RFPs from the Edge

22 02 2011

Last month, the one session I attended at the AESP national conference was how to write a better request for proposal (RFP).  It was sort of a forum led by our friends at Tetra Tech.  Essentially, it was full of people like me, for whom a major responsibility is business development and marketing – responding to RFPs.  For a while I sat there like a lump, thinking, eh, just deal with it and quit whining.  Toward the end of the session I started getting fired up.

Here are some guidelines for writing RFPs:

  • If you’ve already decided who you are going to hire but have to go through an RFP process as a formality to keep some government wonk off your back, just issue the RFP with a one-week deadline with an impossible pile of content to gather so it is obvious to everyone who knows anything (i.e., not the clueless wonk), that the RFP is a charade.  I have plenty of opportunity without being duped into writing a proposal for which we have no chance.  And whatever you do in this scenario, don’t extend the deadline because some clueless bidder doesn’t “get it” and asks for an extension.
  • If you are going to extend the deadline, do it days before the deadline passes.  One thing that really smoked my butt last summer was having a deadline extended with about three hours to go for the 5:00 deadline.  This was obviously to accommodate some whining  bidders.  The RFP had been out for weeks.  If a bidder can’t manage their time better than that they deserve no chance at the project.  Is that how you would handle the actual work should you win?  I wrote as much in our proposal on that one, sparing the name calling, however.
  • If you are going to extend the deadline, do it before the original deadline.  That is correct.  We recently submitted a proposal on a Friday, the due date.  We added to the proposal that we had not received the questions (from bidders) and answers (from buyer) for the proposal.  Samples of this Q&A are discussed in You Are So Fired.   As a result of not having the Q&A, we wrote that if there is something we didn’t get from the guy who promised we would get the Q&A, have mercy on us.  The next Tuesday here came the Q&A and an extension to the next Thursday, two days away.  Good grief!  And it had MAJOR implications.  See next bullet…
  • If there is a deadline for completing the actual project, PUT THIS IN THE RFP! (please)  The RFP discussed in the previous bullet was for a quarter million dollars with no project timeline mentioned in the original RFP.  We provided two scenarios: first to complete it by late fall for one price and second to finish early the next year.  In the Q&A provided after the due date, the report was to be completed by June 30.  Nice.  If I had known that I probably wouldn’t have even bid the thing because it’s too aggressive and practically impossible to deliver.  Did I mention this was an ARRA (“stimulus”) project.  Makes sense that it makes no sense.
  • Either provide a very detailed scope of work or budget, or both.  If neither is provided, you have nothing to bid on.  This may sound like a “duh” but some RFPs want innovation and therefore leave the approach wide open, which is ok, but unless the RFP comes from congress, which knows no limit on spending, please give me a number to work with.
  • Know what you are doing.  We were recently teaming with another firm on a proposal for a relatively huge pile of work.  The constraints on cost per project and per unit of savings were about 40% lower than industry standards.  For example, a rule of thumb is that a program should deliver savings for about 1.5 times the energy cost per unit.  They were talking about something more like 0.8 times cost per unit.  C’mon.  This will be a case of hopefully getting the project and then explaining their plan is naive and needs a reality pill.
  • Keep it linear not a convoluted, semi-parallel piece of junk.  Some RFPs have an approach, scope of work, form of proposal, with a total of about 4 separate lists of things to cover.  I want to be sure to cover everything and present it clearly but this gets a little difficult when the format detailed in the RFP is a mess.  It doesn’t flow like I want because the RFP is a heap of junk.
  • Don’t mislead or outright lie about selection criteria.  When I see an RFP from a government entity with a proposal selection process that puts less than 50% scoring on cost, I know nobody put any thought into that.  Sometimes it’s a laughable 20% of the weighting.  It would be a rainy day in hell when a government entity doesn’t select the lowest cost proposal.  Quality and ROI rarely (and I do mean not always) matter to government entities, which is why we skip most of them.  I did fall for the ARRA one above, like a dope.
  • And of our wonderful utility clients, tell the purchasing / sourcing departments we are not designing a power plant, transmission system, or even a measly substation.  We don’t need to carry $20 million in professional liability insurance.  This may be asking for the impossible too, but ask the legal department to be reasonable.
  • Finally, for cry sakes hire the firm / team with the best proposal.  In the past year, we assembled a team to do a study for a regional energy efficiency consortium.  Our team put a lot of thought into the proposal and developed an outstanding approach and work plan.  I knew who our competition would be.  A firm that had done a million of these and they would switch covers on the last report, make some adjustments for the region and tell them what they tell everyone else.  If you kid yourself long enough, you’ll start accepting it as correct.  At some point you have to go to the streets and find out rather than tweak the last edition.  Our approach was to get real data from the ground up.  We lost to the mass-market provider and in the post mortem, the consortium rep couldn’t tell us a single reason why we weren’t selected.  In fact, she only told us how much they liked our proposal, over and over.  Head, meet wall.

