Sunday, June 25, 2017

In Memoriam Fern Bernadette Jones

Yesterday, on Saturday June 24th, 2017, I attended a memorial service for Fern B. Jones, who sadly was killed by a garbage truck recently, close to her NYC apartment, at the start of a trip to her family home in North Carolina. As one of her family members humorously reminisced: "It took a Mack truck to kill her, a lesser car would have been totaled!" That observation was symbolically a very accurate description of who Fern was. She was a rock to family and friends alike.

To me she was a professional friend, dating back to when I found her an accountant some ten years ago at a time she needed help sorting out some business challenges. We stayed in touch ever since. Her background being linguistics (Yale) and Management (MIT), was often very complementary with mine, linguistics (Leyden, unfinished), and Economics (Fairfield U). She understood like no other the important role finance could play in the green agenda, and how in practice finance all to often played a perverse role, often inadvertently achieving quite the opposite of the purported goals. She grasped the analytics of green finance like few people I ever met.

Besides our professional involvement over the years, we became good friends, almost like brother and sister, able to support each other emotionally through thick and thin with all of the various challenges that life brings. At times we could play each other the ball in business, thanks to our complementary "domains." Years ago, she hit it off right away with my girlfriend, who in many ways was a mirror image of her, being the "go-to" person and an anchor for her own family. Periodically, Fern also attended my classes on A Course in Miracles when I was teaching at the Theosophical Society on 53rd Street, and we discovered a deep shared interest in spirituality, including my deep appreciation for the Quaker tradition where she felt most at home.

At the memorial service I was able to share about the many-faceted relationship I had with Fern, and how sincerely I felt she was like a sister to me. The theme that I was asked to speak to was "trailblazer," which Fern certainly was, and as we all know, being a trailblazer is not always easy. I took the opportunity to reminisce about a recent experience along those lines which Fern and I had.

At the inception of the NY Green Bank, we gave them a presentation, proposing a underwriting policy and program, which would support NY State's stated goal of, at that time, 50% GHG-reduction by 2030 and 80% by 2050. The point we made was that, if the bank financed any retrofits that achieved less than 50%, or ideally 80%, GHG-reduction, they were in fact insuring with mathematical certainty that the state would fail in its objective, something which is now pretty much a fact as the sate has scaled back its goals to 40% GHG-reduction by 2030 and 80% by 2050, without ever having addressed the fact of why their actual policies, including the all important role of the Green Bank practically ensure failure. The Green Bank bank was not receptive to our proposal a few years ago. However, in a recent meeting with NYCEEC, which is effectively the NYC Green Bank, we found out that at NYCEEC they were now having regular meetings about this exact point. The reality of course is that both banks, at the NY State level and at the NYC level, in actual fact financed mostly projects at the level of 20-30% GHG-reduction, and therefore are counter productive to the larger state mission. In short, a few years after we offered the solution, these institutions were starting to recognize the problem.

Fern had a keen sense about how finance could play a perverse role, if, like in these cases, people do not bring the correct analysis to bear. It is all finance 101 stuff, except most people forget about it. Not Fern. I called her the Minister of Finance, but maybe I should have been more specific and called her the Minister of Green Finance. She always laughed when I quoted Brealy and Myers again, when exposing yet another green finance scam, for she remembered what most people forgot. She knew when it was time to go back to the drawing board.

Fern's spirit will be with me forever, and her steadfastness will remain my inspiration. In honor of the deep spiritual foundation of her life, I ended my talk with a poem from Helen Schucman, scribe of A Course in Miracles, from the bundle The Gifts of God:
A Child, a Man and then a Spirit, come
In all Your Loveliness. Unless you shine
Upon my life, it is a loss to You,
And what is loss to You is also mine.

I cannot calculate why I am here
Except for this: I know that I have come
To seek You here and find You. In Your life
You show the way to my eternal home.

A child, a man and then a spirit. So
I follow in the way You show to me
That I may come at last to be like You.
What but Your likeness would I want to be?

There is a silence where you speak to me
And give me words of love to say for You
To those You send to me. And I am blessed
Because in them I see You shining through.

There is no gratitude that I can give
For such a gift. The light around Your head
Must speak for me, for I am dumb beside
Your gentle hand with which my soul is led.

I take Your gift in holy hands, for You
Have blessed them with Your own. Come, brothers, see
How like to Christ am I, and I to you
Whom He has blessed and holds as one with me.

A perfect picture of what I can be
You show to me, that I might help renew
Your brother's failing sight. As they look up
Let them not look on me, but only You.

Friday, December 9, 2016

NYSERDA Conference on On-Site Power Generation

I just spent two days at a NYSERDA conference about On-site power generation, which brought together solar PV, CHP and storage, in an attempt to inquire what could be done to achieve better integration and coordination among these market actors. The conference also at least acknowledged that there were many other technologies that could have been drawn in, but they just simply wanted to start somewhere. Still, we are in the Northeast, where 70% of building energy loads are thermal, and it remains amazing that solar thermal and heat pump solutions were not included in such a conference and trade show. We swam in between all the participants representing some dramatic efficiency measures, and the finance and economics to make projects better - we're making friends with all parties, because we shorten the paybacks of all On-Site Generation retrofit projects.

During the conference it hit me with even more force than usual how the entire energy retrofit business is a shambles that in large part is caused by the structure of incentives and regulation at both the federal, state, and local levels. At the same time, I am sincerely impressed with the REV process in NY State, which at least attempts to create a structure for energy solutions for the future, based on a clear awareness that the legacy regulatory structure is holding us back in the face of technology change.
Interestingly, this conference took place against the backdrop of all the uncertainty about the new administration and its energy policy, about which we know too little for now, as Bloomberg just reported in a major article that points towards a major shake-up. The good news was that I heard comments even from equipment vendors attempting overcome this confusion and take a longer view, such as one CHP vendor who pointed to the fact that they were at least discussing their solutions with clients in terms of long-term building values, which is of course the only valid perspective to have.

