Federal Government Brags about Being Average

I recently ran across a post on the Energy Information Agency (EIA’s) web sit highlighting the fact that from 2003 to 2012 Federal buildings had achieved a greater decrease in energy use intensity than had been achieved by commercial buildings, on average. I find this spin to be offensive on various levels.

The relevant graph is shown below.

2016-09-16-government-building-eui

The first thing to note is that, even with this decrease in energy use Federal buildings still have higher EUI than do other commercial buildings (compare the red and blue 2012 bars).

Second, while I am pleased that the Federal government is learning how to operate its buildings almost as well as the rest of the commercial building sector, it is not a remarkable accomplishment.  It reminds me of a verbal exchange between then Governor Bill Clinton and businessman Ross Perot during a presidential debate.  Clinton was bragging that under his leadership the State of Arkansas had improved its rank among other states in education from almost last up to the middle of the pack.  Ross Perot pointed out that you don’t have to be innovative when you are ranked last — you will move up by just copying what others have done.  (I will confess, this is my memory of what happened, but it might be that I imagined this exchange — it is a good story, in any case.)

Third, why is the EIA engaging in such spin?  This agency is supposed to gather and disseminate energy facts.  Spin should be left to political parties.

 

What does it mean to say “the Hotel at Oberlin is solar powered?”

The Hotel at Oberlin, also called the Peter Lewis Gateway Hotel, opened two weeks ago just in time for Oberlin College graduation.  This hotel replaces the Oberlin Inn and has been put forward as the corner stone of what will become a sustainable block of buildings — called the green arts district.  As the budget for this building continues to swell it is unlikely the College will make further headway on the “green arts district” for some time to come.

In multiple venues (Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Cleveland City Club, Cleveland Plain Dealer, etc.) the Special Assistant to the Oberlin College President on Sustainability and the Environment, has described the Hotel at Oberlin as “100% solar powered.”  Here I address the credibility of this claim.  I find the claim to be lacking in substance, yet very costly to the College.

The Hotel at Oberlin will use both electricity and natural gas.  100% of its electricity will be purchased from the local utility, Oberlin Municipal Light & Power Systems (OMLPS), as is the case for nearly all Oberlin College buildings.  In addition, the hotel will use natural gas to produce all of its hot water and, if necessary, for additional winter heating should its ground source heat pumps be unable to meet the demand.  This is a likely situation since the hotel, which is eight times the size of the Lewis Environmental Center, has a ground-well field that is less than four times the size of that building’s well field.  The building includes no on-site renewable power generation, whatsoever.  Based on equipment size the utility estimates a 1,000,000 kWh increase in annual electric use.  That means the new, “energy efficient” hotel will use nearly 2,000,000 kWh of electric energy — more than double that used by the Oberlin Inn it replaces.

What then, could be the basis of the solar power claim?  The President’s Office would have people believe the solar energy for the hotel is coming from the 2.2 MW photovoltaic (PV) array constructed four years ago north of the athletic fields, the so-called OSSO array.  Apparently the College is trying to convince the US Green Building Council (USGBC) that this array provides “on-site renewable energy” to the hotel – worth as many as 8 points towards its coveted LEED certification.

But what is on-site solar electricity?  On-site solar, such as that provided by the two photovoltaic (PV) arrays at the Adam Joseph Lewis Center, furnish electric power directly to a building, avoiding the transmission losses that occur when power passes through multiple high-voltage transformers and transmission lines.  On-site solar generation, added to an existing building,  lowers the building’s fossil energy and carbon footprint.  And, by avoiding transmission losses, the benefits of on-site solar are greater than those achievable through off-site renewable sources.  It should be noted that the converse – adding a building to an existing solar array – increases total greenhouse gas emission!