Tidbits

I was in Austin, TX last week for my first real visit to the state.  Per my experience, there is no shortage of traffic.  Per the locals, the city likes sprawl.  It features a nice downtown and believe me when I tell you I’ve never seen so many people running in the morning darkness as there were in Austin.  Not in New York, Washington DC, Columbus, Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, Minneapolis, Denver, Tucson, Phoenix, San Diego, Sacramento, Portland, or Seattle.  The only thing that I’ve experienced that was close was in the hills outside Silicon Valley.  And the Austin dudes are fast.  I was passed by three women in one six miler – four if you count one that pulled out in front of me and pulled away.  Fantastic!  These women were probably in their running prime but I’m not going to whine about my age till I’m at least 60.  But the average high temperature in July/August is 96F, which to me in WI, is a god-awful 4-H day, hazy, hot, humid, heinous.

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

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Freeloaders and Geniuses from the Universe Next Door

19 10 2010

You know what torques me off, or make that torques us off more than anything else?  I’m saving it for a future rant.  Stay tuned.

No really, it’s “prospective” clients, many times end users that have screwed up buildings beyond reproach or wasting energy as though they just want to release all the carbon locked up in fossil fuels and get it over with.  They ask for help but in no way intend to pay for it or take action for anything substantial.  We may have even demonstrated, clearly by benchmarking or other means with specific measures that they could make their utility shut down a 500 MW power plant if they would just do something.

But no!  They want to know something trivial like how much energy/money they’ll save with a system that will put unattended PCs to sleep and not mess with anything substantive.  Never mind every PC on the planet has this built in and it’s about as hard to negotiate as turning on the television.

They’ll ask how to catch a three pound shad when you have a loaded harpoon with a giant blue marlin at point blank range (just go with the metaphor even if it is totally absurd).  Take the damn harpoon and shoot the thing, man!  Well gee, I just don’t know.  I haven’t used one of those things before.  I might shoot myself in the foot.  Is that tip sharp?  And they keep coming back for more panfish advice.

You may have spotted these people in public.  They go to the grocery store around noon Saturday to eat everything available for sampling, for their lunch, and probably leave with a half gallon of milk and a loaf of private label bread.  They sample six beers in a brew pub, order a can of Pabst and leave no tip.

And then there are those who believe the utility should pay for everything, and I mean everything.   We were working a school district for retro-commissioning and I believe they have some good opportunities, but when the board discussed it, a genius said, no.  He wanted the utility to build a remotely-sited wind turbine (because their location is lousy for wind energy) paid by the utility to generate electricity for their facilities and do it on a net metering sort of contract.  I am not kidding you.  Gee, that’s a great idea.  Let me get right on that.  I almost got brain damage from oxygen deprivation.  I was laughing so hard.  I’ve heard of customer entitlement mentality but this was from another universe.  How do you calibrate a customer like that to life here on earth?

We also have to beware of death by a thousand cuts.  A client may only want a half baked high-level assessment.  No matter how loud and clear we describe WHAT the project IS NOT, after we present the results that clearly meet the contract scope of work, some start asking for details on specific measures.  Where do I buy one of these?  Do you know any good contractors?  What capacity of doohickey do I need?  Some utilities, thankfully, are offering compensation to answer these sorts of questions.

Think of it this way.  If your house is a hog, it’s probably because it leaks like a sieve.  You can’t just take a couple tubes of silicon and slop it on some windows.  I know what I don’t know, and I know there are a boat load of places for infiltration/exfiltration to occur and like life in the commercial and industrial world, if you want results, you need to hire somebody who knows what they are doing.  I’ll pay a guy $500 to do it right before using a buffoon for free, any day.