I got some welcome take-up for one of my own pet-peeves, that accountants should not be desinging energy systems. I advanced as an example of dysfunction how incentives and Energy Star ratings had promoted the use of tankless water heaters, but that in practice this was often a bad decision if a property owner found themselves a few years hence looking at either a heat pump solution or a solar thermal solution where DHW (Domestic Hot Water) storage provides the cheapest way to harvest energy. The premature decision to adopt tankless water heaters in that case amounts to throwing out the batteries with the bathwater. This is a typical example of how the 'energy efficiency' regulations themselves and the incentives cause capital destruction, in which property owners make decisions like so many chickens with their heads cut off. Sure, tankless water heaters may very well be very efficient by themselves, but that fails to take the overall building systems into account. The answer is that the only thing that will work in the long run is a carbon tax or similar solution, and not device-level incentives, so that the focus shifts to results, not how you get there. Politicians and accountants should not micromanage the design of systems, and make successful outcomes harder, not easier. Focusing on the results is the only way where engineers and economists can design the optimal solution that creates building value, and leave accountants and component-level tax-incentives out of it.  From that standpoint, it would be fine by me if the new administration just wiped out all incentives across the board, and let the markets sort it out - people would have to start thinking for themselves again.

Dysfunctions resulting from the incentive structure

The examples I have seen are many and varied, and anyone who has been around this industry for a while has seen the ridiculous results when tax- and other incentives and regulations dictate energy system design ahead of engineering and economics. My list includes:
  • Tankless water heaters, even though they have valid application as backup in a renewable design.
  • Condensing boilers in a back-up role where the heat-exchangers rot out if these don't run flat-out, yet the rules specify Energy Star boilers, which all come with heat-recovery. In short, in a backup role in a renewable design, 
  • In general the incentives at the device level push over-use of certain devices, and this is often compounded by vendor greed, because they make more money over-specifying devices, instead of doing what's good for the customer. This can be seen in oversizing boilers or CHP or solar systems, all of which are commonly done. These equipment vendors sometimes take no interest in optimal outcomes for customers that can be realized through efficiency measures because they reduce the size of the systems they sell, even though they would sell more systems if they produced better economic outcomes for their customers. 
  • Solar PV is the single most prominent example of a technology that thrives only because of incentives, but in practice it is a negative-NPV decision for most property owners in the Northeast, except for in specific design scenarios, particularly where it's combined with a heat-pump solution which by itself would increase electrical demand, but in combination could be very well an optimal solution in many cases. But the tariff structures and incentives are becoming an increasingly thorny issue here, particularly if grids are not designed for two-way traffic.

More Political Dysfunction ahead

The pendulum swings of politics are about to really upset the apple-cart of energy policy, as summarized in the Bloomberg article cited above, but there are limits even there, as summarized recently in a Forbes article by attorney Brian J. Potts: the new administration will have to pick favorites, for there are many clear examples of conflicting interests even among the fossil-fuel options. Another aspect that is a major unknown is what international response will be. Evidently, foreign investment in the US may suffer, and even US investors who are committed to a climate change vision may shift their investments outside the US as a result of regressive policies. Growing the US economy and dialing back energy policy may well prove to be incompatible. 
Needless to say the last word about our energy future has not been said, and for the real estate industry in particular, the fact remains that buildings will outlive the swings of politics, and smart decision making would focus on retrofits that make economic sense, and fortunately many renewable technologies are extremely valuable because they in fact eliminate major energy costs. Heat pumps with efficiency ranging from 200-250% for air source to 400-500% for ground source remain an attractive choice, and the applications for solar thermal, offering 4-5 times the energy output of Solar PV, are multiple. Solar PV without a subsidy regime to prop it up is not going to be very attractive in many cases, though it will be worthwhile in niche applications.
What will be interesting to see is how the states will respond, for increasing dysfunction at the federal level will shift the burden to the states. Will the Northwest reinforce its regional climate change efforts with Canada? Will California secede, or at least grow its climate leadership role?  Will New York and New England orient themselves to Canada more, where a serious climate change agenda is now a fact? We cannot ignore the fact that energy is the single largest industry in our industrialized society, and is key to our long-term welfare. 
The upshot is the major imponderables are the roles the states will play in energy policy, and the role the international community will play, the role that investors will play by voting with their dollars, and at the end of the day there is the fact that the Trump administration in no way has a mandate that would support the sweeping change it seems to be contemplating. So, the politico-economic outlook is definitely cloudy, and property owners must make their own long-term decisions, in which the only sane argument is to look 30-50 years out and ignore these short term swings. What remains is the fact that properties outlive political swings.

Creating Long-term Value

The simple must be, as always, that property owners must discipline themselves to look at energy retrofits as capital decisions, even though traditionally energy is treated as O&M (Operating and Maintenance) by most property owners. The reality is that the availability of many technology paths produce clear alternative scenarios for buildings, that must be evaluated as such as a long-term capital decision.

Site-Derived Renewable Energy (SDRE) is an alternative to the typical legacy energy plan that depends on buying energy from the grid (or oil, or propane deliveries, etc.), so the consideration of SDRE is a make-or-buy decision, but even within that, there are usually multiple scenarios which most often are mutually exclusive and have very different economic/financial outcomes. The unfortunate effect of the legacy incentive regime is that it is completely counterproductive to looking at long term capital decisions, for it tends to place the emphasis on short term payback at the equipment level, which can arguably be improved by incentives, but undermines the necessary discipline for long-term capital decisions. The prospect of dismantling various levels of incentives therefore shifts the focus from the short-sighted decision making that tends to create capital destruction, towards the long term decision making that helps property values and capital formation.

Hybrid systems are the future

At the convention I found myself happily technology agnostic, and plugging the idea that with some simple efficiency measures, we are able to take 20-30% of the energy demand out of buildings and shorten the payback of deep retrofits that include on-site generation by 20-50%. Needless to say we also have interesting financing partnerships developing, for shorter paybacks make financing easier. Most vendors welcome that conversation, but there are always a couple of regressive thinkers, who put the short term ahead of the long term, and their own commission check ahead of the customer's welfare, never realizing that happy customers will create referrals and more business. It drives home the point that property owners need to have the intelligence and advice on their side and look at the long term energy outlook for their buildings, at a holistic level, with at least a 30-year capital budget for energy provisioning.
Already, hybrid solar thermal cum fossil fuel heating systems are becoming the norm in places like Germany, and new solar thermal systems in this country are rapidly increasing the options, such as Zonbak, which is starting to ship in mid 2017. The future will be hybrid solutions in which the traditional silos will increasingly break down. You A/C does not have to be electric, it can be thermal, and your heating does not have to involve combustion, it can be largely or wholly thermal, with a little bit of electricity to keep it running.

