The Solar Decathlon’s Legacy

Another chapter of the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon has come to a close. This year saw the Stevens Institute of Technology team, entering with their SURE HOUSE, take top honors overall while also winning many of the individual contests including the coveted architecture and engineering categories. If you’re not familiar with the Solar Decathlon, see our previous post on my experience with the 2011 contest here.

The Stevens house focused a large portion of its design approach on structural and infrastructural resiliency in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. The college is personally familiar with the devastation of the 2012 storm as it lies on the west bank of the Hudson River in Hoboken, NJ, directly in the path of Sandy and other mid-Atlantic storms and nor’easters. The energy plan for the house emphasizes reduced energy use through high-efficiency building materials and appliances such as its robust envelop design and energy recovery systems amounting to an R-40 annual heat loss design. As communities continue to rethink their approaches to building concepts with respect to storm resistance, we’ll very likely see some of the design principles in SURE HOUSE influencing planners and designers.

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SURE House (Image courtesy of Stevens Institute of Technology)

But this is just one promising example of the advanced ideas present at the Solar Decathlon with the potential of making the jump from concept to commercial realization. With all the forward thinking that’s come out of past competitions, it’s actually quite common to look back at past entries and see, what were at the time, untested concepts that have since progressed toward commercial implementation. Many of the design concepts and inspiration behind the now-widespread ‘tiny house’ craze can be traced back to ideas that were forged or proven during past Solar Decathlons including: novel uses (reuses, really) for shipping containers, and dynamic structural elements such as moveable walls that allow the interior space to transform when the occasion calls for it. But aside from the incredible shrinking house, here’s a couple new technologies borne out of past Decathlons that have potential application in a much broader range of design for physical space.

In the 2011 competition, the Ohio State University team developed an innovative new approach to home HVAC and water heating with its integrated energyhawc prototype combining aspects of air conditioning, heating, water heating, ventilation, and dehumidification into a single unified system. Since 2011, the protoype has been continuously developed for subsequent competitions, an OSU capstone course, and now an emerging commercial product being brought to market.  energyhawc touts a SEER rating of 24 and boasts operational savings of 40% over equivalent code standard equipment amounting to a quicker payback period with greater environmental savings as well.

Similarly, the 2007 University of Maryland LEAFHouse (full disclosure, I was a team member, so I’m partial to this one!) developed a novel application of a dehumidification system with a liquid desiccant mechanism at its heart. The system used a partially exposed liquid desiccant waterfall to pull moisture from the air inside the house and trap it in the desiccant solution thereby reducing the massive conditioning loads on the HVAC system that are especially prevalent during summer and fall in the mid-Atlantic area. UMD explored this concept further in 2011 with their Watershed house where the HVAC team improved on the design by integrating a highly attractive chamber filled with plastic column packing spheres to increase the liquid-air reaction times for increased performance. The technology is patent pending and a new business has been formed to bring the product to market.

Watershed liquid desiccant wall (Image Courtesy of Stefano Paltera/US Department of Energy)

Watershed liquid desiccant wall (Image Courtesy of Stefano Paltera/US Department of Energy)

Since its inaugural contest in 2002, the competition has spurred Solar Decathlons Europe, starting in 2010, and more recently Solar Decathlon China in 2013. As the competitions and technologies continue to evolve, there’s no doubt that we’ll start to see even more novel engineering and architectural concepts reach widespread adoption.

ACEEE Publishes 2015 State Scorecards

ACEEE has released its annual “State Energy Scorecard” for 2015 that ranks states based on a variety of criteria such as: utility policies and programs, transportation policies, building energy codes, combined heat and power (CHP) policies, state government-led initiatives, and appliance standards.   A summary of key findings is detailed here, while the full scorecards for each state can be found here.

The top 10 states for energy efficiency are Massachusetts, California, Vermont, Rhode Island, Oregon, Connecticut, Maryland, Washington, and New York, with Minnesota and Illinois tied for 10th place.

It is noteworthy that renewable energy consumption is not included in the ranking criteria.  Although the installation or usage of renewable energy technology does not necessarily reduce energy consumption, it does reduce the consumption of energy generated using more conventional non-renewable methods such as coal and natural gas.  Since the terms “energy efficiency” and “renewable energy” seem to go hand-in-hand these days, perhaps ACEEE will include this criteria in future rankings as a measure of overall efficiency.

It will also be interesting to see how the rankings change within the next few years, as several states are in the process of changing their policies and programs.  In particular, New York State’s organization NYSERDA is revising their program to place a larger emphasis on the R&D of new clean energy technologies.  They are also in the process of phasing out incentives that they currently provide to energy-reduction projects.  Although the effect may be a short term reduction in the growth rate of the state’s energy savings, the plan is that it will spur greater long term energy savings and promote economic growth.

