long will be rejected.

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

Energy Efficiency Stimulus and Oversight

17 11 2009

Most energy efficiency programs are required by regulators to be evaluated to ensure ratepayer money is being spent wisely and reported savings are being achieved.  If only such oversight were to happen for the millions/billions/gazillions being shelled out to state and local governments in the name of energy efficiency.

State and local governments have Amazon-wide budget gaps to fill, and I can assure you that earmarks (dirty word) for energy efficiency will find their way to plug budget holes to keep buildings open, replace roofs, buy new lawn mowers and pickup trucks, and avoid staff reductions.

We in Wisconsin have already experienced this during the last recession.  Starting in about 2000, most money collected by utilities for programs was turned over to Madison to be distributed from the ivory tower.  The recession of 2001 resulted in a major budget gap (major at that time – it probably looks like a hairline fracture compared to what we have now).  There, coming in from investor owned utilities, was a nice cash stream of $80 million per year.  The state government swiped half of it.  It pretty much eviscerated the energy efficiency programs and brought the industry to a slow crawl.  Incentives were pathetic.

Thankfully, the Public Service Commission has taken control of cash flow now to help ensure ratepayer money is used to save energy, reduce demand, and delay/avoid construction of power plants and transmission systems as intended, rather than filling in a tiny portion of a humongous budget hole.  Now energy efficiency incentives in the state are what I consider to be very attractive.

These federal funds should either be funneled through established credible program delivery channels such as utility programs or, in some cases, state governments (as long as it is out of reach of the legislative and executive branches), or there should be third party impact evaluation of projects emanating from block grants to local governments and other private sector grant writers.

If there is no oversight, vendors, consultants, engineers, architects, whoever can declare whatever savings they want. Or worse, as noted above, the funds will go toward new park benches and decorative street lights.

We welcome the oversight and technical review of our work because we are going to do things right regardless of whether others review our work.  In a competitive market, the more technically astute and persnickety the reviewers are, the better for us.  While LEED® takes its lumps for being too cumbersome, time consuming, and nit-picky, I think it would be a big mistake to slack off the review process.  It will weaken a strong brand.

The bottom line is, if you have no rigorous third party review, you can expect pennies on the dollar of proclaimed savings.

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