In practice, some efficiency measures may be independent from structural retrofits, such as on-site generation, but in many cases it is not, and examples include both solar, and battery charging, and therefore BEV implementations. The fact is that harmonic noise is cumulative in a facility because of the shared neutral bus, and LEDs and solar inverters and battery chargers all inject harmonics into the electrical system, adding the load and therefore potentially increase the overall harmonic load, making harmonic filters every more critical. Are there other solutions? Yes, but they are more expensive, and on a facilities basis, the harmonic filters intercept the problem closest to the source, preventing deterioration of the whole circuit.

The benefits of harmonic filters:
10-30% reduced electrical bills,
20-50% shorter paybacks for retrofits.

Holistic Solutions Put Property Values Central

Selecting the right energy technology plan for your property with a life-cycle outlook and taking all the relevant efficiency measures into consideration at the same time, is the only valid way forward. The best advice amid the whole confused scenario is to keep your eyes on the ball, and that means to maximize long-term property values, and it's up to the political will to provide incentives to minimize environmental impacts. Both economizing water usages and minimizing GHG-emissions are part of the long term value picture, regardless if one administration or another changes the incentive regime. Don't let the vendor of solar panels, or CHP, or anything else be your only source of information, for at least some of them will sell you and oversized system. Don't put the incentives first. Good financing (including incentives) can make a good project better, but it can never make a bad project good. 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

50 Ways to Kick the Energy Efficiency Habit

Energy Efficiency sounds good, but it makes lousy policy, because of the simple financial fact that as a strategy it produces diminishing returns. So, with the thought of Paul Simon's 50 Ways to Leave your Lover in mind, here are some thoughts on how to free ourselves from this collective insanity which is holding up the transition to increasing deployment of renewable energy and progress towards energy independence, not to mention building property values.

The motto for this list is the famous statement:
Premature optimization is the root of all evil. (Donald Knuth)
This comment from one of the world's most famous computer scientists is exactly to the point, for unless you do the capital budget and a long-term plan first, and you can see a clear timeline on what energy future you want for your property, you are operating without a plan, and capital destruction is sure to follow, as night follows day. All the "energy efficiency retrofits" suck asset values out of properties and transfer them to the financiers, instead of improving property values.


