Skip to main content

STEM & Energy Efficiency – Begin with the End in Mind

By May 13, 2013November 8th, 2021Energy Efficiency, Energy Rant

It is awfully unfortunate that “begin with the end in mind” has been beaten to a cliché, because it is SO applicable to everything.  In recent years, I have seen about 5,200 articles, blogs, emails, newscasts, gum wrappers, and fortune cookie messages that promote STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).  Perhaps I was a complete dork when I was a high school senior deciding what major to pursue in college, but it came down to three factors: what am I good at, what is the demand for the profession, and what is the pay for the gig?

Begin: Amusing, Worthwhile, Important, True Story

I went to one of those puny schools we see in rural America today: originally built in the 1920s, with a 1960s addition.  Guidance/career counselor?  Never heard of it.  School nurse?  Are you kidding me?

In grade school we played kickball on a concrete platform, maybe 50 feet by 100 feet.  On both ends were basketball hoops mounted on two five inch steel pipes (no padding), each about four feet apart anchored in concrete – like I-beams but without dangerous sharp edges!  On the middle of each side of this court was another such pipe – making a rectangular kickball diamond – two basketball hoops for home plate and second base, two side pipes for first and third.

This was near the end of the cold war, and I remember nuclear fallout instruction films featuring school children crawling under desks in case of attack[1].  That kickball court was designed to withstand a direct attack by Soviet missiles.  I’ve discovered why anything built by my 1970s vintage boss – bookshelf, table, picture frame, coat hanger, is built to withstand a nuclear blast.

Kickball worked like this: “pitcher” rolls the ball toward the “batter” who kicks the ball and if he/she makes it to first base (the five inch steel pipe with no padding) before being nailed with the ball by a fielder, safe at first base!

Mike Arp kicks a worm killer and sprints for first base.  The pitcher takes the grounder and throws a laser hitting Mike in full sprint between one leg and the other, tying up his legs (tripping).  He face plants on concrete directly into first base, with his head.  We laid him out on a table inside with a half grapefruit bulge on his head.  He’s ok.  Nurse?  Hell no.  He may have been awarded the rest of the day off.

As a product of this rough and tumble school, I didn’t even know what engineering was, but my high school educated parents were plenty smart to insist we take all the math and science we could devour. By freshman year in college I had found my major – engineering.  It met all criteria above: competence, demand, and high pay – gee, just like today!

Engineering still has top-of-the-chart salaries and demand.  Any list of top careers is full of engineering and various healthcare slots.  Example of engineering demand: at the depth of the “great recession”, what was the unemployment rate for engineers?  Two percent[2].  And believe me, there are PLENTY of crappy engineers, so this was/is amazing.

Promoting STEM: high pay and virtual guaranteed job.  What else is there to know?  I just don’t understand kids who go to college to major in African Art History, and then with graduation looming realize nobody needs this.  This too was not made up.  We met such a woman working a hotel front desk in Madison a year ago.  Good grief man (or woman), think about the destination before you start the trip!

Resume: Energy Efficiency

Energy programs are similarly myopic, and this will come around to bite commodity programs that go through the motions like the infamous basket weaving major.  A commodity program, as you would imagine, is most common, and their mission is pimping widgets – light bulbs, energy star this and that, and maybe some variable frequency drives if they are really progressive.

In the future, programs need to do more than throw money at customers. Programs need to HELP customers – provide valuable services to inform and guide them to the right choices.  Audits and studies often take a beating by commodity seeking administrators.  Why?  Because the studies themselves are commodities and/or the program has major flaws that throw up barriers to participation.

Studies are not the end game.  Implemented projects are the end game.  Programs need to be designed with the end in mind, customer by customer.

I froth at the mouth when I listen to hand wringers hem and haw about “dry holes” – as in dry oil wells representing studies that get shelved and result in no action.  This is bologna.  The program is flawed – it doesn’t serve the customer well; it is overly burdensome; it throws up barriers; it takes too long; it’s too risky for the customer; or the providers are not qualified or sufficiently competent.

We don’t have this problem with detailed studies.  Our studies almost always get implemented with 10-40% savings, but we can’t take full credit.  The program and utility contributions actually make it easy, not hard for customers.

Design programs and hire providers to serve the interests of the customer, and the results will be there in the end.

[1] I kid you not, at all.

[2] Source: National Society of Professional Engineers
Jeff Ihnen

Author Jeff Ihnen

More posts by Jeff Ihnen

Leave a Reply