Energy audits are a flawed concept. This is 2014; the Information Age ... not the Estimation Age

March 20, 2014

Is it resistance to change, greed or lack of knowledge that have perpetuated the myth that Energy Audits can accurately identify and quantify opportunities for energy savings?

Is it resistance to change, greed or lack of knowledge that have perpetuated the myth that Energy Audits can accurately identify and quantify opportunities for energy savings?

Watson: You said in a recent Blog that based on your personal experience you have concluded that energy usage and potential savings can’t be accurately estimated during an Energy Audit of a complex facility. Read the Blog

Holmes: That’s my opinion and I believe it is pretty widely shared among energy professionals with actual experience working with buildings and energy systems in the field.

Watson: Until I met you it seemed that everyone in this field agreed that the Energy Audit must always be the first step in an energy project. No offense intended Holmes, but I decided to do some independent research to see if I could find other experts who agree with you.

Holmes: None taken, Watson; you are doing exactly what I have tried to pass on to others during my entire career. I know you are a sheep dog and your instinct is to just follow the flock, but it is most essential that you think for yourself and refuse to blindly follow what others are doing. What did you find out?

Watson: Some really interesting stuff. I found an article in DOE’s Energy Efficient Building Hub (EEB Hub) talking about the Variation in Energy Audits. Read the article. They contracted three energy auditing firms to survey their building, a 60,000+ sq ft office in the Navy Yard in Philadelphia, and report on energy use and costs, as well as to make recommendations for upgrades and renovations.

The article said that the EEB Hub researchers expected the results of the three firms to be fairly consistent. However, each Energy Audit firm presented very different findings and recommendations. Not only did the recommendations vary significantly, the estimate of installed costs ranged from $138,000 to nearly $500,000. Estimated savings ranged from 14.5% to 38%.

I am going to email copies back to some of my old professors who are isolated from the real world in academia.

Holmes: Which one was right? How will they know unless they implement all of the recommendations?

Watson: Interestingly enough, the article said that the building is one of the nation’s most highly instrumented buildings and they would use the instrumentation to evaluate the accuracy of the Energy Audits.

Holmes: So in other words they didn’t have an “A” Team of Super Energy Auditors who could do their own audit to tell which of the three firms were correct? They needed actual data from an Energy Monitoring System to determine which Energy Audit was accurate?

Watson: Correct. The article made some interesting points very similar to some of the things you have told me. It said that “Some companies that sell energy products exploit the term “energy audit,” using it to refer to what is actually a sales proposal that recommends products they sell. This practice leads to loss of credibility in the energy audit business.”

Holmes: What did it conclude about Energy Audits?

Watson: The primary recommendation seemed to be the need for Standardization of Energy Audits. The article said, “The next step in limiting variability among energy audits is to provide all auditors with a detailed, sequential walk-through protocol as well as mandatory documentation “to give building owners and institutions more confidence in the value of energy audits and the building retrofit projects that rely on them.”

Holmes: Did your research turn up anything else of interest.

Watson: I found a great paper titled “Eight Ways in Which a Poor Quality Energy Audit can Prove Costly to the Building Owner” by John Avina and Ertun Reshat of Abraxas Energy Consulting. It says that poor quality audits often result from an auditor lacking the proper experience or using a low bidder who cannot devote enough time to the audit. It states that “A traditional ASHRAE Level II audit could cost between $6000 and $25,000 for a 100,000 square foot office building.”

That’s a lot of money for something of questionable accuracy.

It agrees with some of your writings almost word for word when it states that an Energy Audit often “Only Applies Simple Measures and Misses the Most Beneficial Measures.”

You should read the entire article; it is well written and makes a number of great points.

Holmes: What have you learned, Watson?

Watson: Not just following the flock, thinking for myself and doing research to help me determine the facts have really opened my eyes. Along with my inborn common scents, I’ve learned a number of things in a few short months that took you years to learn; things that apparently many who have been in the Energy Profession for years have yet to learn.

Holmes: Give me some specifics.

Watson: The main thing I have learned is that the fundamental tool of the entire profession, the Energy Audit, is seriously is flawed. Recommendations and estimated costs and savings can vary widely depending on the auditor.

Also that the goal of the Energy Audit is to make recommendations for upgrades and renovations. In other words, the Auditors do not approach Energy Audits with an open mind as you emphasized in your article, The Art of Problem Solving; their goal right from the start is to identify capital projects.

