Hotel at Oberlin — poster child for “Green Wash”

In May 2016 Oberlin College opened its newly constructed Hotel at Oberlin.  The New York Times ranked the Hotel third in its list of 5 Hotels and 5 Tours for the Eco-conciousTraveler.  It is all part of the ongoing marketing effort to paint Oberlin College as a sustainable and green institution.  Hard to believe that any amount of eco-spin can convince people that a view of Oberlin’s Tappan Square is  environmentally rewarding.

Of course what makes the Hotel at Oberlin a green destination is not it surroundings — it is the building itself.  Like the Taj Mahal, committed environmentalists will simply swoon in the presence of this green wonder.  The second (and larger) of Oberlin College’s highly-publicized green buildings, the College has claimed that the Hotel is the first 100% solar powered hotel in the world and one of only five Hotels in the world to win the coveted LEED Platinum rating.  In addition to claims of solar power the building is said to be heated by a geothermal well field and to include other green technologies — including radiant-cooled rooms.  Its web site boldly claims that it has achieved the LEED platinum rating.

Truth is the hotel is not powered by the sun nor is it LEED-certified at any level.

I  wrote about this Hotel nearly two years ago when it opened.  The main focus of that post was to address the solar claim.  I will not rehash the evidence here — please read the blog.  The claim is a brazen and clever lie — Donald Trump would admire its creativity!  Simply stated, the Hotel is no more solar powered than is my century-old home.  There is not one solar panel on the building site.  The 2.2 MW OSSO array that is claimed to power the Hotel was built years before the hotel, is located a mile away, and, by contract, sends all of its electricity to the City of Oberlin until 2037 at a price of $85/MWh.

Today I write to share the Hotel’s energy-performance data and to discuss its LEED rating.  The Hotel is well into its second year of operation and we now have 21 months of utility data.

In my 2016 post I suggested that the Hotel would use two million kWh annually, more than double the 800,000 kWh used by the Oberlin Inn it replaced.  For 2017 the Hotel actually used 1,400,000 kWh of electric energy.  This is 75% more electric energy than was used by the former Oberlin Inn, but less than my estimate.  It is consistent with the annual electric use projected for the Hotel by its design team.

But the Hotel also uses natural gas.  The marketing literature for the Hotel says that the building is heated with ground-source heat pumps.  Natural gas, we are told, is primarily for heating domestic water (laundry, showers, etc.) — available, but not anticipated for backup heat.  The design team projected the annual gas use to be 8,350 therms (Ccf).

In fact, for 2017 the Hotel at Oberlin used 39,000 therms (Ccf), nearly 5X that predicted by the design team.  This is more natural gas than is used by any other Oberlin College building save one — the 130,000 sf Science Center!  The Science Center, constructed 17 years ago, contains numerous research and teaching laboratories and chemical hoods and has never been described as a green building.  It used 58,000 therm of natural gas in FY2017.  The natural gas use of the Hotel at Oberlin exceeds that of any other College building including the Firelands Dormitory (26,000 therm), the new Austin E. Knowlton complex (26,000 therms) and Stevenson Dining Hall (23,000 therms).

How does the Hotel at Oberlin’s energy performance compare with that of other hotels?  Consider its Energy Star score.  This can be estimated using the EPA’s Target Finder web site that allows quick data entry to estimate scores.  Entering the Hotel’s floor area (103,000 sf), number of guest rooms (70), cooking facility (Yes), 100% of the space heated and cooled, and actual FY2017 energy use, and accepting other default parameters, the Hotel at Oberlin is awarded an Energy Star score of 56.  According to the EPA — just a bit above average.  Don’t get me wrong — I am a huge critic of the Energy Star benchmarking score.  But it is one way to compare energy use with other hotels.

The monthly gas usage for the Hotel at Oberlin is shown below.  The excessive use in months Nov. – Feb. is clear evidence that significant gas is used for heating.  But even if you eliminate this heating use, the remaining use is nearly 3X the design estimate.

