Soothsayer: Analyze This

7 09 2010

How many times have you read “we can create 40 million jobs and reduce our energy consumption by 90% if only we did x, y, and z.”  Lester in this article says by 2035 we can double our fuel economy.  Well I should hope so!  Lester is actually one guy that is conservative in his estimates/goals.  David Goldstein in the same article says we can decrease our energy consumption by 88% by 2050.  Now where does he or any other egghead come up with these numbers?

I had to laugh out loud regarding the results of an energy efficiency potential study I studied a couple years back.  This expensive study was to be used for energy efficiency program planning for the subsequent five years for a state which shall remain anonymous to protect guilt.  For commercial and industrial (C&I) programs, imagine a graph with two sets of data on it.  The bars represent the programs’ goals for the trailing and forward-looking five years each, and a line represents achieved savings over the trailing five years.  For the trailing five years the savings ran about double the goals, increasing a little each year – something like 5% per year.  Well guess what the goals were going forward – about double where they were at the time increasing about 5% a year.  Stupendously genius!  If I failed to explain clearly, the goals were just an extension of the past 5 years.  You could lay a ruler over the past five years’ points and draw a straight line to get the goals going forward.  Man, I wonder how much they were paid for that report.  At least a half million dollars, I’m sure.

Soothsayers who predict energy savings potential two-three decades out or more must subscribe to the same methodology, otherwise how can you possibly project what the savings potential is beyond ten years.  Engineers, good ones anyway, subscribe to a rule that says extrapolating data beyond the data set – into the future in this case –  is very dangerous.  The further out one gets, the huger the error.

I am confident that the world’s economies will become more efficient with time, if for no other reason, less energy consumption means more profit.  However, the savings curve over time may approach a limit of something like 20%-30% savings compared to today because there is a severe shortage of professionals with degrees in the physical sciences, e.g. engineering, who are knowledgeable regarding C&I energy-using systems and savings potential.

Here is an article that includes 10 ways to improve the energy efficiency of a commercial building.  As I read this typical list, I can tell the author most likely doesn’t know squat about outing real energy-saving opportunities in C&I facilities.  Do energy audits, use more efficient equipment (duh!), maintain equipment efficiency (duh!), insulate, and brainwash occupants.  These things can save substantial energy if the lights are on 24/7 and the chiller was made in the 1960s and it’s plugged with airborne fuzz including dandelion seeds and the like.  This list reads like a good set of tips for homes.

Where are the real savings?  In system design and control.  Heating sources have been approaching 100% efficiency for a long time.  It is also going to be difficult to cost-effectively produce chillers that are much more efficient than you can get on the market today.  You’ve got to pump water, move air, control temperature and humidity, and provide ventilation.  Until humans create artificial intelligence to control systems, these things always waste substantial energy regardless of how efficient, well maintained, how many audits you do, or how “aware” of energy your people are.

Then there are manufacturing facilities, some of which I swear were built by the seat of somebody’s pants and controlled by no one.  Compressors are running at pressures higher than they need to be.  Cooling water and heating water streams are mixed before a portion goes to a cooling tower and the other portion goes to a heat exchanger.  Pumps and fans are grotesquely oversized.  Equipment is controlled in series rather than parallel.  Chilled water is used to cool things to 110F.  Operators’ fault?   Maybe not.  These facilities operate for profit, and productivity including simply keeping the line going, is king.  Staff in these facilities run from one fire to the next.

I don’t know if I have ever seen “green jobs” and “engineer” in the same article.  Green jobs always seem to refer to people who weatherize homes or work at a wind turbine, electric vehicle battery, photovoltaic, or some type of renewable energy plant.  This is fine by me as I really don’t want that moniker.  However, this is symptomatic that at least 50% of energy consumption in all buildings is misunderstood at best and virtually out of control at worst.