You have been making the point for many years that this profession is based on selling Products and Services not on doing what is best for the Owner; creating and maintaining the greatest savings at the least cost.

Holmes: Now what do you think about our policy of instead of doing Energy Audits, spending every hour and dollar on instrumentation, a monitoring system; to provide the owner with a permanent, accurate, unbiased ongoing energy audit that shows where every dollar is spent every hour of every day? The monitoring system allows the owner to start making no-cost and low-cost changes and generating energy savings the first day, literally. And in nearly every case the monitoring system has paid for itself in a few weeks or months. We have seldom found the need for capital improvements. If they are required they should be the last step, certainly not the first.

Watson: You’ve convinced me; it is a much more scientifically sound approach. After all, this is 2014, The Information Age, Not the Estimation Age.

One of the most interesting things I learned is that the EEB Hub will be using an actual monitoring system to evaluate the accuracy and effectiveness of Energy Audits. Why not just skip all of the intermediate steps and expenses and invest every dollar right from the start on the instrumentation as you have been doing for 35 years.? You have proven in so many projects in so many types of buildings that done right, that approach is the most effective with the fastest payback. Your article An Energy Monitoring System can be Simple and Inexpensive told how you do it.

Holmes: Remember Watson, I spent 7 years on active duty in the Air Force. I learned a little about how the Federal Government works. The fact that the EEB Hub is proposing more standards, more rules and more reporting and prepared to pay the tremendous costs involved to try to fix something that is fundamentally flawed, that has never worked and will never work, just sounds like an exercise in bureaucracy to me.

They are proposing a solution exactly the opposite of what needs to be done. What is needed is better training and certification of Energy Professionals. Obviously there are a lot of unqualified practitioners out there. We need Professionals who have both the Theoretical Background and actual Field Experience to understand the uniqueness of each facility and it's energy systems. To identify what data is needed, oversee the installation of appropriate instrumentation, interpret the results and be accountable for any recommendations and resulting savings on a long term basis. The last thing they need is to waste their time filling out standardized forms. 

Perhaps Albert Einstein said it best, "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

To paraphrase what I said in my article The Energy Audit; a Sacred Cow of Energy Management, “How about this approach? Slaughter that “Sacred Cow” after more than 40 years of providing only calculated or estimated savings based on little hard data, often biased toward the solution that the Auditing Company may be selling. It’s had a long life! Redefine “Energy Audit” as “Energy Inventory”, the first step leading to the installation of an unbiased, permanent, continuous Energy Auditing System.

Watson: If you do away with Energy Audits, won’t that put a lot of people out of work?

Holmes: You have zeroed right in on what may the single most important point,Watson. There is a fortune being made right now in the U.S. on Energy Audits. Utility companies have a lot of money they are mandated to spend on energy efficiency. Most have consulted energy “Experts” who have assured them that the first step is always an Energy Audit. Multiple Government programs are focused on Energy Audits, Consultants are making a lot of money doing Energy Audits.

Huge dollars are spent on professional training by schools and professional societies training and certifying Energy Auditors. Many companies are selling auditing tools including hardware and software. What about all of the companies selling all of the Capital Improvements that have been recommended by Auditors based upon estimates and backed with little actual data?

Watson: I can see why your approach would be unpopular. With no-cost, low-cost changes, most of the savings go directly to the owner, to the bottom line.

Holmes: Have people forgotten about the primary goal of our Profession? Are they satisfied with paperwork? When they have done an audit or a model do they somehow think they have accomplished something that will magically save energy? Or have they forgotten about that minor detail?

How many people in the energy efficiency profession does it take to do audits, studies, reports, benchmarking, designs, etc. for every KWH or Btu saved? Have we become like the medical profession where a neurologist friend of mine in an office with four other neurologists has an administrative staff of 22 just to fill out insurance and government forms? Or like the IRS where the tax code has become so unintelligibly complex that for every dollar collected, a dollar is spent on tax lawyers and accountants just to fill out the forms?

All of the experienced Energy Professionals who have spent time actually working with real energy systems in real buildings need to work together to stop this tremendous waste of resources and focus on updating our profession to one that is science-based, uses actual data and is focused on developing, verifying, documenting and maintaining energy savings as efficiently as possible.

Watson: I haven’t forgotten why I’m here, Holmes. Let’s go to work and save some energy!

Tell us about your experiences, both good and bad with energy professionals, what has worked and what hasn’t. Send us your comments, thoughts and suggestions on how to improve our profession so we can all continue to learn from each other. Thanks – Holmes & Watson.

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