Finally, let me address the claim that the Hotel at Oberlin is certified LEED Platinum.  It simply is a lie.  I downloaded the USGBC LEED project database today.  The Hotel at Oberlin was registered on March 8, 2013 as “Confidential.”  Its LEED project ID is 1000031165.  As of today, February 23, 2017 the Hotel at Oberlin is not LEED-certified at any level.  The LEED project database says it has achieved 53 points — not enough to even achieve certification at even the Gold level.

Perhaps one day the claims being made for the Hotel at Oberlin will become true.  There is a lesson to be learned by looking at Oberlin’s Green building, generation-I, the Adam Joseph Lewis Center.

Oberlin College’s Adam Joseph Lewis Center  opened in 2000 to much acclaim.  Its proponents claimed it was a zero energy building (ZEB) for more than a decade when it just wasn’t true.  The claims were repeated by two Oberlin College presidents, College literature, and the College web site. The College never issued a retraction — it spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to correct flaws in the building’s HVAC design hoping to lower building energy use to a level that could be met by its 45 kW rooftop PV array.  The College eventually switched from “sticks” to “carrots” and in 2006, with the gift of a million dollars, built a second, 100 kW PV array over the adjacent parking lot and, with tripled electric production, renewed its ZEB claim for the building.  The building continued to use more energy than all of its arrays generated through 2011.  Even when faced with incontrovertible evidence that the claim was false the College continued to print the claim for another year in admissions literature distributed to students.  The College has never issued a public retraction or correction.  In 2012, after hiring a full-time building manager, the building finally used less energy that year than its PV arrays generated.  These arrays now feed two buildings, the AJLC and its adjacent annex.  Energy-intensive functions have been located in the annex and, collectively, these two buildings use more energy than the arrays produce.

Maybe in the next decade the College will build a parking garage next to the Hotel at Oberlin and put a huge PV array on it.  This could make the Hotel at Oberlin solar-powered — but not 100%.  Not sure how it will solve its natural gas problem — but clever minds will think of something.

The era of Donald Trump is here.  It is not illegal to lie, and no lie is too big to sell.

The bottom line is this.  The Hotel at Oberlin is just a normal, expensive hotel that purchases both electricity and natural gas from the local utility companies.  It uses more energy than the hotel it replaced.  It is the perfect symbol of modern green wash — 20 % substance, 60% exaggeration, 20% lies.

When will the USGBC come clean about their energy data?

Ever since the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) certified its first LEED building, questions have been raised as to whether LEED-certified buildings actually save energy.  For years LEED proponents have attempted to answer these questions by putting forward energy simulations — calculations performed by the design team before a building is ever constructed (or renovated) that demonstrate how much energy the proposed building design should save.

The problem is that intentions do not equal performance, and numerous studies of buildings have demonstrated a wide gap between the actual measured energy performance of a building and its design simulations.

I have undertaken several studies that compare the energy performance of LEED-certified buildings with other, similar buildings.  One of the key barriers to such studies is the difficulty in obtaining measured energy performance data for LEED-certified buildings.  Municipal energy benchmarking disclosure laws are beginning to crack this “green wall of silence” but, even so, you will find energy data for only a few hundred LEED-certified buildings in the literature.

One of my regular end-of-the-year rituals is to download the current version of the LEED Project Database posted by the USGBC.  This database lists all registered LEED projects, including information about the LEED system, certification, number of points received, etc.  Below I will share some interesting statistics calculated for these data.

As of December 26, 2017, there are 23,137 LEED-certified commercial buildings (*) in the U.S., certified in programs that address whole-building energy (NC, EB:OM, CS, School).  This is nearly 100X the aforementioned number of LEED-certified buildings whose annual energy consumption have been studied in the peer-reviewed literature.  Obtaining energy performance data is a critical road block to understanding building energy performance.

To address this, the USGBC, starting in 2009 with its version 3 certification programs, instituted a requirement that all LEED-certified buildings must report to the USGBC for five consecutive years following certification, whole building energy use data.  It was hoped that such data would demonstrate the success of the program in saving energy and would guide future improvements in the LEED standard.

