Oh Behave

14 06 2011

I swear we were introduced to the food pyramid when I was in grade school but a little web searching gives me just a couple – the one from 1992 and the new and improved one in 2005.

The 1992 edition is shown below.  If you can’t read it, good.

1992 Food Pyramid

The 2005 vertical colorful edition with the stickman and skewers for hands and feet follows.

2005 Food Pyramid

For 2011, the USDA has switched to this brilliant “plate” that looks like a pie chart developed by a group of kindergarteners employed by Microsoft, except I really don’t think anyone would want their brand tied to this thing.

2011 Food Pyramid

The purpose of these things is supposed to improve the health of Americans.  In 1992 the obesity rate in the US was nearly all below 14% for every state in the union.  Only six states had higher rates, Wisconsin being one of them – fried cheese curds and bratwurst.

Due to its success in 2005, they rolled out an improved version.  By this time only four states were as good as Wisconsin was bad thirteen years prior.  Let me try a different angle on that.  By 2005, all but four states had MORE than 20% obesity.  We improved from only six states with more than 14% to all BUT four states ABOVE 20%.

By 2009, the last year for which data are available, only Colorado is below 20%.  Thirty-four states are over 25% and nine of those are over 30%.  It appears that since these brilliant tools rolled out that obesity rates increased from 10-15% to 25-30%.  Progress.  A picture is worth 742 words.  Data are depicted in the nearby US Obesity Rates chart.

This is the brainchild of the USDA, the same organization that floods schools with subsidized fat-bomb food.  Meanwhile, there wages a war against soda and salty snack foods companies but the real culprit is the USDA that peddles this crap.  Surprise!

Despite being bombarded with data, having nutrition labeling on everything, including in some jurisdictions (NYC) on menu items served by mom and pop restaurants, the trend continues.  Why?  Americans on average don’t give a hoot or maybe they just don’t want to change; don’t want to give up anything.  Give me pills, sugar free this and that, fat free this and that, none of which work.  For most people, the solution is simple. Eat less and lower fat and sugar filled crap.  And get more exercise.  What good is a cartoon chart or for that matter, more nutrition information?

And so it will be with energy efficiency.  The smart grid and smart meters are anticipated to be the second coming of Jimmy Carter for energy efficiency.  There’s a problem with this mentality.  People have to give a hoot.  We can bombard people with information at every turn but one has to give a hoot to save energy.

Consumer behavior programs are important to the EE business, but as far as I know this primarily only includes turning stuff off or turning it down.  Nearly every single EE technology, retrofit, replacement, upgrade, and modification requires a strong element of behavioral discipline.  About the only thing I can think of that may lack behavior to avoid snapback (erosion of savings due to behavior change) is a refrigerator and freezer.  I can’t imagine people standing in front of the refrigerator with the door open thinking, “I’m going to look at this stuff in the refrigerator a little while longer because I have an ENERGY STAR® refrigerator now.”

EVERYTHING else can have snapback and erosion of savings over time, if not immediately.  Efficient lights use no energy so leave them on all the time.  I have an efficient furnace now so I’m going to maintain a New Delhi climate in my house.  I have trouble keeping it cool in this building so I’m going to turn the chiller down to 40F and not bother to change it back.  Never mind that chilled water temperature may not even be the problem.

At Michaels’ La Crosse office, we have about three acres of west facing glass that unfortunately does not have good thermal characteristics.  Anybody who knows anything about EE knows solar loads on cooling systems are huge.  Yet our high quality three acre’s worth of roller blinds are only about 30% deployed on average as the solar energy pounds away.  I’ll report back to see if this shaming worked.  If not, I’ll list the names of everyone sitting closest to unprotected windows.  I’ll see if threats work!  No.  I take it back.  I want to isolate the shame effects from the threat effects.  I’ll report on the shame effects in a month and if that doesn’t result in 100% compliance, I’ll do the threat test the following month.

Here is a really twisted perversion of energy efficiency: some technologies often result in more energy consumption, consistently.  Consider occupancy sensors for automatic lighting controls.  The first thing I did on my computer when we moved into our offices downtown was go to wattstopper.com to find information for the sensor on my wall to see how I could neuter it, and I did so immediately.  I set it to be manually switched on and auto off.  My overhead lights are used about 20 minutes per year – sometimes in the winter when I’m gathering up my stuff to go home, and sometimes for meetings with old bats who can’t see.  Otherwise the high pressure sodium streetlight outside is plenty.