  1. Hop on the bus, Gus, but by all means do proper financial planning, and see for yourself. Failing to plan is planning to fail and you'll fall prey to incentives and be stripped of your asset appreciation.
  2. Be honest about how much you've spent on energy efficiency. Shouldn't
    Leave Energy Efficiency behind
    To the tune of: 50 ways to leave your lover
    your bills be negative already? If in doubt go back to point #1
  3. You can't save yourself rich, not with money, not with energy.
  4. Successive Energy Efficiency investments exhibit diminishing returns,
  5. Therefore Energy Efficiency literally does not add up - it is NOT additive.
  6. The reason you can't save yourself rich is diminishing returns.
  7. Not only does Energy Efficiency not add up, it is not additive towards sustainability, instead it is a sure prevention of sustainability - again because of diminishing returns.
  8. Energy Efficiency is not interchangeable with renewable energy in achieving sustainability, it is of value only if it is complementary to site-derived renewable energy (SDRE).
  9. Energy Efficiency in a fossil fuel system, is like lipstick on a pig and it is mutually exclusive with renewable energy.
  10. Premature Energy Efficiency is the best prophylactic the carbon economy has to offer against renewable energy.
  11. In a proper capital budget for energy, it will be seen that 30 years of no (or very small) energy bills versus 20-30% energy savings with various energy efficiency programs often easily justifies the far larger CapEx for SDRE, but intelligent use of passive measures and efficiency will reduce the ICap (Installed capacity) for SDRE.
  12. The corollary to this is that any would-be analytical models which emphasize energy efficiency and utilize payback analysis automatically move renewables out of range.
  13. Every step into renewable energy increases building resilience, yet we offer subsidized programs to quickly convert buildings to natural gas, before anybody gets the idea of going renewable (NYC Clean Heat). OTG Conversions are public enemy number one from the point of resilience and sustainability.
  14. If you count in the cost of the consultants on NYC Clean Heat, and various building resiliency studies, we could have converted half those 10,000 buildings to renewables already.
  15. Energy Efficiency makes the problem bigger not smaller, and makes it dollar for dollar less likely we'll ever switch to renewables.
  16. With gratitude to Steve Hallett & The Efficiency Trap - energy efficiency is much ado about nothing. This book is the behavioral corollary to the financial problem of diminishing returns, providing yet another reason energy efficiency does not add up.
  17. Kudos to Steve Hallett & The Efficiency Trap again, energy efficiency expands demand. The mission is to build the alternative.
  18. With every dime you spend prematurely on increasing efficiency of your fossil fuel system, you are postponing the transition to a renewable system. This is capital destruction.
  19. Successive steps of a well engineered renewable energy transition in a property will show interdependencies, which demonstrate an engineering reason why energy efficiency and renewable energy are mutually exclusive, on top of the financial reasons, unless they are properly planned and leverage each other so as to produce profound synergies.
  20. Many if not most NYSERDA programs are for the benefit of your favorite utility company, and/or manufacturers of equipment, at the expense of optimal asset value for property owners. You want to do your own financial model first before you use their programs to see what subsidies you could qualify for. The old adage applies: great financing can make a good project better, but it can never make a bad project good. Happy shiny sales people of energy solutions violate this rule all the time, such as when they ask you if you would like to see if you qualify for "free solar panels." Hold on to your wallet.
  21. Most NYSERDA programs as well as direct utility incentives bribe property owners to do what's good for the shareholders of the utility, and necessarily not what's in the best interest of the owners of the property.
  22. Most NYSERDA programs, ConEdison's Greenteam, and other similar programs with other utilities, are customer retention programs for the utility and have little or nothing to contribute to property values, nor are they green if they only target energy efficiency.
  23. Tax incentives, and financing requirements based on Energy Star ratings of equipment, tempt property owners to specify the wrong equipment for the sake of short term gain, and they make good design harder, not easier. These incentives need to be restated on the basis of GHG emissions, and/or water use reductions.
  24. Energy efficiency and Energy Star requirements for buildings are counter productive, GHG reductions should be used instead for law makers, and regulators, while property owners should maximize NPV based on a 30 year energy plan.
  25. Green financing is falling into the efficiency trap and makes the capital blunder of financing short term measures with long term money. It will lead to instability, and it is another underwriting crisis in the making.
  26. PACE bonds have become nearly irrelevant by embracing energy efficiency instead of renewable energy.
  27. Green Finance including PACE bonds could ensure above market rate appreciation of the underlying assets ONLY by mandating renewable infrastructure, never by energy efficiency requirements.
  28. All energy efficiency programs are a greenwash, because they achieve the opposite of what they set out to do, both environmentally, as well as financially.
  29. Energy efficiency programs are a rationalization for the good feeling of sacrificing something for the common good.
  30. Energy efficiency programs are another demonstration that logic and reason are the horse the emotions ride in on. The only satisfaction is emotional, nothing is being accomplished.
  31. The use of marginal analysis in the form of payback on equipment justified by energy savings is irrelevant to property owners, and only of interest to the sellers of that equipment. Caveat emptor applies here, for most retrofits have engineering interdependencies that may lock you out of other options, and you need to understand the holistic view of a long-term plan for your property first.
  32. Net zero is not necessarily the sole objective, but a direction. Again: energy independence of your property and even partial independence from the grid, ensures you won't be left stranded.
  33. Selling back to the grid can be avoided by implementing heat pumps, particularly high efficiency GSHP (ground source heat pumps - 500% efficient!), but also ASHP (air source heat pumps - 250% efficient).
  34. In renewable energy design, energy efficiency comes back in play and should be used to optimize installed capacity (ICap) requirements. Notice that if your energy is free, you can pick your capital tradeoff, if it is cheaper to install more capacity or insulate more. The bottom line is that in deep retrofits there is no payback period for efficiency alone, but the right use of passive measures and efficiency will reduce the overall payback of a project and make it easier to finance.
  35. Implementing renewables (SDRE), means shifting energy from liability to asset.
  36. Implementing renewables also means focusing on production, not reducing consumption as the predominant strategy.
  37. The renewable strategy means playing offense, not defense with energy.
  38. Net-zero and green construction is growing like mad in new project development, so existing homes are eventually headed for demolition and abandonment if they cannot come up with a renewable strategy. Search for net-zero and energy efficient homes, and you'll see what I mean.
  39. Energy efficiency is a bottomless pit that will keep you in the poor house if you fall into it. Stop now, and make a financial plan to switch to renewables wherever possible.
  40. Energy Efficiency is the addiction that covers up our energy addiction, so again it makes the problem bigger, not smaller. Energy is like methadone for heroin addicts: it makes the addiction manageable, but it is harder to kick.
  41. If you are a renter, Energy Star appliances and other Energy Efficient Products are your best friend. For renters marginal payback of the equipment from energy savings is appropriate.
  42. Whenever renewable energy is treated as a building block in energy efficiency, it will be undervalued and implemented incorrectly.
  43. Avoid net metering whenever you can, except in emergencies. Plan your design to capture and use as much energy as possible in your property.
  44. The 90by50 report from the Green building council is full of good ideas, but once again gets lost in the weeds of energy efficiency.
  45. Manhattan is a heat sink, but renewables will mean the outer boroughs can become far more attractive places to live, while Manhattan will become the energy slum, with a small number of exceptions to prove the rule.
  46. When buying a coop or a condo find out the energy plans, it will make at least a 10-20% difference in building values within 10 years.
  47. It is time for tenants associations to work with landlords, even to the point of mixed ownership of energy plant if nothing else will work. Community solar is such an idea. It is high time to get rid of the split incentive. There is room for innovation here.
  48. Write to your politicians to support the principles of the DaBx Renewable Energy Retrofit Portfolio Standard, and focus on subsidies for achieving reductions in GHG emissions, and try to get exemptions from all rules that stand in your way. Many well intended rules hold up the show because they are counter productive on a building level.
  49. Evaluate all technology options that are suitable for your property, not just one. Solar thermal DHW and/or HVAC as well as heat pumps should top your list.  They are mature technologies, wind energy is often superior if you have the right location. Solar PV comes last unless you have space to waste. Don't forget green roofs, and other passive energy strategies either.
  50. The reason they are giving away solar PV, is because it is your worst option, unless it fits your overall design and you have the space for it - which most residential owners don't. Solar PPAs are usually a really bad deal for almost all consumers. They are only better than doing nothing. Solar thermal yields up to 7 times the amount of energy per square foot.

Conclusion: renewable energy adds value

50 ways to leave energy efficiency behind, because it is a financial dead-end, the corollary to which is the phenomenon of The Efficiency Trap. Only renewable energy will offer rising property values, as well as dampen any loss of value in downturns, as was widely acknowledged by institutional investors during the downturn of 2008. Net-zero or near-zero properties are one of the best asset classes ever to own.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

What's Wrong With the Energy Retrofit Model and What To Do About It

Energy retrofitting will be a big business for the next few decades, for the simple reason that there are more old buildings than new. Granted, some buildings will be scrapped if they can't make it in the new net-zero and near-zero age, but many buildings are eminently capable of material overhauls that can eliminate 70-80% of GHG-emissions.

Premature Energy Efficiency:
The Best Prophylactic against Deep Energy Retrofits

The unfortunate fact is that the structure of various incentive programs as well as typical financing approaches have prevented deep retrofits and favored shallow programs that achieve just 20-30% GHG-reductions. A typical example was a deal sheet I recently saw from NYCEEC, effectively the New York City Green Bank: easily 80% of their projects were in the 20-30% GHG-reduction category, and just a few projects here and there were in the 70-80% GHG-reduction bracket. On their website, they focus almost entirely on marginal improvements in "energy efficiency," complete with their "Energiensee(tm)" calculator of energy savings potentential - therefore, the focus is on O&M, not on capital improvements. Yet, purely mathematically, in a state that has an objective of 50% GHG-reductions by 2030 and 80% GHG-reduction by 2050, clearly anything less than 50% GHG-reductions guarantees failure of the state's objectives, and the idea of providing incentives, including subsidized finance to do such deals is absurd on the face of it.

If you understand the economics of energy retrofits in buildings, it is clear that what is going on here is the clash between O&M (Operating and Maintenance), which tends to be on annual budgets, and Capital Budgeting. The structure of the real estate industry is that energy tends to be looked at through the lens of O&M, but there are now so many alternatives that represent structural change of building energy infrastructure, that these decisions need to be looked at as capital cases, and the investors/owners need to be involved. Long term building values are at stake. Capital improvement should be the driver for energy retrofits, and if you can't do them, you should probably get rid of the building, it's going to be scrapped.