PepsiCo Converts to Biomass Energy in Brazil Plant

A PepsiCo oat processing facility in Brazil has converted their natural gas and diesel-powered steam boilers over to biomass boilers that run on oat hull waste.  See their full press release here.


Prior to the switch, the facility was milling the oat hull waste and selling it for livestock feed.  Now they will use 1,440 tons of oat hull waste for the biomass boiler, and sell the remaining for feed.  The project will reduce the facility’s overall energy consumption by 41%.

Are you looking to install a biomass project?  Our feasibility studies provide all the information you need to confidently decide whether or not a biomass-fueled project is the best investment for your needs.  Contact us here!

Antares to speak at the 2015 CNYSHE Healthcare Conference

On June 1, 2015, Jim Olmsted from Antares will be a panelist on the Energy Sustainability Panel at the 2015 Healthcare Conference to be held at the Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona, NY.  The panel discussion will discuss energy sustainability topics applicable to healthcare buildings including incentive opportunities for energy projects.  To attend the conference or for more information on the 1 day conference, please visit

The Cost of Saving Electricity

Antares has worked extensively with utility and state energy efficiency incentive programs in New York State.  We have seen many commercial and industrial customers through the process of applying for incentives, evaluating energy and cost savings, and determining an appropriate incentive for the project.  That’s why we were pleased to see this press release about the cost of energy savings produced by energy efficiency programs in 20 US states.  It shows how much of the cost is borne by the consumer versus the incentive program, and the variations in cost from state to state.  (Massachusetts projects seem to cost over twice as much per kWh as New Mexico projects – to the customer, too, not just the incentive program!)


Source: LBNL (as cited by press release)

There is a lot going on in this fun data set.  Here are a few of our thoughts:

  • Reports like this are all about the accounting.  It costs nearly the same amount to replace light fixture A with light fixture B whether you’re in Oregon or Alabama, but a program in one place may count the project cost and energy savings differently.  For example, one may look at the project on an incremental basis – how much more you spent to upgrade to the really high efficiency fixture instead of replacing with a basic fixture.  The other may not.  Do labor costs count toward the project?  A company’s internal labor costs?
  • How long an energy efficiency program has been in existence has a lot to do with the kind of projects it gets and the money it spends.  Over time, the “low hanging fruit” energy projects are done and the next best projects are a little more expensive and a little less appealing.  Call it the law of diminishing returns for energy efficiency.
  • Geography has a lot to do with the kinds of energy projects that programs fund.  These data include residential incentives, which focus on in many cases not just on appliances but also building envelope and HVAC projects.  For example, insulation projects may be common in a cold northern state with an elderly housing stock, while air conditioner replacements may dominate in a warmer southwestern state with a relatively new, efficient housing stock.

We do have to wonder what, say, Maine and Massachusetts are doing differently.  But we are happy to see proof that energy efficiency is still a lot cheaper than many energy generation projects.

Learning to Look Critically at Your Vendor Energy Savings

Whenever I talk to a vendor, I always learn something new because they truly are experts in their field.  With that being said, even though these guys are really good, you have to keep in mind that they don’t work for you, they aren’t your energy managers, and they aren’t the ones who answer to upper level management as to why a project isn’t performing adequately.  At the end of the day, only you can make the final call if a project is a good investment or not.

As part of their sales pitch, many vendors present a high-level energy savings estimate showing you just how much energy or money you could be saving by implementing their equipment.  It is important to keep in mind that these energy savings estimates are based on a series of assumptions that may or may not be totally inaccurate for your facility.  You’ll need to do a “sanity check” and then make the decision as to whether or not you can reasonably believe the provided estimates.

Things to Look For

The vendor analysis will usually outline a series of assumptions that were used to complete the calculations (and if they don’t outline their assumptions, you need to be extra careful!).  Check the following metrics to make sure that they line up with what you would expect for your facility:

  • Annual hours of operation – how long is your equipment really on?  How much product are you really using?  Check the assumptions against your historical data.
  • Equipment efficiencies – Check boiler efficiency (%) and cooling equipment efficiencies (kW/ton).  These can really vary depending on the age, type of equipment (ex: steam boiler vs. hot water boiler), and how often the equipment cycles on and off (more cycling = less energy efficient).  When in doubt, check out the ASHRAE rated efficiencies for your type of equipment and rated capacity for a good starting point, and then make adjustments as needed depending on your situation.  Want some more reading material?  I really like this write-up, which was done by a PE engineer out in California and talks about looking critically at boiler efficiency claims.
  • Utility rates – Your natural gas rates in $/therm and electricity rates in $/kWh.  Make sure you take into account your supply rates too, if you go through a third party provider.  And check out this article that Clair wrote on utility rates that may be just a little too optimistic for their own good.
  • Historical utility consumption – We frequently look at historical utility bills to make sure that the level of savings proposed makes sense.  Total up your annual consumption and compare it to the vendor energy savings.  Anything that’s really high is probably too good to be true.
  • Peak Loads – You may have three 100 ton chillers, but maybe only two of them operate at peak load.  The vendor won’t know this until you tell them.  Conversely, maybe you have separate winter and summer boilers.  When does each one operate throughout the year?