It is not possible for the OSSO PV array to provide on-site electricity to the Hotel at Oberlin.  First, it is located a mile away from the Hotel — not exactly “on-site.”  Second, the College entered into the OSSO project long before the hotel was conceived. When the OSSO array was constructed in 2012 the College chose to connect it directly to the OMLPS electric grid.  Transmission losses are not avoided.  Third, the City takes all of the array’s electric energy and, in turn, pays the College a premium rate (above the City’s average wholesale generation cost) of $0.085 per kWh.  This arrangement has zero impact on electric sales to College buildings – each building continues to purchase retail electric energy from OMLPS as if the array did not exist.  The City sends the College a monthly check in exchange for this energy which, to date, total more than $800,000.  OMLPS includes the OSSO PV array in its power portfolio.  Once electrons enter the OMLPS grid they go everywhere; they are not “special electrons” that only go to the Hotel or other College buildings.

And finally, even if the College now chose to construct a dedicated, mile-long cable to connect the OSSO array to the Hotel it would be of no use because the College signed a 25-year contract to deliver 100% of the array’s energy to the City in exchange for $85/MWh.  Off-site renewable energy is a good thing, too.  A building can obtain off-site energy by purchasing Renewable Energy Credits or RECs.  The USGBC provides up to 3 points towards LEED certification if a building uses RECs to offset a large fraction of its electric use.  In principle, the RECs produced by the OSSO array make the Hotel at Oberlin eligible for these points.  In fact, OMLPS already holds RECs (mostly wind and hydro) to cover about 85% of its electricity.  That means that any building purchasing energy from the OMLPS grid can claim RECs for 85% of its electric energy.

The College receives all of the RECs associated with OSSO’s energy and does not sell these to the City.  The day OSSO went on-line these RECs made Oberlin College a greener place – and that is a good thing!  The credit is entirely due to the OSSO array.  In principal these RECs may be “assigned” to any College building.  They could, for instance, be assigned to Finney Chapel, built more than 100 years ago.  Does this assignment now make Finney Chapel “100% solar powered?”  Perhaps – but Finney Chapel remains the same energy hog it has always been.  And no one would be fooled by this association into believing that Finney Chapel is now worthy of architectural design awards.  Assigning these RECs to Finney Chapel does not make Oberlin College any greener than it was in 2012 the day the OSSO array began producing its green energy.

And so calling the Gateway Hotel “solar powered” tells us nothing about the hotel or its design; it is nothing more than a cheap marketing trick.

But, as it turns out, it isn’t cheap at all – it is an expensive marketing trick.

The financial model that justified the OSSO array called for the College to sell these solar RECs into Ohio’s REC market and replace them with cheaper wind RECs — adopting a strategy similar to that used by the City of Oberlin to generate its now famous REC revenue.  Put simply, the College would sell its solar RECs into the Ohio REC market at a high price (perhaps $50/MWh) and replace them with cheaper wind RECs (perhaps $5/MWh).  This strategy provided the College with more than $200,000 additional revenue during OSSO’s first two years of operation.

But after the first two years the College stopped selling its solar RECs  – foregoing tens of thousands of dollars in revenue.  During this time Ohio REC prices dropped significantly.  Yet even today solar RECs generated by OSSO have an estimated annual value of $45,000.

Perhaps this lost revenue represents incompetence of the Oberlin College Finance Office.  In addition, this office has remained silent while the City debates whether to return REC revenues to electric customers – of which the College portion would be $200,000 per year!  These are strange financial decisions at a time when the College is desperately seeking to close a huge budget deficit and threatening to downsize its work force.

I believe Oberlin College’s decision not to sell RECs is more calculated.  I believe the decision not to sell OSSO’s solar RECs was made to bolster the narrative that this array provides on-site solar energy to the Hotel at Oberlin.  In 2014 when designers of the Hotel at Oberlin came up with this scheme — it was too late.  The College had already connected the array directly to the City grid, entered a 25-year contract with the City, and it had already sold off two years of its solar RECs.  But why let facts get in the way way?  I believe that the President’s Office decided to stop selling the RECs and pushed the USGBC to accept the idea that the OSSO array provides on-site solar energy to the Hotel at Oberlin — facts be damned!

What is the cost of this decision?  It appears the College failed to honor the third year of its contract to sell solar RECs at $50/MWh.  No doubt the purchasing party in that contract did not object — since the market value for these RECs have fallen to $15/MWh.  The array is expected to produce 3,000 MWh per year.  The lost revenue from REC sales for 2015 is probably $100,000, and at current REC prices, continued failure to sell these RECs represents an additional $30,000 per year in lost net-revenue.  (Note that out-of-state wind RECs purchased to replace solar RECs cost $5/MWh.)