Capital destruction results from an incremental O&M approach

Many, many, "upgrades" should not be done at all once you look at them through the lens of long term capital appreciation. That list includes:
  • Tankless Water heaters. They are mostly a mistake, for DHW (Domestic Hot Water) storage is immensely valuable for e.g. Solar thermal, or Heat Pumps, but sometimes even for Solar PV. There are some valid uses of these, as backup in renewable retrofits.
  • OTG (Oil-To-Gas) conversions, sure, you may save on your energy spending, but again, looked at from a capital budgeting standpoint, on a 30-50 year lifecycle timeline, these kinds of marginal improvements are usually pure capital destruction in the face of better alternatives such as hybrid solar thermal or heat pump solutions.
  • Condensing boilers are a liability if there is solar thermal or heat pumps in your future, because if the boilers become the backup the heat recovery systems rot out in record time due to condensation under intermittent use. In other words, incremental decision making creates massive sunk costs that undermine building values in the long run.
  • Solar PV. Especially at Northern latitudes solar PV retrofits are pure capital destruction in many if not most buildings when evaluated from a capital budgeting standpoint under a 30-50 year lifecycle assessment. Solar PV should be relegated to whatever space remains at the end of a retrofit process. It is too inefficient.

The Height of Folly: Tesla/SolarCity

Recently, I have been writing about Tesla and their SolarCity merger, which is the height of capital destruction. SolarCity never figured out the economic value they could provide for their retail customers, and their business model was driven by the demand of tax-equity finance and the Wall Street appetite for ABS-notes. It was clear that recent financings, starting at least from the John Hancock transaction earlier this year, meant that SolarCity was under water under those terms compared to the discounted cash flow model they sold to investors as being the "retained value" of the company, so they slipped from arguable "value creation" into "value destruction:" the installations were a loss leader for a fallacious "retained value" that is increasingly not working out, because it's only feasible by assuming lower discount rates on an equity basis than what they are actually paying on their recent deals, so that both the front end and the back end of their transactions is now under water.

This development was bad news for SolarCity shareholders, but the whole business model was bad for retail customers, for SolarCity sales people have an incentive to sell you the most solar panels they can fit on your roof, and NOT to add the most value to your property. And because their whole sales model is wrong, they are destroyers of asset values for their retail residential clients. This is the reason why they are not a Solar energy company, but a Solar panel financier (and not particularly good at it). SolarCity's unique contribution has been that they figured out a way to sell sub-prime financing to prime customers, for their sales proposal to clients rested on a foundation of stretching the payments long enough to be nominally "cash-flow positive" based on the projected energy savings, and the sales mottos were "free solar panels" and "sell'em on the payments!"

The easy test was the study from Arizona State University, and the conclusion was that:
Solar panels owned by a home seller add 4 to 6 percent to the value of a home sale, often less than the cost of the panels, according to an analysis of local home sales and reports from real-estate agents. Houses with leased solar panels actually sold for less than those with no solar. (see story on AZCentral)

However, Solar panels installed with a lease or PPA might deduct 3-8% of the value of the property at the time of sale, for it places the seller between a rock and a hard place, namely, they either have to pay off the lease, or they have to get the buyer to assume it, at which point the buyer can negotiate a discount on the property.

And again, there are deeper issues here as well, and the value of the SPV install might not be optimal if other parts of retrofitting are ignored. Typical experiences in existing homes suggest that you should most often only require 50% of the SPV capacity that sellers like SolarCity will offer, if you implement the optimal mix of passive measures, ranging from insulation, radiant heat barriers on windows, and power quality solutions. The decisions are easier if your home is all electric, but usually the payback can be 20-50% shorter if you pursue the optimal balance of passive (insulation, etc.) and active (generation).

I recapped a lot of these issues in two articles on Seeking Alpha, about the Tesla mess, here:

Energy Efficiency Versus Energy Retrofitting:
History Lessons

For good historical reasons, originally it all started with energy efficiency, squeezing more energy from systems, but gradually, structurally different solutions came into being, which enabled different financial decisions, for once you enter into retrofitting, there are lots of interdependencies within a given building, and you have to make a clear decision about what your upgrade path is going to  be since many of the technology choices are mutually exclusive with other possible solutions. Here's how it has worked:
  1. Phase one was pure O&M, lowering your bills year over year, which works initially, but in the end, you cannot save yourself rich, and this approach runs out of steam because of diminishing returns. The answer should have been capital budgeting, but instead financial slight of hand was used to "justify" further retrofits.
  2. Stretching the financing became the way to make bigger and bigger retrofit projects happen, and as a result, financiers were effectively stripping value out of buildings, and building owners did not know any better. The financiers win and property owners lose. Just watch for buildings in the Northeast with Solar PV: they were sold a bill of goods, as per the analysis above.
  3. We are now entering the capital budgeting phase, for the number of retrofit options have grown so much that a growing number of owners find out the hard way that incremental decision making produces capital destruction, and that a decision made one year ends up being undone a few years later. Typically failing to plan means planning to fail and in depth energy audits and thirty-year capital budgets must become the new normal.
The transition to the capital budgeting model will increasingly be precipitated by the emergence of more and more net-zero or near-zero buildings that go up right next door to older buildings so that economic competition will force the older buildings to either upgrade or be scrapped. 

The Key to Deep Retrofitting:
Holistic Approach and Value Creation 

Meanwhile, with my company, we are hard at work with the marketing of harmonic power filters that get rid of harmonic noise in power circuits, and while the payback is great, especially here in NY, where it's usually months, not years in most commercial applications, the real message is that in a deep energy retrofit, this technology alone can reduce the overall project payback by 20-50%. In other words, incremental "efficiency" retrofits should not be squandered by implementing them in isolation, but be viewed as part of the overall energy model, and enable building owners to undertake the retrofits that create true long-term property value. The magic is to add a sub one year payback to a project with a seven year payback, and create a project with a four year payback that's easy to finance.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The economics of climate change, sustainablity, veganism, health and then some

"There is, however, a moral basis for the vegetarian diet for which the indeterminate value of an animal’s life takes on irrelevance. And that moral basis is a concern for the environment, a value as absolute as the value we all place on human life, since humanity will not long survive on a poisoned planet. To be an environmentalist who happens to eat meat is like being a philanthropist who doesn’t happen to give to charity."  (Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth from the Cattle Rancher Who Won't Eat Meat" by Howard F. Lyman, Glen Merzer")
Rational capital allocation is not our forte as a society. Indulging human foibles is more like it. The dialog about climate change is a case in point. If 51% of GHG-emissions is due to animal husbandry and the self-destructive habit of eating meat, and moreover the our nastiest health problems (heart disease, osteoporosis, cancer, CJD, antibiotic resistant bacteria et al.) are partially or wholly attributable to the same self-destructive habit, then why is it not on the agenda for serious discussion?