Real Life Examples

Facility #1 – This facility was installing a new tank-less hot water heater.  The vendor estimated that the facility was consuming 6,000,000 gallons of water each year, when in reality they were only consuming about 2,000,000 gallons (per their historical water bills).  This one assumption alone cut their energy cost savings down to 1/3 of the vendor’s initial estimate.  The vendor also estimated that the site was paying $1.00/therm of natural gas, when in reality the facility was paying close to $0.60/therm.  This cut their energy cost savings down even further.  The vendor estimated $30,000 in annual energy cost savings.  In reality, the energy cost savings were closer to $2,000.  Ouch…

Facility #2 – This manufacturing facility was upgrading their Building Automation System (BAS) that would automatically control their heating and ventilation units.  Initial vendor estimates projected that the facility would save a total of 80% of their existing natural gas consumption.  This magnitude of energy savings doesn’t seem realistic because the facility still needs to heat its large manufacturing area.  In reality, the projected energy savings are closer to 26% of the facility’s existing natural gas consumption.  Contributing factors to the over-estimation of the energy savings included over-estimating the facility’s annual run hours and under-estimating the new amount of outside air needed to keep the building pressurized.

However, not all of the projects that we evaluate are this far off.  Below is a bar chart summary of ten different vendor cost savings estimates versus the savings that were compiled by ANTARES for a random selection of past projects.  As you can see, some of the vendor estimates are close to, or even less than the energy cost savings that we evaluated for the project.  However, 2 of these 10 projects were disastrously different. It would be counterproductive to generalize from this sample, but in our experience, these are not isolated examples.

Vendor Savings Chart

What You Can Do

Make sure that your vendor has as much information as possible—utility rates, efficiencies, annual hours of operation etc.  The more information that you give them, the more accurate their calculations will be.  If you are spending lots of money on a new project – it may be a good idea to get a second opinion upfront, rather than pay for the forensic opinion after management asks you, “What went wrong?!”

New Pump Design Could Operate on Waste Vibrations

According to this article, researchers believe that an interesting new pump design that is loosely modeled after the flapping of bird wings could be powered with “waste” vibration from large equipment.  If so, replacing or augmenting pneumatic or even some kinds of motor-driven pumps with these vibration units could reduce pump energy intensity — one of the key energy consumers in industrial settings.  We look forward to seeing where this leads.

If you’re interested in ways to reduce your facility’s annual energy consumption, give us a call.  We have extensive experience conducting commercial and industrial facility-wide energy audits that help you to identify and prioritize energy saving projects.



The Hidden Savings of Super Bowl Sunday

ANTARES has always been an advocate for behavioral change as an important strategy in energy conservation, especially for our industrial and commercial clients.  For our clients, this can include becoming more proactive about maintenance schedules, eliminating task lighting, limiting non-essential uses of compressed air, and training staff to shut down process equipment when it is not in use.

Now while those measures are fine, they are not nearly as much fun as the method of energy reduction proposed in the article found here, which entails watching the Super Bowl.  The Washington Post reports that gathering up your friends and neighbors and huddling around your 50 inch LCD results in a measureable decrease in your electricity consumption, because your TV is typically the only appliance that’s being used during the big game.  Also, while not noted in the article, I can attest that a house full of enthusiastic sports fans fueled by a 7-layer dip has the potential to generate a significant amount of heat, potentially giving your furnace a much needed mini-vacation this time of year.  So with that in mind, we hope that you have a great Super Bowl Sunday, if not for the love of the game then for planet Earth!

How Do I Include Incentive Programs in my Decision Making Process? The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

For the past two decades, ANTARES has been in the business of helping its clients take advantage of government incentive programs to launch their renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. This has ranged from helping them secure funding for R&D efforts to rebates for commercial lighting projects. It is fair to say that we have covered a lot of territory on this front and I thought it might be valuable to write a short blog about how we think most clients should incorporate incentives into their decision making process. [Read more…]

Absorption Chillers – Answers to Common Questions

OK, so our first post on this topic — “How to Decide if an Absorption Chiller is Right for You” —was really popular. If you haven’t seen it yet, then you can check it out here. It looks like a lot of you are interested in seeing if absorption chillers will help you reduce your overall energy consumption. Congratulations on asking a very good question! Below is follow-up post that takes a closer look at some of the key things that people keep asking me about absorption chillers.
[Read more…]