I’m hard wired to shut stuff off when I’m not around or using stuff.  However, I’ve been trained by our occupancy sensors in other rooms to leave stuff on.  We even have a sticker on one switch that says Leave the Lights On!  More progress!  I would just as soon fix these with a 34 inch Louisville Slugger.  Occupancy sensors are clearly meant for users who don’t give a hoot.

On top of all this, occupancy sensors punish hard work.  I was told years ago that if you sit absolutely still for the delay period (adjustable from maybe a minute to a half hour), the lights may go out.  Bull.  You have to do a fourth quarter Bucky jump around to keep the lights on.  It isn’t easy working while jumping around.

Jump around, jump around, jump around

Jump up, jump up and get down

Jump! Jump! Jump! Jump! Jump! Jump! Jump! Jump!….  (thank me for seeding this inspiring tune in your head for the rest of the day)

In case you haven’t attended a Wisconsin Badger football game, be sure to check it out.

Programmable thermostats are probably the worst thing that ever happened for energy savings.  We’ve inspected hundreds of these things for program evaluations.  They don’t save energy because in order to save energy you have to give a hoot.  If you give a hoot, a programmable thermostat is a nuisance.  A classic example included a recent verification of an installed programmable stat in a church.  Prior to the installation, they turned their manual stat back for all but a handful of hours needed for occupancy each week.  Post implementation, the heat is on 8-5 every day of the week.  The program implementer should be fined but even so, what was wrong with the manual stat in this case?  And if you’re sitting there, thinking, “I have a programmable thermostat and it is programmed according to my actual schedule, saving energy.”  Really?  Obviously you give a hoot.  Go home and replace it with a manual one and save more.  BTW, people who don’t give a hoot just put these in manual override all the time.  So unlike occupancy sensors, they provide no benefit whatsoever to anyone.

Our industry has an awful lot to do.  This is another reason I am not in favor of in-your-face mandates.  We’ve got to sell people on energy efficiency, or else their obstinance will undo the good deed.  People have to give a hoot and behave!

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

Don’t Mess with the Stapler

5 04 2011

We, as an industry, have our work cut out for us in coming years.

Months ago an industrial energy efficiency consortium that puts on training events held a two-day workshop on motors.  Motors!  Talking about the common Swingline stapler for two days would be more interesting.  The efficient motor uses less energy in the amount of the difference in the reciprocals of old minus new.  I.e., (1/eff – 1/eff).  Multiply by nameplate horsepower then by 0.5 (don’t ask, just do it) then by annual hours of use.  Bingo!  There are your savings.  Two days!

There are more complex issues that may not be addressed.  One of these issues is, what is it that makes a motor more efficient?  Tighter windings and closer tolerances – I think.  I don’t care because the impacts are infinitesimally small compared to what end users ought to be doing.  This results in less slip, which means the efficient motor actually runs faster.  Here is the dirty secret:  An efficient motor may be three percent more efficient but as it runs faster on a constant speed fan or pump it would increase shaft power – power transferred to the impeller / fan wheel by 9%.  Increasing the load by 9% but doing it more efficiently by 3% does not save energy.  Quite the opposite, actually.  If one changed sheaves, which isn’t going to happen, or if the equipment is properly controlled by a variable speed drive, it may actually save energy.

On the whole, it is highly possible that efficient motors result in greater energy consumption.

Recently, we were meeting with regulatory staff and the topics of lighting and motors surfaced.  Apparently, the investor owned utilities are clinging to, and concocting ways to hold onto savings for efficient motors and lighting; minimum efficiencies for which thanks to the benevolent federal government are being ratcheted up by fiat.  Clinging like Milton and his beloved stapler.

Give me a break.  If programs are still relying on savings from motors, there is a major problem in Denmark.  How about considering what the motor is turning?  The load on the motor could probably be reduced by 50%, while they are going to “save” 3% with a stupid new motor that runs faster and uses more energy.

I can see what is going to happen.  Some utilities are going to whine to the regulators that all their savings opportunities are going away because the feds have ratcheted up standards.  Regulators should respond with the equivalent of “Gee, that’s really unfortunate.  Since you’ve installed all these motors that use more energy over the years, I think we will raise your savings target by one additional percentage point.”  Ironically, I learned that negotiating tactic from a utility.  “You think the penalty is too harsh?  I’ll add 50%.  Would you like to counter that again?”