For me, there is a personal side to the story, I was raised vegetarian, as in lacto-vegetarian, and though I realized a long time ago that milk was for baby cows and not for human consumption, I loved cheese. From my late teens to my early twenties I became more of an omnivore, but after age forty, I simply noticed a tendency to vegetarianism, ever so slowly, but without any particularly strong commitment. I simply drifted towards a more vegetarian lifestyle. In the last ten years health issues made me gradually more and more interested, and I got briefly interested in the Esselstyn diet that was made famous when former President Bill Clinton switched from Mickey D's to veganism. The first time I read the Esselstyn book, I was half-hearted about it. An old friend and I were both experimenting with this diet for a while, and kept some ideas from it, without necessarily going through with it, but the drift continued, aided by the growing realization that even if I did not have any symptoms of hearth disease, why wait till I did? In the last two years all dairy was permanently phased out. For Christmas a giant apple-pie came along, and while I enjoyed it, I also informed Santa Claus that this would be my last apple-pie until after my funeral. Who needs all that white flour and sugar? Most importantly the last year especially, I found myself enjoying food more as I discovered more and more vegan recipes that I really liked.

Meanwhile I am into planning the energy economics for some real-estate developments, and looking into vertical agriculture options in an urban setting, while at the same time I am listening to feedback from my community, Community Board #9 in the Bronx, where a young mother of two stated0 in a recent planning session that she did not want another fast food restaurant in our district, and a young man in the same session was polling people on the idea of establishing a food co-op in our area. But a local supermarket just lost their lease, and that neighborhood is screaming for a half-way decent supermarket to fill the vacuum.

Against that personal backdrop, I have been reading Howard Lyman's Mad Cowboy book, and watching some documentaries on YouTube, including:
  • Cowspiracy, a brilliant documentary of our collective economical and environmental and nutritional insanity from 2014, which included an appearance by Howard Lyman, the Mad Cowboy.
  • Then came Earthlings, another brilliant piece on the gruesome realities of  the animal husbandry system.
  • Next was Gary Yourovsky, who verbalizes it all brilliantly, here, including the most viewed speech in Israeli history here.
  • And finally, I had to revisit the whole Howard Lyman story, which I was only vaguely aware of when Oprah and he got sued in 1996, but now it was time to refresh that experience, and this documentary about the Mad Cowboy just his the spot.
  • Since I first wrote this post, it got even better, see the story of the Rowdy Girl Sanctuary, yet another rancher to vegan story.
And at the final end it is the economist in me who basically realizes that economics will prevail in the end, and we are well on our way to veganism. It will take a few generations, but choices are multiplying now, with more and more vegan food choices, and now even fast food restaurants, it is clear that change is on the agenda. The group of people who turn vegan and get off their meds is growing - the perfect answer to our out of control healthcare system, so not only can the planet not afford animal husbandry, we cannot afford the health consequences of eating all that meat and dairy. I had a home visit from a nurse practitioner from my health insurance provider, and the guy fell of his chair, for just the week before the doctor had taken me off all meds, or rather confirmed that I was doing great without them - not that I was taking that many but still... On top of that, I know I feel more stamina at the gym.

One of the big things I am realizing about net-zero development is that moving combustion out of residential spaces is one of the biggest things we can do for indoor air quality, and this in turn adds to real estate values. Insights like that are pretty potent if you live in the asthma capital of the world, the Bronx. So there is a straightforward connection between economics, environment and health. 

The same goes for vertical agriculture: it is now economical to grow fresh vegetables in an urban setting, and eliminate chemical agriculture, and thousands of miles of transportation, to get better, fresher, healthier vegetables, as you can see in this little video from Terrashpere

And the transition to more and more vegan living will eliminate the most obvious food safety problems, a vast array of health problems, as well as unsustainable agriculture in the service of animal husbandry. Again, economics, environment and health all go hand in hand. And the forces that drives us towards a more sustainable economy are absolutely inexorable. Veganism is a new idea today, or so it seems to many, but it is unavoidable economically. We are literally at the point of realizing that we are feeding the pigs at the expense of human beings, and wiping out the rain forests to raise cattle, which is the most insane misuse of land that ever was. It is that inexorable force of economics and sustainability, that is driving us towards a more sustainable, and therefore increasingly vegan, lifestyle.

Since I originally wrote this post, I have also started a blog on vegan living in my hood.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Solar PV and the Metastasis of GHG-emissions

Today, solar PV is all the rage. We're at it again, jumping on a technology before we have figured out the right way to use it. Wall street is loving it, but we are getting way ahead of ourselves... just remind me, how do we spell bubble again? As a society, it seems we keep looking for a silver bullet to fix our problem, and this is not realistic.
It does not matter that solar PV is "cheaper" in terms of component pricing. Solar thermal produces about five times the amount of energy for the same square area, so unless the cost of real estate is zero, solar thermal should be the winner in that battle. Granted, solar PV tends to be easier to integrate, but there is an obvious issue here, particularly in areas large urban areas, where you don't have one square inch to waste.
To use an analogy, if one year our government provides a tax incentive to sell more two-seater vehicles, and a father of five comes home with a two-seater instead of a family car, arguing that it was so cheap, most of us would side with the wife, if she divorced him. The five kids would have to take the bus from then on. Evidently, this would be a case of false economy, for it cannot solve your problem. How come we understand the fallacy of this proposition, yet in solar PV marketing, this is what is routinely done - selling people a solution that does not fit because it is "cheap." If in doubt, refer to the tax incentives.
Just like the two-seater cannot solve the transportation problem of a family of seven, solar PV panels cannot solve the energy problems of most homes and buildings in northern climes. In the south, it may work fine if your home is all electric, and you have enough roof space to economically generate adequate electricity, but in the north your energy bills are likely to be 70% oil and 30% electric, and yet the solar companies want you to jump up and down because they can save you 10% on your electric bills. That's the assumption anyway. It does not amount to the proverbial hill of beans, because 10% of your electric bill is 3% of your overall energy bills.
It actually gets worse, because the implicit assumption is that your roof space is valueless, which is likely not the case. If nothing else, that same roof space could be used for solar thermal equipment, which produces 4 to 5 times as much energy per square foot as does solar PV. Alternatively, one or more wind-turbines might be possible, and in all of these situations, it is one or the other, so you have to figure out what gives you the most bang for the buck.

