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Energy Savings Rubbish

By February 6, 2012November 9th, 2021Energy Efficiency, Energy Rant

The best thing about working in our industry is the potential for continuous learning, unlike nearly any other field.  There are enough things to learn about buildings, manufacturing, systems, how they are built, as in design, construction and commissioning to fill a 45 year engineering career.  One always finds something “new” even in old buildings – bizarre design concepts for example.  Have you ever seen how Fig Newtons are made?  It isn’t easy.

Engineers might think, what else is there to programs besides determining energy savings, simple payback and possibly ROI?  About 75%, if not, more.  There are market assessments, energy-savings potential studies, program development and implementation, and evaluation.  Skills needed to support the industry include marketing, economics, statistics, sociology, psychology, political science, and criminal justice.  Well, maybe not so much of the latter just yet.

The topic of this rant is energy savings potential studies; in other words, the potential for energy savings in a market, which is typically defined as a state or a utility’s service territory.  There are four levels of potential:

  • Technical potential: this is how much energy could be saved regardless of cost-effectiveness.  When the federal government talks about potential, this is it because they never care about cost effectiveness.  We, on the other hand, live in the real world with constraints.
  • Economic potential:  That’s right – the subset of the technical potential that is cost-effective by some definition like “total resource cost”, “ratepayer impact test”, and “utility cost test”.  Some of these have squishy benefits included in them like societal benefits and you can assign to that whatever you want – like the value of not looking at a transmission line makes society 0.0001% more productive due to the avoided bad mood of workers and its impact on productivity.  Or electromagnetic fields that cause cows to produce less nutritious milk and calves with three eyes.  Or lower criminal justice costs because less infrastructure provides less opportunity for copper thieves.  They will have to steal something else and maybe that something else will be less dangerous resulting in lower healthcare costs paid by the lowly taxpayer.
  • Market potential:  This is how many of the economically justified measures can get implemented.  This is tricky as consumers are irrational so I used to say market potential is a subset of economic potential, but not really.  For example, back in “Replacing the Burger” I talked about how people would rather get 500 points toward a free Starbucks than buy a CFL with a payback of one month and a life cycle savings of $4,000.
  • Achievable potential:  I’m not positive on this one but I believe this is a subset of market potential and differs by limited funds of any program.  While you could convince 1,000 customers that doing something is smart, you only have money to reach three of them, in addition to your mother and one coworker.

Results from potential studies contribute to a lot of important things, like determining how many millions of dollars to spend on programs, what customer sectors, technologies and services have the greatest potential for return on ratepayer investment.

I think it’s a pretty good guess that just about everyone reading this has shot baskets with a basketball.  Most likely not everyone who has shot baskets has done so with their eyes closed – just tried it before – something stupid to do in a game of h-o-r-s-e.  Or, have you turned off the headlights while driving down a dirt road at 60 mph in the pitch black of night?  Just for fun?  I actually feel I have a little more control in the latter situation.

What do you want to achieve when you shoot a free throw with your eyes closed?  Not to look like a fool right?  You want to at least hit the rim; not throw an air ball or something over the backboard clanging around in the iron back there.  Even a brick would be satisfactory and give you a feeling of achievement.

Some potential study requests for proposals ask for the blindfolded free throw, probably expecting the results of Larry Bird and Danny Ainge at the free throw line with their eyes open.  (I’m an old timer and I don’t know any of the thugs in the current NBA– back then, they only had cartoon thugs, like Dennis Rodman).

The blindfolded potential study consists of do it fast with no or very little primary research, which means no talking with customers or investigating their facilities.

Our role in these things is typically data collection and measure ID.  My expertise does not include crunching the data and puking out numbers that serve as targets for program portfolios.  But common sense tells me you’re going to get much, much more reliable information with a decent set of primary data.  We just bid a project with in-depth site surveys of 950 homes.  Now THAT is primary data and it will produce the best estimates possible I have to believe.

How does one handle a study with no primary data?  I’m not sure but I think it includes a heavy dose of looking out the rearview mirror, applying new codes and standards going forward, extrapolating the curve for new codes and standards, and copying what the neighbors are doing.  A blindfolded study cannot uncover new potential that programs are totally or mostly missing.  One could also apply some economic analysis due to market acceptance of technologies and its impact on cost – and how that cascades down to market and achievable potential.  This method I say is to pick and answer and reverse engineer the arithmetic to make it so.

As an example, the following chart demonstrates the results of a potential study I saw a few years back.  The data have been removed and the years were different (I just pulled energy numbers and years out of the air but the graphic looks almost exactly like the one it mimics).  Look at the results of the study – it’s purely an extrapolation of what has been happening.  Congratulations.  The result is the goals actually caught up to what was happening anyway.

I plead guilty as well if I can’t get my hands on SOME sort of real data.  But how much do you suppose was paid to produce the results above?  No idea here but it’s pretty safe to say the answers were destined before the data were collected.


I came across this interesting study performed by engineers from Columbia University.  It shows energy intensity per square meter (don’t ask) of building footprint.  As I said, it’s interesting but not very useful.  It does not include building square footage so obviously the Chrysler building is going to consume more per square meter than some brownstones on the upper west side.

I also doubt the crude end-use analysis showing only 5-10% of electricity consumption from cooling.  These buildings probably require mechanical cooling half the year on average, some probably all year.  A bleeding edge cooling system will require 1.3 Watts per square foot at full load.  The actual average efficiency is probably half as good, doubling the power/energy required for cooling.  Throw on poor control of typical systems and it’s probably closer to 3 W per square foot on average and roughly 3 kWh per square foot for a good system and 4-5 kWh per square foot to middlin to poor one.  Now you’re in the neighborhood of lighting consumption.  End-use data from various sources confirm, cooling’s share of energy consumption is about 30% in the NYC climate.

Jeff Ihnen

Author Jeff Ihnen

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