Ironically, on the same day as the meeting with the regulatory staffer, I received information I had asked for purposes of evaluating the potential for retro-commissioning of a mid-size high school just over 250,000 square feet.  I had asked for the energy records.  The facility is using at least 50% more electricity than it should and 50% more natural gas than it should – easy.  It is using as much energy off peak as on peak.  The power factor is lousy.  With these symptoms, I bet I can call three top, major energy saving opportunities given the types of systems they have.  I’ll just leave it at that because it’s intellectual property available for a price.

I’ll bet my house that we can reduce their energy consumption by at least 30% with well under a five year payback.  It could be one year or three years, depending on what needs to happen to fix the causes of the waste.

Trust me when I tell you, efficient motors and new lighting will not be part of the 30% solution.


On the nearly useless EE front, see which internet browsers are most efficient.   However, the impact on battery life is worth noting.  If you don’t use the overpriced internet during air travel, kill the browser.

The president says federal vehicles will all use “clean” fuel by 2015.  What does that mean?  One percent of the fuel will come from reconstituted plastic grocery bags recovered from a landfill?   Meanwhile, the federal vehicles excluding military, guzzled 7% more gasoline than the previous year, using 322 million gallons of gasoline.  Congratulations.  I’m always pleased to be told how to live by hypocrites to whom no rules apply.

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

Green Jacket, Cigar, Gold Rings, and Disneyland

18 01 2011

I attended the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance last week and it was an interesting environment, to say the least.  This was the 4th or 5th MEEA conference I have attended. 

Behavioral stuff is an up and coming topic/issue in the EE industry.  I am planning to do a rant that to save energy, people have to give a crap.  I just need something to push me over the edge.  After all, just about all lasting energy efficiency requires behavioral changes.  Only inanimate, stationary, non-energy consuming stuff, e.g., insulation, doesn’t require behavior change.  Everything else has a behavioral component for maintenance, avoiding rebound and things like that.

What was probably most interesting to me was the political environment addressed by speakers at the conference.  For whatever reason, MEEA likes to attract people from Washington DC to discuss current events.  Essentially, people from the Department of Energy, Alliance to Save Energy, and Center for American Progress, to name a few, are on the defensive with the congressional wipeout last fall.  The theme I absorbed was one of playing defense and riding out this storm.  The mood for some was as though their dog had just left them and passed on to k9 heaven. 

One speaker was afraid of the jobs that were going to be lost but also threw wild numbers around – like the energy efficiency portion of the stimulus produced $50 billion in economic activity and that the regulation put in place and on auto pilot will produce billions of baskets of bread from the heavens in the next couple years. 

Energy efficiency is not like giving a child an immunization.  I’m a member of Rotary International and one of Rotary’s missions is to end polio worldwide.  We were down to just a few very poor and politically repressed countries like Afghanistan and Sudan, but like anything, completely eliminating something is very difficult.  Anyway, I’ve seen many photos of children bawling their eyes out as volunteers dripped immunization in their mouth.  This may seem unpleasant to the tikes but it is obviously in their favor and has a practically infinite benefit/cost ratio. 

Conversely, we can’t ram energy efficiency down peoples’ throats.  How many times do I have to say it?  The price of ramming things down American’s throats: 63 house seats, 6 senate seats, 5 net governorships with a near sweep in the Midwest, and a tidal wave of state house flips.  Here’s how regulations work: increase the cost of doing business and businesses move out of the state or overseas and then they get blasted for being Benedict Arnolds by the very folks who impose the regulations. 

Like light bulbs I discussed last week, energy efficiency is gathering really positive momentum, not because of top down regulation, but because it’s good for business.  See Save Energy – Get Out of Jail where Wal-Mart used “green” to get thousands of critics off its back.  They in turn are requiring energy efficiency standards for their suppliers.  I just red about Holcim cement getting ENERGY STAR® ratings on five of their plants.  I can’t speak with certainty but I don’t think they are taking the time and expense to get ENERGY STAR to pump up their four-wheel-driven employees.  They are obviously doing it for marketing.