LEED certification is known to add to the cost of design and construction.  But in this case the College is looking to pay an annual fee of $20,000 (in lost REC revenue) to buy 5 LEED points towards its Hotel certification!  (The Hotel’s estimated electric use is 2/3 the amount produced by the OSSO array).  Is LEED certification really worth such an ongoing expense — a kind of franchise fee?

The more disturbing question in all this has to do with the fiscal responsibility of these kinds of decisions.  It is pretty clear that the President of Oberlin College pays more attention to his Special Assistant on Sustainability and the Environment than he does to his own V.P. of Finance.  How long will the Oberlin College Board of Trustees allow this insanity to go on?

San Francisco PUC Building not so green

SFPUC photoThe San Francisco Public Utilities Commission Administration building, constructed in 2012, has been billed as the greenest office building in North America.  Yesterday the San Francisco Examiner published an article which suggests the declaration was a bit premature.   According to its author, Joshua Sabatini, the $202 million dollar, LEED Platinum building has not performed up to expectations.  The building included integrated photovoltaic panels and wind turbines — enough to provide 7% of the building’s energy (not sure if that is total energy or just electric energy).  The energy produced by the wind turbines was never metered and the wind turbines have already been decommissioned; the company that installed them has filed for bankruptcy.  While the PV panels are reported to have satisfactory performance the inverter room was over-heating, requiring the installation of an auxiliary cooling system.  We will have to take the SFPUC’s word for this result as nowhere can I locate specific information about the expected PV electric generation.  It is so much easier to control the story when you don’t share the facts.

But Sabatini’s article does not discuss the energy performance of this building which is also rather disappointing.  According to 2014 energy benchmarking data published by San Francisco for municipal buildings the 277,511 sf SFPUC building had a measured site EUI of 54 kBtu/sf, just 10% lower than the mean for SF office buildings (60 kBtu/sf).  This is hardly the 32% energy savings claimed on the sfwater.org web site.  Moreover, the source EUI for this building is 153 kBtu/sf, which is 10% higher than the mean for the other 38 municipal office buildings whose 2014 energy data were disclosed.  This “greenest office building in North America” uses 10% more primary energy than used for other municipal office buildings — most of them constructed many years ago.

In other words this LEED Platinum building, the greenest office building in North America, uses 10% more primary energy than its counterparts in the San Francisco municipal building stock.  Sounds like a real winner.

Previously in 2009 I found that LEED-certified office buildings demonstrated modest (about 10%) site energy savings but, owing to their greater reliance on electric energy, demonstrated no significant source energy savings.  The result for the SFPUC building is even worse.

2012 CBECS show building energy use up from 2003

Last week the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) released summary energy use data from its 2012 Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS).  The EIA reports that, as compared with 2003 results, the energy use intensity (EUI) for all U.S. commercial buildings has decreased by 12%.  They also report that for office buildings and educational buildings EUI have decreased by 16% and 17%, respectively.  These numbers, taken at face value, would appear to be encouraging.

But dig a little deeper and you find there is not much to celebrate.  The first thing to note is that mother nature does not care about energy use intensity.  This is a man-made metric for comparing energy use between buildings of different size. What really matters is total green house gas emission and total fossil fuel consumption.  To arrest global climate change, or at least to stabilize it, will require a global reduction in annual green house gas emission.

The 2012 CBECS data show that the total gross square footage (gsf) of the U.S. commercial building stock has expanded by 21% since 2003.  Its total (site) energy consumption has expanded by 7%.  That’s right — U.S. buildings are using more (not less) energy.  During this same time the U.S. population grew by 7.6%.  If world energy consumption and green house gas emission continues to grow with world population we are doomed!  Energy use in undeveloped countries will grow much faster than population as they increase their standard of living.  This growth is especially notable in India and China.  Developed countries like the US — which already use 5X-10X more energy per capita than non-developed countries — must decrease their energy consumption and green house gas emission.  Yet the U.S. is not even holding steady.