So, what have we learned from these data gathered by the USGBC?  We have learned that the USGBC does not want to publicize these data.  Four buildings were certified in version 3 programs in 2010 — so their first year energy performance data would have been reported in 2011.  That number has grown dramatically in successive years.  The graph below shows the total number of buildings certified in relevant LEED.v3 or LEED.v4 programs as of January 1 of the year shown.  By January 2017 this number had grown to nearly 10,000.  When 2018 arrives these buildings will have another year of energy use data to report to the USGBC.  Moreover, 1,931 of these buildings certified by the first of 2013 should be reporting their fifth year of energy consumption.  Where are the reports that analyze these data?

So why isn’t the USGBC making these data available for analysis?  The answer is simple — the data show that LEED-certification is not saving the 30-35% energy that the USGBC has claimed for years.  This is no different from General Motors suppressing data that show Corvairs are not safe, tobacco companies hiding data that show cigarettes cause cancer, or the Catholic church protecting priests accused of sexual misconduct.  All organizations, first and foremost, care about self-preservation.

But the LEED project data show another interesting trend.  Again, looking at the commercial LEED systems that address whole-building energy, it is interesting to look at the numbers of U.S. buildings that were certified by year.  This graph is shown below.  The graph shows a trend that you can detect when you talk to builders and building managers.  Interest in LEED is waning.  2013 was the peak year for LEED certifications in the US.  Since that peak the annual number of U.S. commercial buildings receiving LEED certification in these programs has steadily declined.  Builders and property owners are catching on to the fact that LEED buildings are not saving energy, and the novelty of certification is wearing off.

The graph above actually over-estimates the number buildings certified each year.  The reason is that some buildings get certified a second, and even a third time.  These certifications are counted above, even though these “re-certifications” do not add new buildings to the list (just new certifications).

The USGBC, of course, does more than just certify U.S. buildings in the whole-building energy systems considered here.  Marketing green is their strength — they have exported their wares to many other countries and they have invented new LEED certification systems that can make small tenants in large buildings feel good (e.g., commercial interiors, CI).  No doubt global USGBC sales continue to rise.

But make no mistake about it — the core product of energy efficiency is falling flat with U.S. commercial building owners because the product is highly flawed.

* The numbers provided from the LEED project database refer to registered projects.  It is not quite right to say each project corresponds to a building.  A

Hot air emanating from the Windy City

This week Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel hosted the North American Climate Summit attended by more than 50 mayors from major cities around the globe.  President Obama joined his old Chicago crony to address the summit.  Mayors joined together to sign the Chicago Climate Charter expressing their collective commitment to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

According to an article in HPAC Magazine Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that Chicago had “reduced its carbon emissions by eleven percent from 2005 to 2015, bringing the city to forty percent of the way to meeting its Paris Climate
Agreement goals.”

What bullshit!  The same claim can be made by essentially every city in the United States (some more, some less).  This reduction has nothing to do with any unique accomplishments in Chicago — it is due to the simple fact that GHG emissions for the entire US from 2005 to 2015 went down by 11%.  All boats rise with the tide or, in this case, recede.

The main reason for this national GHG reduction is the fact that over the last decade cheap, fracked natural gas has replaced vast amounts of coal in the electric power sector.  This single change is responsible for the majority of the reduction in US greenhouse gas emission this last decade.  It isn’t energy efficiency, green buildings, renewable energy, or conservation — it is the economic impact of cheap natural gas and the increased cost of coal power due to EPA regulations.

Below is a graph lifted from an EPA report showing total US GHG emissions from 1990 through 2014.  The last bar for 2015 (black) was added by me using data pulled from another article.  The blue bars in this graph shows emissions associated with the electric power sector.

Rahm Emanuel’s claim is true but meaningless — just a lot of hot air emanating from the Windy City.