And the DOE person was concerned about the jobs that will be lost once the stimulus is gone.  What jobs?  I’ve never lived through such a bizarre two years in my life and I’ve been in business for 20 years – eewe, old codger, I am.  It’s been crazy.  Talk about modifying behavior.  Millions of people purchasing vehicles a few months before they otherwise would, leaving in its wake a predictable buying vacuum – how many jobs did that create?  I don’t know, but I just read that Ford is planning to bring on 7,000 workers about 17 months after the cash for clunkers fiasco.  The $8,000 first-time home buyer credit – same thing.  The housing market is still searching for a bottom.  Just let it bomb and let’s get on with the recovery.  With regard to EE, probably hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent pursuing federal grants.  Enormous efforts have been expended trying to get free money.  This, my friends, is not stimulative.  It’s fighting over other people’s money to be repaid sometime in the future by said people.  This too as with my rant last week was a bipartisan bad idea started by Bush. 

Meanwhile, our industry is booming but the DOE speaker doesn’t know this because she lives in the beltway bubble.  The downturn only hit our new construction and LEED services.  Our other EE services have more than made up for it and we have four engineering spots to fill but we can’t find qualified people.  How bizarre is this?!  I think I mentioned we had an outstanding candidate we spent no time giving an offer to but she already had two other offers and took one closer to the spouse’s job.  Our usual evaluation teams have had to sit out requests for proposals because some couldn’t handle the work they already had in the tank.  We’re passing on RFPs as well.  So jeezo woman, when the stimulus goes away we’ll still be working hard to find people – as will be many others in this industry.

Back to the MEEA conference:  After a series of “Oh woe is me” talks, one guy in the crowd walked up to the mic to make a suggestion.  Rather than duking it out over regulation and climate change policy, why don’t we focus on the irrefutable common benefits that everyone can buy into – that EE is cost effective and is good for business.  Give that man a standing O, a green jacket, cigar, bottle of milk, gold rings, a trophy and a trip to Disneyland.  THIS is what we ought to be doing, not battling it out over something people rank 19th out of the most critical issues of the day and something half the population opposes. 


Speaking of jobs… Note to wonks trying to “create” or “focus on” jobs:  People invest and are in business to make money; period.  They are not in business to hire people.  People are hired as necessary to make more money.  Think about that.  If the bureaucrats want more jobs, let people and companies make more money. 

And speaking of sole purpose of business is making money…  In New Years Collage I chronicled a three way fight The Wall Street Journal, several utility CEOs and the EPA were having.  Among the CEOs cheering the EPA’s increase in emissions regulation was Exelon Corporation’s John Rowe.  I was eating lunch at MEEA next to a long-time Chicagoan familiar with Mr. Rowe’s strategy for Exelon (parent of ComEd, which serves Chicago).  The gentleman said Mr. Rowe sold off all of Exelon’s coal generation, leaving it with only nuclear plants.  He said the nuclear plants had among the highest operating costs in the country, which left Exelon with a high operating cost, which had to be made up by higher rates.  The gentleman explained how Mr. Rowe brought on a former Naval Nuclear engineer (Yeah!  Go Navy!) to improve the “efficiency” of the nuclear fleet.  And so he turned them around overnight.  As a result Exelon has virtually no coal generation, very efficient nuclear plants, and the highest return on capital of any utility in the business.  As I mentioned above and in several other rants, CEOs report to shareholders.  Shareholders rule.  Profit is king.  I have no problem with any of this except, I think lobbying for government to regulate a competitive advantage for yourself is not something I would do.  Preparing for and reacting to policy, good or bad policy, is fine, and indeed smart business to me.  Otherwise you might find yourself on a street corner with a tin cup. 

BTW, this was not a wild eyed ideologue I was enjoying lunch with, but I did check the facts and what he told me was pretty well right in line with an article by Forbes magazine

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

Flash Cards, CFD, and Jujus

14 12 2010

I just finished plowing out after probably a foot of snow fell over about 18 hours Saturday afternoon into the wee hours of Sunday morning.  My wife suggested I go blow out the neighbor’s driveway.  He’s had heart problems but he does have a blower so I said give them a call to see if it’s ok because if somebody blew my driveway out I’d be pissed.  It would be like watching somebody else reel in my trophy fish for me – especially with the virtually unstoppable John Deere at my fingertips.  A few years ago, I first added a couple suitcase weights.  Last year I added two more and finally broke down and got chains.  With the wheel weights, it probably has close to 400 lbs for added traction but there’s room for one more suitcase weight and I could fill the tires with fluid – probably not necessary!

