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

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Galactically Stupid

1 02 2011

Some weeks I struggle a little to decide on a topic.  It isn’t for lack of topics for they are like natural gas reserves – at one time I wondered whether I’d be able to find a topic every week.  But like natural gas reserves, as I “worry” about running out of topics, the topic list is vastly outstripping demand.  This week it was easy.

I watched the state of the union address last week, or I should say I started watching the state of the union.  It doesn’t matter who is president, from Reagan through Obama, I can only take about 20 minutes before I am forced to turn it off.  I either get nauseous from the rosy talk or disgusted with vague speak of wrong-headed policy.  Luckily, or maybe not so, President Obama talked about “clean energy” in the first twenty minutes – a topic I’m most interested in. 

As he spoke about “investing in” clean energy, something like 80% “clean” by 2035, I kept asking my TV, “what is he talking about?” over and over.  WHAT IS HE TALKING ABOUT?  As I’ve written many times in this blog, the federal government should get out of picking winners and losers.  Let’s examine an example of the federal government’s brilliance in promoting clean energy. 

Energy Policy Act (EPACT) 2005 issued under 100% Republican power, mandated that 7.5 billion gallons of biofuel – which is essentially 100% corn-based ethanol – be produced annually by 2012, next year.   Last year, the out-of-control EPA declared we should increase the ethanol content in gasoline from 10% to 15%. 

Note what has happened since EPACT 2005.  Due to a combination of easy money, Fannie and Freddie government-backed loans, wild-eyed psychotic institutional investors, hedge fund managers, home flippers, and crap like interest-only mortgages, we experienced a bubble and then a colossal collapse of the housing market but also commodities at the same time. 

The government has a solid track record of screwing up markets and then when the poo hits the fan, there they are, lecturing the private sector and pointing fingers at everyone but themselves, the chief culprits.  The housing collapse fits this model.

The commodity balloon including corn prices that grew in lock step with housing in 2007-2008 put a crushing load on dozens of new ethanol plants that sprouted on the heals of EPACT 2005.  Many bankruptcies ensued. 

As a result of the struggling ethanol industry, the government once again runs to the rescue.  But STOP THE MUSIC!  Think for just a minute.  Let’s establish that ethanol producers are manufacturers.  I think everyone agrees with this.  Manufacturers take commodities, or raw materials like plate steel, bar, ore, grain, sugar, plastic resin and turn them into fasteners, heavy equipment, dipsticks, cereal, Pop Tarts, and ice cream buckets.  They make scarce goods out of less scarce goods, a concept I learned in basic economics in college, or maybe in the third grade when I made cookies from scratch. 

A whopping 40% of our 12 billion bushel annual corn crop goes to ethanol production.  While The Wall Street Journal waxes about food inflation,  which is all too real, what they don’t discuss is this issue of manufacturing the less scarce goods into more scarce and thus more valuable products. 

For the love of Pete, wake up you dunces!  The value of the gasoline the 2.5 gallons of ethanol displaces is worth barely more than the bushel of corn that produced it!  HELLO!  So what’s the response, let’s use even more of the more valuable feedstock for the same old demand of the end product.  This is lunacy; monumentally, gallactically stupid! 

According to the ethanol industry itself,  a bushel of corn produces 2.8 gallons of ethanol, and I’m sure this is the latest, absolute greatest conversion to make ethanol look good.  Current commodity cash prices include $2.40 per gallon of gasoline and $6.25 per bushel of corn.  Do a little math.  The ethanol leaving in tankers is worth barely more than the corn coming in, raw!  This doesn’t include amortization of the plant itself, labor, or the massive amount of energy required to manufacture ethanol. 

The price of corn is elastic.  That is, it’s price changes a lot with demand, especially when the supply of the feedstock is tiny , teeny weeny, itty bitty, compared to the finished product it is displacing.  I.e., if all 12 billion bushels of corn were manufactured into ethanol it would displace four percent (4%) of our petroleum demand!  This is like feeding hogs fois gras so we can reduce our dependence on foreign lard. 

Here is what is going to happen as a result of federal government brilliance pushing this renewable “clean” source of energy – I would say write it down and save it, but I’m doing that for you – the continued easy money, potentially devastating inflation (see Playing with Fire), and massive upward pressure on corn prices is going to ravage the ethanol industry.  It doesn’t take a genius to see this is going to happen, but apparently it takes somebody smarter than a U.S. Senator. 

Meanwhile, most people don’t realize it, but these completely government-induced artificial demands on commodities and resultant high prices are driving farmland prices to the stratosphere.  An acre of decent farmland in Iowa fetches $8,000 and in some places considerably higher.  Say hello to the same wild-eyed crazy speculation we had in the housing market two or three years ago.  Only this is a lot wilder, and the hangover?  It’s too serious to joke about.