Rather than or maybe in addition to job training for the green economy, how about some electives or advanced degrees even for engineering schools?  Six credits of electives or a masters degree in energy efficiency would go a ways.  It wouldn’t take me long to generate a high level curriculum.  Rather than throwing hundreds of billions at technologies and industries that are bad ideas (e.g., food-generated ethanol), how about investing in some smart people who can critically analyze and provide solutions to greatly reduce energy consumption COST EFFECTIVELY WITH NO TAXPAYER SUBSIDIES?!


Here is an all-to-familiar story of misguided priorities.  BWI Airport is spending $21 million on an energy savings performance contract and they are leading off with the installation of a bunch of solar panels.  Meanwhile, they are probably wasting energy as though they want to get their “fair share”.  I also just came off a conversation where a former science teacher at a school district is pressing for a remote, net-metered wind turbine – and they want the utility to pay for it.  Uhuh.  Another LOL moment.  They’ve done a grand total of zilch to optimize their facilities’ energy consumption as well.

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

Get a Grip

10 08 2010

As you may have heard, this year China powered past (cheesy pun warning) the United States in total energy consumption.  Apparently, back in 2007, they surpassed the US in carbon emissions.  This makes sense as almost 70% of China’s electricity is derived from coal as compared to just under 50% in the United States.  In the U.S., nuclear and natural gas make up most of the other 50%, roughly split evenly with renewable energy rounding out the 100%.

In recent years, or especially since President Obama moved into the White House, there have been multiple verbose incomprehensible cap and trade policies drafted, but they are dead for now.  By the way, I maintain my position that substantial nationwide carbon limits are not going to happen in my lifetime.  If it didn’t happen since Obama took office with a filibuster-proof senate and a large majority in the house, it ain’t going to happen anytime soon.  Why?  Democrat senators from Midwestern states where coal is still king (not that this is a good thing) and coal producing states like West Virginia result in filibuster, if not an outright minority.  E.g., Jay Rockefeller will vote party line on everything but carbon caps.

There remains one possibility, however – that carbon caps may be legislated through the courts, which of course is not how things, especially major things like this, should become the law of the land.  In one example, the EPA in 2007 was handed the power to regulate carbon dioxide because it is a “pollutant” per the clean air act.  Again, this is like declaring water, another vital molecule that makes biological life possible, a pollutant because water kills.  Recall, I wrote on the blog a few weeks ago you can die by drinking too much water.  People drown, to the tune of 400,000 deaths worldwide each year[1].  Floods devastate communities – at least $3 trillion per year[2].  Water causes lightning, which kills about 24,000 per year[3].  And heat wave deaths – always have a large component of high humidity.  Aside from illegal activity (human smuggling), when was the last time you heard of heat related deaths in Arizona?  You don’t.  It’s Chicago, Memphis, New Orleans, Kansas City, Little Rock.  Water is dangerous.

You may be thinking, there’s nothing we can do about water.  Really?  How about banning swimming in rivers, lakes, and oceans and slapping $1,000 fines on people for not WEARING their floatation devices?  Move everything out of the 500 year floodplain.  Mandate air conditioners for every household and if you can’t afford one the federal government will provide one.  Sound familiar?  Thousands of lives would be saved per year.

The bottom line is, 98% of legislators are too cowardly to vote for the right thing, or wrong thing I guess, if it threatens their political career.

Sorry.  I got way off track.  I can’t help but railing against the preposterous.  Life has risk.  Is there anything, ANYTHING, worth doing if there is no risk?  There are costs and there are benefits.

Back to China.  China’s energy consumption has DOUBLED in the past 10 years while the United States’ energy consumption has decreased slightly.  For all intents and purposes, it’s been flat.

Here is something that will knock your socks off – since 1999, China has installed 416 gigawatts of coal-fired power plants.   “So what?”, you may be thinking.  A gigawatt is like a trillion dollars.  To give that perspective, a trillion dollars in $100 bills wouldn’t fit in a three car garage, tightly packed and stacked to the rafters Likewise 416 gigawatts can be generated by 832 large 500 megawatt power plants or 208,000 wind turbines by nameplate capacity.  This is eighty giant coal-fired power plants per year!!  And they have 330 more giant power plants on the drawing board.  Over the same period, the United States has built coal plants totaling 12 GW, or a measly 24 giant power plants.  China is averaging 80 per year, while the U.S. is averaging 2.4 per year.  GET A GRIP!