Anyway, I was thinking once again that as of Thursday, the forecast for this weather system that dumped a foot on us was for “snow showers”.  I don’t know what a snow shower is but it doesn’t bring to mind belly-deep snow for our Labrador Retrievers.  Two days before we got hit with an awesome storm and a foot of snow, the forecast was “snow showers”.  Other times the forecast is for six to eight inches and we get flurries instead.  (Flurries incidentally are snowflakes that only exist in the air or in your mind in which case you would be a Parmenidean airhead)  Anyone living in the Midwest away from areas susceptible to lake-effect snow has experienced this grossly erroneous forecasting at least a dozen times a year.

We have what, 70, maybe 80 years of practice forecasting weather?  It’s essentially a two-dimensional turbulence problem over this short two-day term.  Thousands of people, including the almighty federal government, have spent their entire lives “learning” to predict weather, now with the most powerful computers known to the human race.  Yet they still hit this forecast so poorly that if it were a golf shot, it wouldn’t even be a worm killer.  The ball wouldn’t make it off the tee box.  The forced draft of the club head would be just enough to knock the ball off the tee.  Foink.

So I ask, isn’t a little bit or completely naïve, ignorant, pompous or something to think computer models can predict the earth’s temperature over the long term?  Beyond the relatively simple two-dimensional weather model, the global temperature model would have only about 8,000 additional variables, some huge ones like turbulence in the oceans which are giant heat sinks, (and I mean giant and they spin tangentially and vertically relative to the earth’s surface) the heat source’s (sun’s) output variance, volcanoes spewing grit and CO2 shutting down continental air traffic for weeks, and I could list at least 500 additional ones but don’t want to bore you further.

Or take the relatively simple subject of economics.  Projecting what will happen next in the economy may be easier than predicting the weather.  Still, nobody has come close.   One guy says we can never forecast the economy with any accuracy.  I think he should try modeling the planet.

It isn’t a question of whether CO2 affects global temperatures.  It does, (as do cucumbers) all else equal, but does it match a single eruption?  I would say anyone who emphatically says it does should try their graces at forecasting the weather a while.  Even if we could predict with 99% accuracy (whatever that means) what the weather will be one week from today, it would be the equivalent of first grade flash cards compared to Ph.D. level computational fluid dynamics that would be the global model.  But even that would be oversimplification because sooner or later the first grader can learn CFD.

Further comparing weather forecasting to climate modeling, with weather forecasting we have instant and absolutely positive feedback in a very short period of time – an instant comparatively.  Modelers examine what may have went wrong with their model such that it predicted snow showers and the next thing you know, the Vikings with their new coach and geriatric quarterback are playing in Detroit – as their home field against the NY Giants.  The parameters are few.  The outcome variance is huge and the feedback is instant.  The lessons learned should fill the library of congress, yet in 80 years (whatever) we still can’t even predict the weather a couple days out.

I don’t pretend to know the answer.  I know enough via academic background and experience, and the obvious, that I, nor can anyone else project future climate patterns with any sort of certainty.  Or, as Rummy once eloquently said, “Reports that say something hasn’t happened are interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”


This guy is bringing a class action lawsuit against the USGBC because he isn’t participating in LEED and he thinks LEED is a farce giving others an unfair advantage.  I didn’t see anyone else in the class.  It must be him and the mouse in his pocket.

This is entirely unproductive and as I suggested just a couple weeks ago in Feral Cat, What Say You, if he goes after USGBC, why not go after ASHRAE and all the state reviewers of code compliance.  Rather than getting on board and getting involved tear it down.  This scorched earth does no good for anyone, the plaintiff in this case as well.  It is the opposite of the way we choose to do business.

Secondly, PC Magazine published an article reporting that Pike Research completed a study indicating cloud computing would reduce worldwide data center energy expenditures by 38% in the next few years.  Back in April in my rant about Greenpeace, I confessed to being ignorant with respect to IT but I put my credibility on the line essentially betting cloud computing would save energy.  Touché.

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

From Jack Wagon to Hobo

31 08 2010

A couple weeks ago, the National Academy of Sciences released a study that summarized the findings of the general public’s perceptions of energy consumption and potential savings from various end-uses in their daily lives.  You can check out the curves in the linked article above and take my word for it or risk brain damage reading the thing.  To me there are several significant findings, none of which surprise me.  These are in no particular order and are only a subset of the findings.