The government’s intrusion into renewable fuels is going to bankrupt the ethanol industry.  Once that happens, the house of cards crashes along with grain prices.  Land prices will crash, and like the housing market, there will be a massive farm-country crisis that will make the mid-1980s crisis look like the failure of an eight-year old’s corner lemonade stand.  Land prices will plummet below the principal on outstanding loans, much more so than homes.  I estimate that land prices will crash by about two thirds or maybe only by half if we’re lucky, to somewhere near $3,000 per acre.  When will this happen? I would say for sure in the next 10 years, probably in the next 5 years. 

In a bitter case of irony, government “assistance” for states like Iowa is going to devastate the state.  Thank you Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin, and here goes any shred of credibility I would give Newt Gingrich  (I actually wrote this whole thing before this last salvo went to press). 

And on the way to this pandemonium, livestock growers are going to go broke on exorbitantly priced feed.  Some already have per the above WSJ opinion piece.  We’re all paying for soaring food prices but food prices don’t matter to the Ben Bernanke.  It’s not part of “core inflation”, as though nobody eats! 

After the bomb hits, all kinds of suppliers of farm equipment, goods and services are going to get whacked and there will be a swath of bankruptcies again, making 1984 (the year) seem like Little House on the Prairie.  One “solution”, god forbid, is to throw more money at ethanol subsidies.  What’s it going to take? – $2/gallon of federal subsidy?  Is this the kind of “investment” we’re talking about? 

So think about it.  Do you really want the brilliant federal government driving us toward another cliff in renewable energy?  I can’t think of a more devastating outcome than will happen with ethanol, but then I also couldn’t think of a crazy scenario of how saving energy results in greater consumption in “Upside Down Consequence of EE” but then within a week in “The Delectable Light Bulb” a bizarre real example dropped in my lap.  The next government renewable energy drive may not be devastating, but I guarantee it will be a failure by any reasonable measure.  Has the federal government driven the breakthroughs in lighting and other technologies?  Not that I’m aware of.  The private sector has.  What happened to the Bush’s great government hydrogen solution for transportation? – and fuel cells cars?  How about the synthetic fuel godsend from the Carter days?  That was a winner, to be sure.

Renewable energy IS NOT like the development of space exploration leading to satellites for national defense then phones, TV, and GPS – or nuclear power.  In these cases, the features and requirements of the end product were well defined.  It was just a matter of physics and engineering to make it happen.  All known renewable energy today has significant physical barriers to success – like there are only so many acres of tillable soil on the continent.  The yet unknown successful, cost-effective, and plentiful source of renewable energy may be percolating in a lab somewhere or may only be a wild idea in someone’s mind or not even that yet.  I don’t know what it will be, but we aren’t going to ride solar and wind energy to the renewable sunset.

Feds – just defend us from enemies, foreign and domestic, and provide equal opportunity for all.  We will take care of the rest.  And, funny how things like satellites, GPS, internet, lasers, compact discs, DVDs, sonar, and stuff like that are spin offs of what the government is supposed to be doing – protecting us from enemies!

Tidbits

In reply to “Amber Waves of Ethanol” from The Wall Street Journal above, the CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, (lobby) states there is no food-ethanol trade off.  Forty percent of the nation’s corn crop going through ethanol plants is no tradeoff?  Nevermind.  Put down your emotions and think about what he says.  The supply of crops (production) hasn’t changed and “remember, farmers in the U.S. see less than 20 cents on every dollar spent on food.”  What does either of these have to do with pouring 40% of the corn crop down the ethanol hole or changing supply or farmer’s share of the take?  In fact, it actually bolsters the fact that supply isn’t changing while demand is rising and will continue to do so.  You have to be smarter than that, man. 

Lastly, I want to make it clear I am not ranting against the ethanol industry.  As I’ve said before, everyone has to play the game by the rules government puts on us.  However, once this bust happens, everyone involved should have to live with the consequences without bailout.  People need to take responsibility for their own decisions.  I chose not to pursue government ARRA handouts because I considered the red tape, competition for the money, types of clients that would use it, and that it’s a one-time deal, would make for a miserable ROI for us.  If others want to land the money, and then hire us, I may consider it. 

All is not lost for farmers and ethanol-plant owners.  Sell!  Farmers can sell their obscenely overpriced land and lease it back with long term contracts.  When prices crash, take it off the hands of the sucker that bought it from you – at that point it will probably be the bank, but the bank will also be broke – maybe you can take it from bankruptcy court.

P.S.  ACEEE wasn’t fond of the President’s omission of energy efficiency either

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