Entropy and Climate Change

One of the first few things to realize about the whole climate change conundrum is that it is not solvable. The best we may be able to do is produce less entropy, and decelerate the decline of our physical universe. But in the end it's a lost cause, or, as Keynes would have it: "In the long run, we're all dead." The case in point is the Toyota Prius, which has a lifecycle environemental impact that is worse than a Hummer. So dream on.
For those who want to get into the final nitty-gritty of the issues, there is no better introduction that Alex Marchand's new book, The Universe is Virtual. Unless and until someone comes up with a better alternative to the second law of thermodynamics, the choices are limited, but right at the moment, the process is outright irrational, and we may be able to do better than we are. Again, the only thing we can do on the physical level, is to moderate the impact we are having, the problem is not solvable in any meaningful way as long as the laws of physics hold. If you want to stick to lighter fare, Jeremy Rifkin's, Entropy, is still always a fun read, although a bit dated.

The solar PV fallacy, oh to be green and foolish

These days the FTC has taken on greenwashing, and hopefully may be curbing some of the most egregious abuses, but if they got serious, very little of environmental business or products would be left standing, and certainly solar PV in its current form would have to be heavily restricted for the deceptive claims it makes.
What needs to be understood is that if we define the problem haphazardly, we are unlikely to solve the problem that we are presumably seeking to solve, in this case, reducing green house gases (GHG-emissions). To the promoters of solar PV, the problems is how much money can we make on selling solar PV installations (very little), or on financing solar PV (maybe something more), time will tell if it can be done profitably, but the current model of solar PPAs, solar leases, or even innovative lending like SolarCity's new MyPower program, will likely not be enough to make solar PV really viable in the long run.

At single family scale - Solar PV disappoints

The exception is if you live down south and you have enough roof real estate to generate close to all the electricity you really want, perhaps solar PV makes sense. But up north the problem remains that electricity is 20-30% of the energy budget, and tying up all your money and roof real estate for a project that saves you a few percentage points on your overall energy bills, and locks you out of solving the whole problem categorically is not a smart decision.
The current sales paradigm for solar PV mistakes a marginal cost savings for the basis of a capital improvement to the property, and a permanent alteration of its energy infrastructure. The result is an impairment of the physical asset (property) and the balance sheet (liability), and the simple most obvious problem is that if the next buyer does not want to assume the remaining liability, it can depress the value of a property, as reported by Bloomberg here. Typically the risks include:
  • The lease or PPA may be under water at the time of the sale.
  • Newer solar technology may be more efficient.
  • Other technological alternatives offer superior economics.
If you are still in doubt, look at alternatives that are about to hit the market, like the Archimedes wind-turbine, and the Zonbak solar thermal solution, as well as a long-since proven solution of Geothermal Heat Pumps, which allows you to do complete central HVAC, heat your pool, and put a snowmelt in your driveway, while eliminating your oil bills.
One of the issues is that solar PV is still early in its developments, while Solar Thermal (85-95% efficiency), and geothermal (3-600% efficiency) are much higher, and mature, and wind turbines, in the right locations produce more energy per square area than solar PV does. Solar PV is now going from 15-18% efficiency and jumping by about 30% to 21-24% efficincies, while new technologies in the 30% and 40% efficiency ranges are in the pipeline for commercialization in the future.
Worse yet, as net-zero construction is growing and consistently profitable already for decades, just imagine selling your home 7 years from now when there is a new development of net-zero homes going up nearby. If those new homes offer $0 energy bills, and you are saving 3 or 5, or even 10% off your 2015 bill, what do you think that will do for the value of your property? The correct answer is: it will sell at a discount. Your investment in PV under those conditions is likely to produce a liability. You will be looking for ways to take those panels down in order not to depress the price of the house, and then you have a waste disposal problem on your hands.

At societal scale - Solar PV disappoints again

New York State has an ambitious energy plan, but it sadly lacks realism. The top-line goals are 50% reductions in GHG-emissions by 2030, and 80% by 2050, but there is very little detail on how to get there. Too many line items in the plan achieve 15-25% reductions in GHG-emissions, and are financially burdensome like solar PV. To tie up a lot of capital, and assume unnecessary 20-30 year liabilities to save 3% on your energy bills, and lock yourself permanently out of better alternatives is counter productive. We are throwing good money after bad, and mostly it is consumers who are on the hook, deceived by government incentive programs.
This first round of Solar PV-madness will prove to be regressive for climate change in the long run, because it locks properties into 25% reduction of GHG-emissions, instead of pursuing the 75%, which would make a difference. So, not only are these owners locking themselves out of the real solution, the collective effect is that we are averaging down, and ensuring we will never achieve anything like 50% GHG-reductions by 2030 or 80% by 2050.
With the current approach GHG emission reduction will be limited to something in the 20-30% range with solar PV and some energy efficiency, and GHG-emissions will metastasize into an unsolvable problem, so present programs guarantee we will never make those glorious goals of 50by30 and 80by50. It sounded good while it lasted.

It's not those batteries either - thermal batteries are free

Remember the jokes about the Fisher ballpoint that could write upside down, and cost a million dollars to develop? Presumably the Russians used pencils instead. The truth is the Russians switched to Space-pens also. The point is clear however. We humans have a terrible tendency to reinvent the wheel.
In energy solutions for buildings, thermal solutions come in the form of passive design as well as active generating technologies such as solar thermal and geothermal. Batteries are cheap: it is also known as Domestic Hot Water, or depending on the application you can have some high temperature water storage. Overall, this is far cheaper and safer than the chemical batteries that are the norm for Solar PV.