The above figures are based on site energy — not primary or source energy which is what really matters.  Building source energy — which includes the off-site energy use associated with energy generation and transportation — is a better indicator of primary energy consumed by buildings.

I have made crude source energy calculations based on the 2012 CBECS summary data and find that for all U.S. commercial buildings source EUI decreases by only 7% and source EUI for offices and educational buildings decreased by 12 and 13% respectively.

But again, what matters is total primary, or equivalently, source energy consumption.  When you combine these figures with the 21% growth in building gsf you find that the total source energy for all buildings increased by 13% — faster than the rate of population growth!  For offices and educational buildings the increases in source energy were 15 and 8%, respectively.  For offices that is double the rate of U.S. population growth and for educational buildings it is about the same as population growth.

2003 to 2012 is the decade of ENERGY STAR and LEED building certification.  These programs both provide cover for building owners to “feel good” about their ever-growing buildings that consume more energy and produce more green-house gas emission — yet are judged to be “green” and “energy-efficient.”  Proponents of these programs will claim that, while their accomplishments are disappointing, things would be far worse if these programs and their goals did not exist.  I doubt the truth of this assertion.  There is no evidence that ENERGY STAR and LEED-certified buildings are performing any better, on average, than other commercial buildings.  These programs are pretty much a distraction from the important societal goals to reduce green house gas emission.

The 2012 CBECS data also put the EPA’s claims that ENERGY STAR benchmarking is saving energy into perspective.  In 2012 the EPA published marketing literature which claimed that 35,000 buildings that used Portfolio Manager to benchmark for the consecutive years 2008, 2009,, 2010, and 2011 demonstrated a 7% reduction in source EUI over this same time period.  The analysis is sophomoric because they literally average the EUI for these 35,000 buildings rather than calculate their total gross source EUI (as does CBECS) which is the sum of all their source energy divided by the sum of their gsf.  It is entirely possible that the gross EUI for these buildings did not decrease at all while their average showed 7% reduction. The 35,000 buildings in the EPA study is dominated by office buildings — by far the largest set of buildings that use their benchmarking software.  Hence their claim of 7% reduction in source energy over the three year period must be seen in a context in which all U.S. office buildings saw a reduction in source EUI of 12% over a 9 year period.  There is simply little reason to believe that buildings that benchmark perform any better than those that don’t.

Once again real energy performance data cast doubt on energy savings claims for U.S. buildings.

 

Mounting evidence that LEED certified buildings do not save energy

Two recent publications provide corroborating evidence that LEED-certified buildings, on average, do not save primary energy.  One of these looks at energy consumption for 24 academic buildings at a major university.  The other looks at energy consumption by LEED-certified buildings in India.  In both cases there is no evidence that LEED-certification reduced energy consumption.

The study of academic buildings is found in the article entitled “Energy use assessment of educational buildings: toward a campus-wide susainability policy” by Agdas, Srinivasan, Frost, and Masters published in the peer-reviewed journal Sustainable Cities and Societies.  These researchers looked at the 2013 energy consumption of 10 LEED-certified academic buildings and 14 non-certified buildings on the campus of the University of Florida at Gainesville.  They appear to have considered site energy intensity (site EUI) rather than my preferred metric, source energy intensity.  Nevertheless their conclusions are consistent with my own — that LEED certified buildings show no significant energy savings as compared with similar non-certified buildings.  This is also consistent with what has been published now in about 8 peer-reviewed journal articles on this topic.  Only one peer-reviewed article (Newshem et al) reached a different conclusion — and that conclusion was rebutted by my own paper (Scofield).  There are, of course, several reports published by the USGBC and related organizations that draw other conclusions.

The second recent publication comes out of India.  The Indian Green Building Council (IGBC) — India’s equivalent of the USGBC — of its own accord posted energy consumption data for 50 of some 450 LEED certified buildings.  Avikal Somvanshi and his colleagues at the Centre for Science and the Envionment took this opportunity to analyze the energy and water performance of these buildings, finding that the vast majority of these LEED-certified buildings were underperforming expectations.  Moreover, roughly half of the 50 buildings failed even to qualify for the Bureau of Energy Efficiency’s (BEE) Star Rating (India’s equivalent of ENERGY STAR).  The results were so embarrassing that the IGBC removed some of the data from their website and posted a disclaimer discounting the accuracy of the rest.  In the future no doubt the IGBC will follow the practice of the USGBC of denying public access to energy consumption data while releasing selected tidbits for marketing purposes.

