Green Brains and Smart Things, For Once

2 11 2010

Back from vacation this week.  I hope I didn’t ruin your week!  Hahahaha!  (this week or last, you decide)

This week is more of a rave than a rant.  I want to share some energy efficiency and sustainability successes and trends that make sense.  If you have read many rants, I typically rail against dumb policy and technologies that are roads to dead ends.  Energy efficiency and sustainability, in my opinion, must either cost next to nothing or have a decent return on investment, even though that ROI may be difficult to quantify.

First cases come from a month and a half ago while attending a board meeting for the Iowa Association for Energy Efficiency on the campus of Iowa State University.  Like many if not most other campuses, they are implementing green policies to the point of having a full-time coordinator.  My knowledge of typical practices is that they include a bunch of fluff and dumb ideas, like “let’s put up a wind turbine”, while campus facilities are bleeding energy like [insert your own gory example here].

First, they got rid of food trays.  Let’s examine the cost and benefits.  Cost=zero.  Benefit; if I remember correctly, they reduced food waste by 50%, or was it 30% (?), saving all the resources and energy associated with growing, processing, transporting and cooking the food.  I believe students were on an all-you can eat meal plan as well, so the reduced food waste also lowered meal plan costs.  Going even deeper, you know how food portions have grown to obscene volumes in part by using obscenely large dishes.  Pull out your tape measure sometime when you get your food at a decent restaurant.  Your humungous portion is hidden by the fact that the dish it comes in could be used for giving your dog a bath.  A college cafeteria tray is big.  Point is, students probably eat less and are therefore healthier.  This is as brilliant as it gets.

Second thing ISU is doing is deploying solar-powered trash receptacles / compactors.  You may be thinking, what a stupid, overpriced waste of money.  Normally I would be on that wagon but these are actually smart trash bins as well.  They wirelessly ping the waste management company when they need to be emptied.  Therefore, rather than running around and dumping every trash bin every day even if it only contains a couple empty booze flasks, an empty case of Miller Lite, and a pizza box (college kids), they wait to be told to pick up the garbage.  Garbage truck fuel and much more importantly pricey labor is saved.  Maybe the return on investment is still only 2.3% but at least there are smart elements to it.

Now there are laws being developed such that retailers must charge for plastic bags.  Washington DC imposed a 5 cent TAX for every disposable bag – paper or plastic. I think I’ve said before that I disagree with ramming green down peoples’ throats, especially in this way with a tax.  I say at least the retailers should get to keep the money for bags, like the People’s Food Co-Op (PFC) in La Crosse does.  They actually pay you to bring your own bags/boxes.

The interesting thing in this article is that peer pressure is used to nudge the masses into doing green.  This works for me, and grocery bags are the perfect example.  When I was in graduate school one of my roommates from Belgium would always take his used paper grocery bags for our weekly grocery haul.  Then I started doing that and continued to do it a while here in La Crosse but then I quit.  Boooooo!  But I shop at least weekly at the PFC and I always take a reusable bag or box there.  In fact, I’ll even go back out to the car to get them if I forget.  My Capital brewery Blonde Dopplebock box has been through the PFC at least a couple hundred times.  If you don’t believe it, you can see the tape reinforcements, tattered edges, and notice the old logo and artwork on the box.  The sentimental value builds over time.  It’s like my 18 year old Wisconsin sweatshirt with vented elbows and neckline, with fringe.  It’s absolutely priceless.

There is still need for entrepreneurial design for this bagging stuff though.  I don’t see mom or dad filling up two grocery carts with kids in tow and then messing around with a mishmash of 14 reusable bags.  Better think about that one.  Need something like a backpack as a reusable dispenser for reusable bags.  Include creature features like a cup holder, or better yet, a Camelback to stay hydrated, or relaxed depending on the beverage of your choice.

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

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.


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