This is like giving Lance Armstrong a two day lead in the Indy 500 with his bicycle (he would be the US) but China has just taken the lead with the typical 225 mph Indy car.  It’s actually worse than that. It’s more like me running the Indy 500 versus the 225 mph Chinese Indy car passing me by.

In 2006, China generated as much electricity from coal as did the United States.  At the time they had 484 GW of operational coal plants.   Very roughly, they’re adding 10%, at least per year.  This blistering pace will fade with time, but it is fair to say they will have double the coal-fired electricity generation compared to the U.S. within 5 years.

Conclusion:  If we are truly concerned about carbon emissions and climate change, China has to do something.  The reality however is that whatever the U.S. can stomach will be of zero consequence considering the Chinese Indy car.  Unlike the floating continents of garbage that is choking the mighty three gorges dam and the 100 tons of benzene spilled in the Songhua River, carbon dioxide makes its way around the globe.  It doesn’t matter where it comes from.




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

The Nebulous Green Job

13 07 2010

“Green jobs” have been all the buzz for quite some time, probably before Barack Obama was elected president, but I don’t know for sure.  What the heck is a green job anyway?  Some real answers include those like we have at Michaels Engineering with 20+ engineers working full time on real energy-saving projects.  Another example is the guy who operates the humongous crane that helps erect humongous wind turbines.

But politicians and academic eggheads aren’t talking about jobs like we have at Michaels, although they probably do agree the crane driver has a green job, but it goes far beyond that to Alice’s wonderland.  Take this Mark Izeman guy’s interview.   I’ll paraphrase the questions and answers for brevity here.

Q:  What should graduates look for by way of green jobs?

A:  Look into areas of energy efficiency, renewable, cap and trade, and local food, which is a red hot issue.

These are shot gun recommendations for everyone leaving college with cap and gown stuffed in a suit case: physical education, political science, sociology, library science, foreign relations, mass communication majors included.  Quite frankly, I don’t know what people with these sorts of academic backgrounds are going to do unless they want to weld and assemble wind turbines and electric cars.  Otherwise, there are always more PR jobs like the guy being interviewed in the article, but what good does that do?  It’s like hiring cheerleaders to double as special teams experts in the NFL.  What we need is more players and fewer cheerleaders (strictly speaking about the “green jobs” industry and not the NFL).

And then he says buying local food.  What are you going to do with that?  Start your own vegetable farm?  I think there is a lot of cheap land available in Detroit for this.  There are more jobs available working for Dole, which grow strawberries in CA, bananas from Guatemala or Ecuador or someplace like that.  I’m sure there are a lot of management, marketing and sales jobs and stuff like that with these companies.  Oh, I forgot.  These aren’t “green jobs”.  Never mind.

RA (real answer):  Think before selecting a college major.  With an engineering degree you will have the flexibility to fill or create any number of green jobs.  Library science guy?  Not so much, for real anyway.

Q:  Has the stimulus created “green jobs”?

A:  Fifty thousand “green jobs” have been saved or created.

Can we count the 20 plus engineering jobs we “saved” in this total?  Why did “jobs created” morph into “jobs created or saved”?  Obviously, the latter can mean anything.  Since the 4 million jobs have disappeared while the unemployment rate has gone up (down most recently because the workforce is shrinking as people quit looking for work), it’s pretty hard to claim jobs have been created.

Fifty thousand is a pathetic number, even if it represented “created jobs” only.  Here’s a sneaky secret:  you know when you apply for a federal grant, which seems to be part of nearly everyone’s business model nowadays, one of the selection criteria is you guessed it, “jobs created or saved”.  Well my new LED street lighting job is going to create or save at least 200 jobs.  This probably gets as much scrutiny as an Energy Star dust mop.