NOTE: This is not a solicitation to weatherize my house.

Tidbits

Wall Street Journal readers responded to the source article from last week’s column.

Commenting on the letters, the National Resources Defense Council guy projects avoidance of 300 large power plants and $12 billion in annual savings.  In an Energy Brief a couple years ago, I projected 156 large power plants (500 MW apiece) and $9 billion in savings.  Close enough for hand grenades but I’m guessing he’s a little heavy on the power plants.  Is there diversity figured into his numbers?

Osram, a German company is retooling one of its American plants to manufacture efficient lighting.  Meanwhile, General Electric is whining that it has to close its last lighting plant in the U.S.  Jeffrey Imelt is a terrible CEO for GE.  General Electric used to be an entrepreneurial innovative company under Jack Welch.  Now it is a company in search of markets for status quo products and services, and government handouts.  If you don’t innovate you die in the private sector.  It matters not what you do.

One guy argues CFLs will require more heating energy consumption.  Yawn.  Fuel oil would be cheaper heat and if incandescent bulbs are such a great source of heat, what about summertime?  The electrical engineer makes good points that CFLs are not as bright as advertised.  We’ve always recommended CFLs at 33% the power, as opposed to 25%, of the incandescent being swapped out.  This is essentially the next size larger CFL than “recommended” in the business.

Another guy plays the mercury card.  Yawn.  I dismissed that fallacy in the same Brief.

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





A Frivolous Novelty

20 07 2010

For this week’s publication, I was trying to think of an expensive, short-lived, duplicative, inconvenient, limited use, frivolous novelty.  Did I mention expensive?  After a half-hour of wonderment, the best I could do is a Homer Simpson bottle opener.   But really the Homer Simpson bottle opener will last longer and at least be useful (note, I didn’t say serve it’s purpose, which is to make people laugh) probably for a far longer period than the electric car.

Twenty years ago “they” were talking about developing electric cars, I guess to save us from carbon dioxide, but I don’t recall the CO2 debate being as intense then as it is now.  I recall arguing with my roommate, who was a perfect match for me (we shared best men duties at each other’s weddings), that the electric car is a stupid idea because once again our friend Pesky Reality will not allow this bad idea to ever go mainstream.  You know, Pesky is going to be our imaginary friend from now on.  I’ve never had one actually so we will see how this goes.

I already have a 20 year winning streak, but “they” are making another futile run at this doomed idea.  Of course this is being served up by the connoisseurs of bad ideas.  The factory of remedies that are worse than the disease: Washington DC.

GW Bush’s dopey idea for the next miracle of personal transportation was the fuel cell.  The only emission would be water vapor – egads! The number one greenhouse gas.  Maybe the next time this stupid idea comes back to life Pesky can start a campaign advertising the greenhouse gas thing and it will crash and burn faster the Hindenburg.   Hmmm.  Hindenburg.  Hydrogen.  Bad idea.  Crashing.  Seventy years later here we are again!  I would call that an overt, as opposed to a subliminal message from Hephaestus, the god of fire.

I’ll just mention a few of Pesky’s problems with the fuel cell.  First consider the fuel, hydrogen.  Where does it come from? Where can I buy it?  How do I store it?  How is transported?  What is the driving range on a full tank?  Answers: splitting the water molecule with electricity (?), ?, ?, ?, and 36 feet.  So there it is.  You can’t mine or drill for hydrogen.  Well, I guess you can, but just not successfully.  As I recall, from what was it, 9th grade chemistry, it is the first element on the periodic table and a mole of any gas takes the space of roughly 1 cubic foot.  In other words, this is an extremely sparse gas and fuel source.  Liquid hydrogen?  Sure, at about minus 270C.  I just pulled that number out of the air but trust me, you won’t be able to make -270C with some standard plumbing pieces parts and household chemicals from Home Depot and Wal-Mart.

Back to the electric car.  I am aware of the Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt, and Tesla something or other.  The first two have a driving range of 100 miles.  The Tesla has a more conventional driving range of 300-400 miles.  Price tag: about $100,000.  The Leaf and Volt can be had for a song: $40,000.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.  As soon as someone is able to push Pesky aside and develop a long range battery that weighs less than the sculpture of Abe Lincoln in his monument on the national mall, we’ll be home free.  I don’t think so.