Conclusion: time for method over myth

We have had the Internet bubble, and the subprime mortgage bubble, but now we have the budding distributed solar PV bubble. Some of the same people are promoting it, for the securitization machine was looking for work after the bust of subprime. Once rational analysis gains the upper hand--which may take a long time--this bubble of solar subprime will also burst, and it won't be pretty.
Having said that, there are plenty of good applications for Solar PV, but the mass market that is currently forecast will dry up sooner than later. Serious GHG emission reduction will have to wait until the Solar PV-mania gives way to a more methodical approach using Solar thermal, and other solutions, providing a whole-house solution, not a 3% savings on your bills.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Energy Efficiency Exposed

Blissfully, even the New York Times is starting to let some light in on one of the biggest consumer frauds in history, energy efficiency. With an opinion piece, The Problem With Energy Efficiency, by 
Energy Efficiency as it is promoted today, is a consumer fraud, it is a way of selling energy efficient products without the guilt.  The Energy Star program is the cheerleader for this misdirection, for it encourages incremental fixes, not radical solutions. There is not really any perpetrator other than the collective public delusion that energy efficiency will somehow magically bail us out, but the short-term beneficiaries are the utility industry, and the manufacturers of energy efficiency technologies, and property owners are paying the economic penalty for failing to do the economics of their energy decisions properly. The presumed benefit of energy efficiency is an unexamined assumption that seems sensible, but does not work in practice. Yet there is mathematical certainty that it cannot, because it is a limit function, which MUST produce  diminishing returns, as I have extensively documented on this blog.
The fundamental deceit which underlies the mistake is the labeling of energy efficiency as "green," and conflating it with renewable energy, and further to train clueless property owners to pursue energy efficiency on an incremental basis, as though it were additive, which it is not, because of the problem of diminishing returns, so it becomes a permanent money drain. This energy efficiency-driven approach amounts to a greenwash of carbon energy, and keeps us hooked. The result has been a massive market failure, and significant capital destruction. To this day, government is encouraging this pattern of helter-skelter spending on efficiency, which diverts resources from potentially productive investment in worthwhile projects that build value for investors. The beneficiaries of this confused guidance have been the utilities and energy companies. Current government programs are very successful if the goal were to save energy companies and utilities.

Environmental and Economical Fraud: Energy Efficiency

Fortunately, there are a growing number of critical voices who have taken to uncovering the misleading claims of energy efficiency, and hopefully to put us on the track to productive investment.
  1.  First there is Steve Hallet's excellent book, The Efficiency Trap, which argues the case on a parallel to over specialization in nature. Clearly if the problem is over-dependence on carbon-based energy systems, it is not merely like the Jevons paradox, that there is blowback, in the sense that increased efficiency reduces the cost of energy and thus raises demand. There is a deeper effect of throwing good money after bad, which is ridiculous at a time when renewable technologies are becoming easily cost competitive on the margin.
  2. Then there is David Owen's The Conundrum,  which deconstructs all our thinking about energy, and debunking solutions which make the problems worse.  It exposes the fallacies of energy efficiency and alternative energy on a deeper level.
These two books here are eye-opening, and will make sure that you never look at energy efficiency or even some of the renewable energy discussions the same way. This is the place to start to sort out the chaff from the wheat and learn to think for yourself about energy solutions.

Energy Investment, not Energy Savings

My focus continues to be on the viewpoint of the individual property owner, in terms of how to create maximum value from renewable energy retrofits. The only meaningful way to evaluate the issue is to look at your property value, and how you can increase it by going renewable. There are people who want to live net zero out of social responsibility, or religious conviction, but that is not interesting to me. It is interesting to me only when it is done on the basis of sound economics.
The trap we are falling into as a society is that typical programs we now have benefit either the utilities, the energy companies, or the manufacturers of e.g. solar panels. No program is looking at it from the standpoint of the economics of the property owner, and that is the only possibly meaningful way of approaching the issue. And, in many cases you will find that, with the right analysis, there is a hell of a lot that can be done, for energy is a big part of your running cost in a house.

Energy Efficiency done right

The right energy efficiency definition would make it clear that you first need to decide what your energy system should be, or you risk throwing good money after bad, and making your bad system more efficient, which is what happens a lot today. In other words, if it is done right, you would first implement renewable energy wherever it is economical and make the whole system as efficient as possible.
If you're spending $1,000/mo on energy, and you can eliminate 75% of that bill with a renewable energy retrofit that is $9,000 annualy in cash available to finance your conversion. And when you do make the changeover, you now have a permanent hedge against energy price increases, and mostly renewable technology has lower maintenance costs than fossil fuel burning equipment does. Most importantly, as part of your life-cycle planning for your property, you would consider ALL renewable energy technologies and prioritize them according to the highest yield, which today looks approximately as follows:
  1. Solar Thermal energy 85-95% efficiency.
  2. Geothermal 400% efficiency (it consumes electricity to run, but you might be able to generate your own.)
  3. Wind energy gives more bang for the buck in the right location than does solar PV, certainly when considering the footprint, so per square foot of space the yield is much greater than Solar PV.
  4. Solar PV, with efficiencies currently going from the high teens to the low 20s.
  5. Various passive thermal measures, insulation, glazing, thermal storage, and so on will complement the picture.
The currently prevailing paradigm is one of incremental "energy savings," and as a result people never treat these decisions as investments, but they serially fritter away the money, and the more 'efficient' they get, the more the power company is ensured of retaining their business. This is one good reason why power companies are happy to finance these efficiency programs.
We need to shift our focus to investing in energy, not merely saving energy, and for that we need always to have a 30 year energy plan, which includes life-cycle planning for all major componentry, such as boilers, and a/c plant. We need to realize that thermal technologies, both active and passive, are often not as easy on a retrofit basis, but if you can do it, they give the most bang for the buck.
Under the incremental approach, people buy e.g. solar panels and they save 10% on 30% of their energy usage, so they lowered their bills by 3%. The same amount of roof space, if it were used for a solar thermal system, could eliminate 70, 80, or even 90% of the energy bills, particularly if it is combined with passive thermal solutions.


Energy Efficiency and energy savings sounds good but they are the wrong approach for long term asset values, especially when they are done on an incremental basis, and without a plan. They are a greenwash of carbon-energy.
Investment in permanent energy infrastructure to improve asset values is focused on creating the maximal increase in your property value with a renewable energy retrofit and energy efficiency, instead of a greenwash of carbon-energy with energy efficiency alone.