  • Finding #1 – When asked open ended questions about ways to save energy, people overwhelmingly selected curtailment measures over efficiency.  Shut stuff off.  Unplug it.  Drive less.  Relax and take it easy (love that one but don’t watch a 56 inch plasma while lying on the couch).  Conserve energy – so the answer to “What is the single most effective thing you can do to conserve energy?” is conserve energy.  I think I would have yelled at them like the Geico drill sergeant.
  • Finding #2 – People can reduce energy consumption by 30% “without waiting for new technologies, making major economic sacrifices, or losing a sense of well-being.”  Well I don’t know about the “making economic sacrifices” part of this.  Viewing average residential end uses of electricity, the easy stuff is lighting and… lighting.  I don’t see anything else on there that doesn’t require sacrifice, more work, or spending a lot of money.  Lighting accounts for 15% of consumption.  Assuming this is all incandescent, replace it all with compact fluorescent for about 2/3 savings, or 10%.  We’re one third the way there.  Space cooling could be reduced a couple percentage points tops without sacrifice, well, make that 0% without sacrifice.  You would have to set your temperature up all the time.  Setting the thermostat up is going to save practically nothing because heat transfer due to temperature differences outside versus inside are relatively small.  Clothes dryers?  You would have to line dry.  That is a sacrifice if you ask me.  The rest you are either going to be able to do very little or a bunch of nickels and dimes will add up to a few percentage points.The only way to get to 30% is to select efficient equipment when replacement is needed anyway.  Throwing away a working furnace and air conditioner with efficient models won’t pay for itself.  Spending extra for an efficient model when you need a new one anyway will.
  • Finding #3 – Turning off the lights when leaving the room is considered by the general public to produce attractive savings.  The paper says there is actually very little savings from this.  Hide the kids and maybe the spouse too!  I’m not buying this one.  The study is 25 years old coincidently.
  • Finding #4 – People relate to curtailment, using things less more than using efficient stuff by a margin of 5:1.  The top three items are turn off the lights, conserve energy (and call the sergeant), and drive less.  If you’ve ever thought of it, efficient vehicles are more efficient, all else equal.  The Mini Cooper get’s great mileage, comes with leather seats, manual transmission, and is one of the best resellers on the market.
  • Finding #5 – People do not understand which things in their home are energy hogs.  They are fairly accurate with light bulbs, stereos, and computers and they actually think laptops use as much as a desktop.  My laptop uses about 25W.  You can barely read the paper by a 25W compact fluorescent light.  What cracks me up is they think the central air conditioner and electric clothes dryer uses only about two or three time more energy than the laptop!  You see that huge hulking plug for the dryer?  The reality is the dryer uses about 100x more energy.
  • Finding #6 – Tuning up your car twice a year saves 100 times as much energy compared to driving 60 mph rather than 70 mph for 60 miles.  First, this is misleading.  My car wouldn’t even use two gallons in that distance for either speed.  Second, who tunes up a car?  That’s from the 1970s and earlier when engine control was mechanical.  Everything is digitally controlled nowadays.  It works or it doesn’t.  I haven’t “tuned up” my car in the seven years I’ve owned it and it gets 34 mpg now like it did when it was new.  Change air filters and keep the tires a few psi below the maximum shown on the sidewall.
  • Finding #7 – People think a truck uses as much energy to move freight as a train does when in reality trucks use about 20 times as much per ton-mile.  This magnitude surprises me.  What’s the difference?  Rolling resistance.  Trains have almost none while trucks have a lot.  The rest is mainly drag and I’m sure stop and go traffic is a killer for trucks as well.  Airplanes use roughly 200 times more than rail.  Is buying carbon credits getting expensive to buy off your guilt for taking an airplane? – Become a hobo.  And isn’t the checked-bag charge for flying stupid?  Shouldn’t people be charged or not based on their weight plus that of all their crap?
  • Finding #8 – A virgin glass bottle doesn’t require a whole lot more energy than a recycled one but the public thinks it does.  My guess is recycling plastics doesn’t save a lot of energy either.  I would also guess recycling paper saves more, somewhere between aluminum and glass or plastic.  Not generating garbage for the landfill is as important as the energy savings to me.