How long will the USGBC and its international affiliates be afforded the privilege of making unsupported claims about energy savings while hiding their data?

The Fourth Great American Lie

There is this standing joke about the three great Amercian lies:  1) “the check is in the mail;” 2) “of course I will respect you in the morning;”, and 3) well … let me skip the last one. I think it is time to add a fourth lie to the list — this green project will lower energy use.

In my last post I mentioned that my home town of Oberlin, OH recently purchased new, automatic loader trash/recycling trucks and spent an extra $300,000 so that three of them included fuel-saving, hydraulic-hybrid technology.  Town leaders claimed these trucks would save fuel and reduce carbon emissions.  Simple cost/benefit calculations using their cost and fuel savings figures showed that this was an awful investment that would never pay for itself (in fuel savings) and that the cost per ton of carbon saved was astronomical.

A few weeks ago I requested from the City fuel consumption data for the first six months of operation of the new trucks.  The City Manager and Public Works Director, instead, asked me to wait until after their July 6 report to City Council on the success of the new recycling program.  They both assured me that fuel usage would be covered in this report.  I was promised access to the data following their presentation.

Last Monday, in his presentation to Council, the Public Works Director highlighted data which showed that for the first six months of operation the City recycled 400 tons — as compared with the 337 tons it had recycled in the comparable period prior to acquisition of the new trucks.  This represents a 19% increase in recycling. Unfortunately there was no mention of fuel usage or savings.

Yesterday I obtained fuel consumption data from the Public Works Director for Oberlin’s new garbage/recycing trucks along with comparitive fuel data from previous years using the old trucks. The new trucks are on track to use 2,000 gallons MORE diesel fuel than were used by the old trucks, annually.  That’s right, not less fuel, but MORE fuel.  This is a 19% increase in fuel usage.  Gee what a surprise!

Soon the spin will begin.  City Adminisrators will point out that fuel usage would be even worse were it not for their $300,000 investment in the hybrid technology.  They will point out that the increased fuel usage is due to the new, automatic loading technology included in these trucks (though they failed to mention any expected increased fuel usage when the project was being sold to the public) — which enabled the use of larger recycling containers and the improvement in recycling.  What they will fail to tell us is that they could have achieved the same increase in recycling using the older style truck without automatic loaders.

This is the second recent City project for which the public has been mislead regarding expected enegy savings. The first was the LEED-certified Fire Station renovation.  This green building was supposed to save energy.  It, of course, is bigger and better than the building it replaced — oh yes, and it uses more energy.  But the increase in energy use wasn’t as much as it might have been because it was a green building.  Now we have the same result for the trash and recycle trucks.

Oberlin College is in the process of constructing a new, green hotel — called the “Gateway Project” as it will usher in a new era of green construction.  But people should understand, this new green hotel will use more energy than the old hotel —  it will be bigger and better, and its energy use won’t be as big as it might have been — and this should make us feel good.

And in the next few months Oberlin residents will be asked to approve additional school taxes to construct new, green, energy-efficient public school facilities.  But don’t be surprised when these new facilities actually use more energy than did the old ones.  Don’t get me wrong — they will be more energy efficient than the old facilities, but they will be bigger, and better and — use more energy.

This is the new lie — that our new stuff will use less energy than our old stuff.  But it isn’t true.  Fundamentally we want bigger and better stuff.  People like Donald Trump just build bigger and better stuff and proudly proclaim it.  But isn’t pallitable for most of us — we feel guilty about wanting bigger and better stuff.  So instead we find a way to convince ourseles that our new stuff will be green, it will lower carbon emission, it will make the world a better place — oh, and yes, it will be bigger and better.

We need our lies to make us feel good about doing what we wanted to do all along.  Don’t get me wrong — sometimes the check is in the mail and sometimes the green project does save energy.  But more often than not these lies are offered for temporary expediency,  And, of course, I really will respect you in the morning.