Does energy certification save money?

April 21, 2014
What does it take to become a real energy manager?

This past July, I spent four days working from 7 AM until 9 PM starting up an energy monitoring system in a large industrial plant on the East Coast. On my way back to Colorado, between flights at Chicago’s Midway Airport, I decided to put some of my thoughts on paper, about not only this project, but the energy efficiency profession in general and, more specifically, the education, training, and certification of practitioners.

Figure 1. Real energy managers and engineers spend a lot of time working in electrical and mechanical equipment rooms with multiple chillers, air compressors, boilers, pumps, and heat exchangers.

As an energy engineer or manager, have you ever spent 8-10 hours a day, day after day working in electrical and mechanical equipment rooms with multiple huge chillers, air compressors, boilers, pumps, and heat exchangers (Figure 1)? Those rooms are hot; they’re noisy; and they can be pretty scary until you get used to them. How much time have you spent working outdoors during a record heat wave on rooftops covered with air handling units, exhaust fans, and cooling towers, in the real world where the energy is actually used, where the people who install, operate, and maintain that equipment spend every hour of every working day?

I’m not talking about slides in a classroom or a plant tour but working with electricians running wire, installing and calibrating sensors, deciding where each should be located to provide the information required to analyze the energy usage of the total facility and all of the significant energy systems? Have your back and feet and knees ached from standing, crawling, and walking on concrete floors and climbing ladders for 12 straight hours? Have you ripped your new shirt or blouse on a protruding screw or banged your head on a threaded rod from a steel pipe hanger?

If not, you’re not a real energy manager; you are just fooling yourself and your clients, no matter what that framed certificate on your wall says. I’ve been told by more than one experienced energy engineer that certifications from many professional associations or continuing education courses appear to exist primarily as a means for individuals to promote themselves and make more money. Issuing credentials to someone after a few days’ study of an overview of a few topics doesn’t make that person a fully qualified energy professional. In the real world, theory and practice are very different, as I explained in this article.

A business executive from the Philippines, with more than 30 years of experience working with large energy systems wrote to me, “Young guys seem to know it all from school, not knowing the theories taught by inexperienced professors hardly happen in the real world.”

Would you go to a physician who has taken all of the classes but never treated a patient or one who learned to do heart surgery during a three-day workshop? When you walk into a conference room in your power business suit to present your proposal for an energy audit, most likely funded by the local utility company, to the plant manager, has it ever occurred to you how much the men and women working out there in the plant with the actual equipment every day know about their plant that you will never know? When you present your recommendations for putting in new lights or improving the efficiency of the chilled water system —with all of the nice cookbook lists, including how to reset your chilled water temperature, use variable speed pumping, and install heat exchangers for free cooling in the winter — have you ever wondered who will actually do these things? Who is it who has the specific knowledge and experience to make the changes, make them work as prescribed, and document the performance and results using actual data and valid scientific methods?

Can you just give your study to the temperature-controls contractor and expect it to be done? Will you trust the same contractor that neglected to create deadband between heating and cooling setpoints, which resulted in the systems fighting with each other and the reheat running on a 100 °F day? Are you comfortable with the same company that implemented strategies preventing the multiple variable speed drives from reducing their speed and energy consumption under low load conditions as they should? Will you rely on the same temperature-controls company that programmed the chilled water system to operate with temperature differentials on both the chillers and cooling towers to be about half of what they should have been, wasting both fan and pump horsepower? Is it a good idea to hand that job over to the same company that designed and installed an energy management system that wasn’t monitoring a single utility meter, the same company that had never detected any of these problems, even though the system had been operating that way for many years? If you think that company is going to implement your theoretical recommendations properly, you are really out of touch with reality.

Doesn’t it embarrass you a little to be recommending changes that you have little clue of how to do yourself? Or are you content to be like the clerk at the health insurance company who tells a highly qualified surgeon which procedures to use, knowing that they themselves have no clue of how to perform the surgery? Doesn’t it bother you that you are a card-carrying member of a profession with such low standards for training, certification, and performance that you are a “Certified Energy Professional” even though deep down in your heart you know how little you actually understand about real energy systems in the real world?

Figure 2. Measuring energy consumption will yield information that dictates the specific actions to take to save energy in the plant.

I visited a plant where the newly assigned plant energy engineer had emailed me: “In the past 10 years, we have completed a couple of lighting efficiency upgrades, a retro-commissioning, and numerous energy efficiency audits, all in an effort to reduce energy consumption. All of the low-cost/no-cost, energy-conservation measures have been completed, but the estimated energy savings gained through the completion of the energy conservation measures are just that, estimated. This year, we will consume approximately 2.11 GWh of electricity. This is a reduction of almost 11% from 2011 but is mostly due to a turndown in the industry, as well as the current economic situation. I am looking for an energy monitoring system that can provide me with data that I can use to determine how to optimally operate the facility and to minimize energy consumption.”

In other words, after they had taken all of the standard steps being widely promoted by so-called energy professionals, utility companies, and government agencies, all they had gotten were some general suggestions and common-sense things they had probably already thought of on their own, but no specifics. They needed to know the specific actions to take to save energy in the plant (Figure 2). Like Abraham Lincoln responded when he decided to replace one of his Cabinet members and was told by a senator that anybody would be better, “Anybody might be fine for you, but I need somebody.”

As soon as I met the plant energy engineer, I could tell he was exactly the kind of person I love to work with. Armed with the right information and a little training, he will be successful. In addition to having the support of top management, he’s a practical guy. He told me he grew up working in his dad’s garage on race cars. He served in the U.S. Navy and was trained and worked in underwater construction for several years before going to engineering school — a very sharp hands-on and results-oriented guy who understands the theory and is determined to succeed. He’s a man who recently completed an energy certification course, which he said gave him little practical information to help him produce results in his plant.

Bill Holmes, P.E., founded Holmes AutoPilot and developed the AutoPilot Monitoring System in 1979. He has a master of science degree in mechanical engineering and has done additional coursework and research for his PhD. He is a former professor at Purdue University and taught for several years in the Continuing Education in Energy Management Program at the University of Wisconsin. Holmes also is the recipient of a U.S. Department of Energy Award for Energy Innovation and was the Indiana Energy Manager of the Year in 1990. He has published numerous papers and been making presentations on his projects and methods for more than 35 years. Holmes also is a sculptor and can be reached at [email protected].

Another engineer with more than 30 years of experience at a $5 billion metals company wrote to me after reading my article on energy audits: “Numerous times, salespeople have tried unsuccessfully to promote the benefits of energy audits to me. But not one of them had even the slightest understanding of the technology we use. How could they possibly suggest any improvements above what I had already done or were at least on my radar? No one knows the plant as well as the internal operations staff. Thanks for confirming that my ideas are not quite as crazy as everyone else thinks.”

The intent of this profession is to actually save energy in the field, not just produce paperwork in an office. Turn off your computer. Take your certification off the wall and put it in a drawer for a while. Forget about the models, the audits, and the recommendations. Get out into the real world. Spend time with the real people who run the real energy systems.

You may be surprised at what you find. You may find that you like working with real energy systems in real buildings in the real world. You may find that you like actually saving energy more than just generating paperwork and hoping that someone out there in the real world has the actual skills required to implement your recommendations. You might find that you have what it takes to be a real energy manager, and you might even find that actually making a positive contribution to this planet makes you feel really good.

Time for me to close; I just heard my boarding call. I’m sure hoping that the pilot who flies me home on the last leg of this trip into Denver has actually flown a real plane before; otherwise all of those framed simulator awards hanging in his den won’t really mean much to either of us, will they?

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