One conclusion out of all this is we need to do a better job of informing end users that saving energy doesn’t mean freezing in the dark or taking a shower once a month.  I would say these concepts apply at least ten times more for commercial and industrial energy efficiency.  There is all kinds of waste in these facilities that do zero to provide better anything.

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

Decoupling, Stupid

16 06 2010

One way the utility business works like the rest of the economy is that it sells its products/commodities at a price that is higher than the cost of production, on average.  The more utilities sell, the greater their gross profit.  This is at odds with utilities’ incentive to save energy with energy efficiency programs.  As a result, some utility executives are opposed to energy efficiency programs.  That is a short-sighted view but that’s a story for a different day.

As a result of this dichotomy, a pricing mechanism known as decoupling has been developed.  This NREL paper gives a pretty good overview.   It says simply that “Decoupling is a rate adjustment mechanism that breaks the link between the amount of energy a utility sells and the revenue it collects to recover the fixed costs of providing service to customers.”  There are a number of specific ways to do this, some of which are described in the NREL paper, but the bottom line is utilities are less reliant on sales for their well being.

This may seem like an ingenious idea, but I see a lot of significant, if not major hang-ups.  One of the benefits is reported to be price and revenue stability.  But here’s the problem as I see it: revenue stability equals profit volatility.  Take the lousy economy we’ve had the last couple years.  Utility sales are way down but the utility keeps collecting bills that are closer to the long term averages, which means prices increase (if I know math, and I think I do).  They are selling less but there is this decoupled “fixed” cost pasted to customers’ bills.  Good for them.  What about the customers?  They are cutting back on everything due to wage pressures, layoffs, production cutbacks, and lower profits.  So what do they get in return?  A higher energy costs per unit purchased, just what they don’t need.

The opposite is also true.  Say we get a really hot summer.  Now the utility has to sell, and generate or purchase a lot more energy.  In this case, a lot might be 10% more, but that has a huge effect on price.

I just watched a demand response webinar.  Demand response incentivizes customers to cut back during peak periods when energy costs are very high because everything but homeowner’s Honda generators are putting power on the grid.  One way to deliver demand response is to pass the cost of putting the last kilowatt of power on the grid.  I don’t know where the last kW comes from for sure, but it’s way expensive and for good reason.  As full capacity is reached, power generators (companies) either charge the arm of your first born or we get brown outs.  So when the utility passes this cost to the customer the cost is huge, like 5-10 times normal cost.  Peak power is very expensive.

Back to the hot weather.  Now the utility has to sell all this really expensive electricity with less ability to recover (1) the extra high price of electricity and (2) the larger volume of energy delivered.  I suppose if you have real-time pricing described above, this will be mitigated.  But many states including MN and WI have decoupling pricing mechanisms in place, but practically no demand response or real time pricing.  The decoupling in MN and WI is news to me, but if NREL says so, it must be true.

So it seems to me that decoupling presents at least as many and as big of problems as it solves.  Did Washington come up with this?

When I interview with job candidates I usually explain the utility market and why energy efficiency programs are implemented –to keep costs down by delaying or avoiding the construction of power plants, poles and wires.  Again, it seems to me decoupling is at odds with this because the intent is to protect revenue, not prices.  If you protect revenue the “societal” benefits would seem to be lower to me.

In general, not just talking about utilities, decoupling supply and demand is a horrible idea.  Despite all the political bomb throwing regarding healthcare, the number one cause of soaring healthcare costs, which continues to go unaddressed, is the decoupling of premiums and services rendered.  For decades the system worked like this: pay a flat rate and consume all you want.  It doesn’t take a genius to predict what will happen.  In California, they kinda sorta deregulated the electricity market last decade.  They decoupled generation from delivery, deregulated wholesale prices for the utilities but capped consumer prices.  Result: utility bankruptcies and the Governator in a recall election.

I am not saying decoupling is going to result in any sort of disaster like these examples, but messing with Econ 101 supply and demand is almost never a good idea.  If we want to protect revenue, why not just build it into the rate case.  Societal benefits may take the same hit, but at least customers pay for what they consume, “real time”.

If we want to control consumption and keep prices in check, we need all the market effects of supply, demand, and pricing that we can get.  A complete free for all would go too far for a bunch of reasons I’ll save for another day, but we need more pricing response, like demand response described above, not less.

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