RA:  Nobody has a clue, really.

Q:  How many “green manufacturing jobs” will replace lost manufacturing jobs?

A:  Lieberman/Kerry cap and trade will create 200,000 jobs per year over the next 10 years.

RA:  In China and India.

Q:  How do you define “green jobs” in the first place?

A:  He doesn’t know but the Bureau of Labor and Statistics is figuring it out.

Why?  A job is a job, so if my job is a green job, I guess that’s one less engineering services job.  It’s one or the other.

RA:  Whatever it takes to capture enough jobs for some political end.

Q:  What is the outlook for “green jobs” sector over the next 40 years?

A:  “Greening the economy and creating new jobs, which will become so plentiful and normal we won’t label them “green jobs”.

RA:  The outlook is good.  I don’t think this will be going away, but let’s dispose with the “green jobs” moniker, which is just political wrapping paper to pass massive spending bills.

Demand for green stuff is growing on its own.  Take LEED, which is run by a non-profit United States Green Building Council.  It has been wildly successful and as far as I know, it has taken very little if any money from federal, state, or local governments.  I don’t see a single government employee on the board of director committees.  Gee.  I wonder if there is a connection between wild success and lack of government bureaucrats??  You don’t suppose.

Wal-Mart has probably produced more “green jobs” per the definition provided in the article/interview noted above than the federal government could ever hope to accomplish.  People buy hybrid cars on their own volition.  Leading hybrid-producing car companies didn’t need any government largess to be successful in this market.  I do think they will need government handouts for development of electric vehicles which, I am guessing will go on the scrap heap of bad ideas, right on top of the fuel cell vehicles that we should have been driving by the thousands by now.  More on this later.

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

Wind Energy and the Utility Business Model

20 04 2010

The masses want power on demand without interruption or failure.  They want it at a practically negligible cost and more so every year, they want it without emissions or other unpleasant byproducts.

In the upper Midwest, energy without emissions means wind energy.  Wind energy sounds great.  It’s “free”.  No emissions.  But it comes with a load of drawbacks compared to conventional sources of coal, nuclear, and natural gas.

First, utilities can’t count on it for peak load generation.  I searched a while for this and found nothing but the bottom line is there is no guarantee there will be any generating capacity from wind on a peak summer day.  Therefore, wind generation offsets zero conventional generating capacity.  It is essentially like buying an electric car for lower emissions but you have to keep your conventional gasoline-powered car for longer trips.

Second, wind generation is expensive.  At a cost of about $2,000 per kW nameplate generating capacity it is very similar to a coal-fired plant.  However, a quick analysis with a reliable online calculator indicates that the capacity factor, which is the average percent output of the turbine, is only about 30%.  (the wind doesn’t always blow 48 miles per hour)  This puts the installed cost of wind generation near triple the cost of conventional coal generation.

Third, the cost of wind energy doesn’t end with the fifty by seven foot deep wad of concrete supporting each turbine.  Wind farms are far from Midwest population centers because that’s where the wind blows and this puts them out of site of the people who want it but don’t want to look at it (or pay for it).  This requires substantial transmission costs with substations to step up voltage and transmission lines that run a minimum of $1 million per mile of transport – and this is for building transmission lines on farmland where it’s physically easy to do and there are no lawsuits because people in these areas have better things to do than file lawsuits to stop transmission construction.

Fourth, on average the wind blows the least when it is needed the most, in July and August.  On average, turbines deliver roughly half the energy in July and August compared to the winter months.

When these unpleasant facts are factored in, wind generation benefits boil down to eliminating fuel costs, which are a tiny fraction of conventional generation, and no emissions or other waste products.

What brings this to mind is this article recently published by the Cedar Rapids Gazette.  Alliant Energy / Interstate Power and Light has a rate case pending for a 14% rate increase to pay for the added wind generation capacity and the installation of a $188 million nitrogen oxides and mercury scrubbing system for their old Lansing plant.

