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

IPO Return, Treasury Risk

13 04 2010

If there’s one thing that most people painfully realized over the past couple years, it’s that there is risk in putting your money in anything in hopes of earning a return on investment.  Riding a company into bankruptcy is an obvious one.  I’ve done that several times by investing in fast-growing start-ups, initial public offerings (IPO) and stock options.  Invest $3,000 for 100 shares of common stock and a few years later the company emerges from bankruptcy (isn’t that a cute phrase – it sounds like a daffodil blooming in spring but it’s more like rummaging for your charred silverware after your house burned to the ground) … anyway that investment may “emerge” at 10 shares worth $6 apiece, or if they liquidate you get a check for 36 cents.

If you avoid Bernie Madoff funds, you can greatly reduce your risk by buying mutual funds, which more or less track the entire stock market.  Corporate bonds might be next.  In the case of bankruptcy, provided the government doesn’t take over the company, you are first in line to get your money back.  Next might be U.S. government bonds but I wouldn’t go near them now as their value moves in the opposite direction of interest rates.  Just take a look where interest rates are now compared to historic numbers and do the math.  You CAN lose a lot of money in bonds.  Then there are money market funds that invest in super safe short term treasuries, but right now you earn about nickel a month per $1,000 invested.  Finally, there’s cash in the bank, which earns even less or zero but at least the first $100,000 is insured by the feds (the minimum was increased to something but I don’t care).

Commercial and industrial facility owners can invest in energy efficiency.  Lighting would be the bonds of energy efficiency, with the exception that you’re virtually guaranteed a return on investment as long as you can do 5th grade math to ensure you aren’t being ripped off.  Beyond that, the vast majority of energy efficiency projects carry the full gamut of risk from guaranteed savings (which isn’t free) and just buying a new piece of expensive equipment or system that may not save you a dime or could even increase your energy costs.

The big money is in custom measures and the risk varies depending who is identifying the opportunities and who, if anyone, is calculating savings.  If you browse our website you will find we identify measures and quantify savings all the time.  For many large projects we take a two phase approach to the analysis.  Phase 1 is to identify opportunities and guesstimate cost and savings to within plus or minus 40%, which means a project guesstimated to have a 2 year payback may actually have a payback from less than a year to more than 4.5 years, with the most likely being 2 years.

Phase 2 is a detailed analysis, sometimes with quotes from contractors, and energy analysis based on specific equipment performance characteristics, construction documents, and metered data.  After Phase 2, the guesstimates are sharpened to within plus or minus 10%, perhaps.  Now that 2 year payback would range from 1.6 years to 2.4 years, with the most likely being 2 years.

So energy analysis can take your project from a completely unknown return on investment to something that is close to guaranteed, and if you want, that can be added too.  The cost of hiring a firm that knows what they’re doing, delivering both quantity and accuracy of cost and savings estimates, is considered by end-users to be anything from reasonable to outrageously expensive.  Owners with smaller facilities and especially government ones tend to be at the latter portion of that range.  Large industrials may be closer to the front.

But the kicker is, utilities that run efficiency programs often pay for a good share or all of the energy analysis, sometimes even both phases of analysis described above.  But yet, end users may baulk.  We recently completed phase 2 analyses that largely demonstrated our phase 1 estimates were pretty good and some representatives of customers were scoffing that phase 2 was a waste of money.  Well look at the “uncertainty analysis” above and tell me, would you use “free money” from the utility to shore up your investment certainty before you invest a dime to implement anything, OR NOT?

As my colleague says, “It’s a no BRAINER!  Gee willikers!”

As an investment, an energy efficiency project may pay for itself four or five times or even more over its lifetime.  Peter Lynch who ran the Fidelity Magellan fund during the 80s would call doubling your investment a one bagger; tripling, a two bagger and so on.  This makes energy efficiency a likely two bagger and in many cases a four bagger.  It’s a home run with the risk of a money market fund.

Why doesn’t everyone get on this ride?  There are many reasons; some good ones and some utterly stupid ones.

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

Paying to Lose

9 02 2010

Jenny Craig customers do it all the time – pay money to consume less.  This may make perfect sense to people who understand customers’ needs, but to others it seems really stupid to pay somebody to help use less of something.  This is a bit like utility programs that spend money for customers to use less of their product.

The vast majority of our energy work comes from referrals and repeat clients.  On numerous occasions, we seemed to have customers at the tipping point, only to have them bail out at the last minute.  Why?  The utility introduced us to the client, and knowing that we are more or less paid by the utility to provide energy efficiency services to the end user, they believe this is a conflict of interest and/or they don’t trust the utility to lead the end user to use less of the utility’s product – power or gas.

Memo to end-users:  Utilities have to generate energy savings.  They have no choice.

Investor owned utilities are in most states fully regulated monopolies.  The only way a consumer can buy from another utility in regulated states is to move to a different service territory.  This isn’t very practical for a school, hospital, or pretty much anybody.  In exchange for a virtually guaranteed consumer base, utilities’ profits and prices are essentially determined by regulators and consumer advocacy groups.

Saving energy, or using energy efficiency as a resource, is less expensive than building power plants, transmission, and distribution systems, Willie Nillie.  Therefore, regulators and consumer advocacy groups require the utilities to run energy efficiency programs.  As a result, utilities that run energy efficiency programs can either exceed goals or come up short.  Guess which outcome the regulators want to see.  Get it?  If they come up short, raising prices and building required infrastructure becomes really difficult politically – it’s difficult enough anyway.

“Yes, but they’ll just cheat or make up savings”, some people may think.  Wouldn’t be prudent.  Programs have third party evaluations to determine program cost effectiveness and actual savings compared to utility-claimed savings.  Lousy energy-saving estimates will come back to bite the utility hard.  This is detrimental to their next rate case, which is a request to raise prices and therefore, profit.

Smart utilities will genuinely encourage and achieve greater savings for their customers, first because they have no other choice, but second because reducing their customers’ costs improves their bottom line.  Like paying taxes, it is better to have a customer that pays a little less than none at all after they flee the service territory or go broke.  Moreover, if the customer is more profitable, eventually they will expand their business and use more energy, but efficiently.

To sum things up, utilities have to save energy or making return on investment for their shareholders gets really difficult.  Saving energy for customers also improves the bottom line resulting in long-term customers that will hopefully expand business in the utility’s service territory.

When the utility wants to help you save energy, believe it.

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