The Illusions of EUI in Calculating Energy Savings

In the last month I have found the time to begin looking at the 2012 CBECS data released by the EIA last May.

Today I am writing about something I just learned concerning U.S. Worship Facilities.  Here I am looking at the subset of Worship Facilities that meet the criteria stated by the EPA for performing their multivariate regression for the Worship Facility ENERGY STAR model (about 80% of all U.S. Worship Facilities).

In comparing the 2012 and the 2003 CBECS data for Worship Facilities we see there was an estimated 2% increase in the number of these buildings.  As there is an 8-9% uncertainty in the estimated number of these facilities, this increase is  not statistically significant.  The EIA data show that the mean site energy use intensity (EUI) for these facilities actually went down by 15% from 48 to 41 kBtu/sf — and this reduction is statistically significant as it exceeds the 6-8% uncertainty in these figures.  No doubt some government agency will use this reduction to claim success in programs to promote energy efficiency.

But nature is not impressed because total energy used by these buildings actually went up.  The reason — the buildings are, on average, getting bigger!  From 2003 to 2012 the total gross square footage contained in this filtered subset of Worship Facilities increased from 3.2 to 3.8 billion sf, a whopping 23%.  Thus the total site energy used by Worship Facilities grew by 5%.  A similar conclusion can be made for source energy, even with the improved efficiency of the electric power sector over this last decade.

It should be noted that statistics show that the number of Americans who actually go to church declined by about 7% from 2007-2014.  So in a decade when religious worship is decreasing the amount of energy used by Worship Facilities has grown by about 5%.

Bottom line — don’t be fooled by decreases in building EUI.  It is total energy that matters.

Energy harvesting — the siren’s allure

My wife, Deborah Mills-Scofield monitors dozens of media outlets and forwards articles to me that might be of interest.  One recently came my way about an effort in Portland, ME to harvest hydroelectric energy from its water pipes.  A company, LucidEnergy, has developed turbines that can be installed for this purpose.  The basic idea is to capture free energy in municipal water pipes that would otherwise be wasted.

While I applaud such innovation and creativity, I find the effort is misplaced.  I predict these turbines, like solar panels of the 1970’s and green roofs of this last decade — will soon be removed and abandoned.  This kind of energy harvesting is a fool’s errand.

About a decade ago I learned about another energy harvesting project in Israel — to install piezo-electric tranducers in highways to capture energy from passing trucks.  As heavy vehicles passed over these tranducers the truck weight would cause the transducers to compress and produce electricity.  The promoters of this energy argued that normal road compression represented lost energy — their technology would capture energy that would otherwise be lost.  The installed transducers did, in fact, produce electricity.  But I am confident that careful analysis would show that this energy comes from slight increase in fuel consumption of the vehicles that pass over the transducers.  Highway rolling resistance is mostly due to compression of the tires, not the road surface!

I am not aware of any evidence that water passing through municipal pipes arrives at end destinations with excessive kinetic energy.  Therefore any energy harvested along the way is likely to have to be re-injected by pumps.

And the maintenance issues must be significant.  I envision a few years of testing at the end of which it will be concluded that the cost of maintaining these units far exceeds the value of the energy they generate.  And what about the maintenance of pipes which get plugged due to low flow velocity?

Nature has handed us sunlight, wind, and hydo energy.  Harvesting these abundant resources is proving to be a challenge.  Harvesting efforts should focus on these well-understood and low-maintenance options.

Humans clearly waste a terrific amount of energy.  And there are many different ways that this wasted energy might be harvested.  The problem is cost-effectiveness.

 

 

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?  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?

Jay Whitacre wins 2015 MIT Prize

Today it was announced that Oberlin College physics alumn (and my former student) Jay Whitacre (OC’94) has been awarded the MIT Prize for his inventive work on batteries.  His company, Aquion Energy, has attracted funds from some pretty important investors.  Not bad for a kid who didn’t take calculus in high school.

Jay-Whitacre-Lemelson-MIT_0

Congrats Jay!