One guy comments, “but I just don’t understand why you expect us as customers to pay for all these upgrades — the wind farm, all your safety upgrades and so on.”  Well who else is going to pay for them?  It isn’t going to come out of shareholders’ hides.  Utilities don’t build this stuff to make more money!

Utilities are fully regulated monopolies in Iowa and many other states.  Their ability to grow revenue and earnings is very limited.  Essentially, it is limited to load growth within service territory by existing buildings and by attracting new business with new facilities to their service territory.  In exchange for having a captive customer base, regulators, in this case the Iowa Utilities Board must approve changes in rates, which essentially translates directly to regulating profit.

Wind power and pollution controls cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars but add virtually no revenue or profit.  These upgrades wouldn’t occur but for public pressure and policy coming out of Des Moines and other state and federal capitols.

These expenses can’t come out of earnings because utilities need to raise capital to pay for this stuff.  To raise capital, they have to offer a competitive rate of return commensurate with the risk involved; thus, the rate case for higher prices.

Like Tom Aller, President of Interstate Power and Light, I am not denigrating or advocating green power and moratoriums on building conventional generating facilities.  The public just needs to know this stuff adds a lot of operating cost and the business model of utilities requires rate increases to fund these things.  If customers don’t like it, they better get involved in the political process and not let the Sierra Club have a monopoly of political ears.

By the way, the reason environmental organizations like Sierra Club are a big turn off to me is they are often political first and environmentalists second.  They are opposed to this rate increase.  Why?  Their mission is “To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; To practice and promote the responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems and resources; To educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out these objectives.”  I don’t see anything in there about controlling income in the private sector.  Moreover, the guy’s statement flies in the face of their mission statement anyway.  Higher prices mean less energy consumption, so why is he opposed?  Could it be… politics?  Or is he a “do as I say, not as I do” greenie?

Renewable NIMBY

13 10 2009

“There should be a place for these — someplace that isn’t going to impact families quite so much.”  This was a quote regarding wind turbines from a woman in the Wall Street Journal article Renewable Energy, Meet the New Nimby. I laughed out loud for a while when I read this.

California has a mandate for 33% renewable energy consumption by 2020.  New York: 25% by 2013.  Oregon: 25% by 2025.  These states and similar ones have meager interim targets and/or have meager portfolios today.  Some serious ramp up is required.

However, it seems people claim to want it but not bad enough to have to look at it.  They don’t want to look at transmission lines piping renewable energy in from Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, offshore, or from the other side of the mountains.  They certainly don’t want to pay for it.  Did I mention everyone in America also demands 100% reliable energy supplies and at a price that is almost negligible.  Something’s got to give.

Guess where the wind-energy potential is by far the greatest – right off coasts surrounding the country, overlooked by patio-decks of thousands of multi-million dollar homes where 90% of the most vociferous loud mouths are carping that we must have more, if not all renewable energy.  But not in their vistas!  See NREL link below.

Certain celebrities fly about the country on their personal jets from one green junket to the next telling us trolls how we ought to live and what we ought to put up with, but not “me”.  I want to go sailing and not look at that hulking machinery messing the vista from my serene compound.

I grew up in the pink area of Southwest Minnesota and I can tell you that the wind always seems to be blasting there whenever I return for a visit.  When I was a kid, we had ground blizzards (no need for snow to fall from the sky – the powder keg is already laying about) in the winter and dust storms in the spring.  The western half of Iowa is packed with wind farms.  But yet, the potential for wind energy off much of the coastline is 50% greater, and steady.  And by the way, I’ve never heard anyone in the Midwest whine about the sight of hundreds of windmills and the supporting transmission lines.

I have an idea.  Let’s take everybody in flyover country and pack them into the Dakotas maybe using Kansas and the Texas panhandle for overflow.  They can all live under a sea of egg beaters.  “I’ll” just buy my own large photovoltaic system with battery storage, because I can.  It will look great on the roof of my 8,000 square foot home.  It will impress the friends even!

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