The fuel source for electric cars is widely distributed and you can get it pretty much anywhere.  However, Pesky requires a rectifier and transformer to turn AC current delivered over the power lines to DC and then step the voltage down or something like that to “fill” the battery.  Price tag: $2,000.   Ok. Maybe you can buy one of these things and use it until the next ice age.  But it takes 8 HOURS to charge the batteries.  It takes 3 minutes to fill the tank with gasoline.  One hundred miles in 8 hours: 12.5 miles per hour of filling.  Gasoline: 340 miles in 0.05 hour: 6,800 miles per hour.  If I remember correctly, that is roughly Mach 10.  This is like making 30-year aged, single-malt scotch compared to thawing, or as my wife calls it “de-thawing”, a bagel in the microwave.  What happens if you forget to plug in when you get home at night?  Call in to work dead? As in dead battery?

Where are you going to charge once you leave the home-base 30 mile radius?  Who is going to install all $2,000 charging stations for you?  It will be like the Amish when they all get together for their Sunday services.  All the buggies are parked in the yard while the dozens of horses that pulled them there are packed in a shed munching hay, drinking water and lying about for 8 hours.  They are recharging their batteries, man.  That’s beautiful but is the modern American going to put up with 12.5 miles per hour of charging time?  Does anyone root for both the Vikings AND the Packers?  (If so, he/she should be locked up)

Assume engineers are able to speed up the process.  Charge time will still be constrained by the electric “pipes” coming to your home.  An electric water heater or clothes dryer probably pull the greatest demand in a typical house.  The water heater input is limited to 4.5 kW, equivalent of about 6 horsepower.  My lawnmower has at least 3x as much power.  See why it takes such a long time to charge, and it’s not ever going to change without a bazillion dollar modification to the electric grid?

And then there is this little problem:  You probably haven’t thought of it this way but your gasoline-powered automobile is a little and very efficient combined heat and power plant.  That’s right.  I’m going to guess a car is about 20% efficient with maybe 10% burned up in friction and the other 70% dumping heat out the radiator, just like a power plant.  Everyone north of the Florida panhandle needs heat and even if you don’t mind wearing a snow suit and big furry hood, you won’t be able to see where you are going with out lots of heat to keep the windows defrosted or defogged.

Well how much heat does it take?  When I first drove my little (2002) Honda Civic to work in -20F weather, as I coasted down the “big hill” (at least a mile long, maybe 500 feet vertical), the water temperature gage went from “50%” to about “20%”.  I thought crap, the thermostat is probably stuck.  No.  The heater just sucked all waste heat out of the engine while it wasn’t “working” in about 70 seconds.  Where is that kind of heat in an electric car coming from? – from the battery.  But the gas car has 70% of its energy consumption available for space heat.  Once the same heat is extracted from the Abe Lincoln battery, you’re hundred mile range is now down to about 30 miles.  Well guess what the average commute distance is in the U.S., Pesky.  Its 16 miles, 32 round trip.  I guess that car is good for a drive to the convenience store for milk and bread, but just make sure it’s fully charged so you can make it back up the hill.

Recently, Obama has been doing photo ops at an electric delivery truck factory in MO and a battery factory for electric cars in MI, neither of which would be a shadow of themselves without hundreds of millions of free money from the “stimulus”.  I don’t give investment advice but if I were an investment advisor, I would put a strong sell on these stocks.  Then I would short them.  I would buy put options.  If I worked at these places, I would be looking for another job.  The government gave these guys a big push to get going but there is no engine under the hood.

I never like to just thrash things and leave it be without offering alternatives.  Sooner or later we will have no choice but to use alternate fuel sources.  There is no infinite source of oil, although there is probably a 200 year supply if we decided to remove restrictions and technologies allow us to extract oil in more extreme places.  Remember, in the late 1970s we were on the verge of running out of natural gas.  Forty years (40) hence we have a bigger glut of natural gas than ever.

Like efficiency in buildings, in the short term we can make huge gains with existing “technologies” – have heat, have a driving range limited by the driver, and refuel in three minutes every four hours.  In the long term, the alternate fuel source will be in liquid form.  Sources may be algae, wood, (not corn ethanol), garbage or other waste material like dog hair.  I have a bottomless and continuous supply of free dog hair.

Unless something riles me up more in the next week, I will discuss the interim.  Pesky will have the week off because he will have no say in these matters.

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