When Energy Star becomes Counterproductive

Energy Star is a powerful label. It does a lot of good for simple decisions, such as a kitchen appliance (as long as manufacturers are not gaming the system). Yet it is frequently used in counterproductive ways when it comes to more complex decisions, and, the program itself is counterproductive if it focuses on energy efficiency alone, such as it does for buildings.

Energy star appliances

Provided you have good data on the actual consumption of appliances–which has not always been easy–the Energy Star idea makes decisions easy. You know you want a refrigerator, you expect it to live 15 years, and you live in NY, so you look at the price forecast, and you see that the reference case from the US Energy Information Administration forecasts flat electricity rates for the next 15 years, evidently the spike from a few years ago is behind us. If I look at my bills, my rate per kWh may average (all in) 35 cents per kilowatt-hour. And so, if one fridge burns 100 kWh more per year than the other, then I stand to save $35/year for 15 years. So far, so good. As long a the data is real, it is easy. The only real issue then is about the quality of the disclosures.

Energy star appliances as components in a building project

It gets more complex when Energy Star components are specified for building projects, as happens when lenders, or the IRS, have this in their specifications. All with the best intentions, of course. However, it leads to sub-optimal choices in many cases, because for a building what really matters is the performance of the whole project, not just of the component.

My favorite example is the tankless hot water heater, which is being heavily pushed on consumers, but frequently is the worst possible choice. Yes, if the only thing you could ever do was to heat hot water with gas, more efficient is better. But the truth is that you have options like solar thermal and geothermal and both can produce a substantial amount of free BTUs for your hot water (and maybe HVAC as well). If you do a proper 30 year net present value analysis, the systems with free energy (renewable), may outperform the system that merely offers energy efficiency, because you continue to have energy bills even if you reduce consumption by 20% compared to your previous heater. That still leaves 80%, plus you probably need to replace that heater at least one time in the 30 year period. In the renewable case, your energy bills might be reduced to 15-25% of what they were before, just for backup, or complementary heat. Now if there are incentives in place which favor one over the other, and get people to make worse decisions, that’s not good.

If you need a water heater for backup in a solar or geothermal install, an Energy Star rated 98% efficient heater with heat recovery (from the flue gas) may be the worst option, because not only is it much more expensive, but it will need to be replaced probably twice during the 30 years, because the heat recovery system will tend to become corroded when that heater is not running flat-out most of the time. You will get condensation, and maintenance nightmares. But the construction finance, or the IRS (tax incentives) specify that the components must be Energy Star, so your accountant wants to force you to use Energy Star equipment, when you know it will be a headache, and less economical in the long run. In short, in this case the Energy Star system might have made sense if it was a primary system, but it definitely is counterproductive as a backup system.

Energy star – Battle of the Buildings

At the building level the problem with the energy star approach really comes to the fore. Now it is all about majoring in a minor. Much ado about nothing. Whatever you want to call it. The major is Energy Generation, the minor is energy efficiency. When you major in a minor, you miss your objective. In this case the most energy-efficient solutions is often the worst one in the long-term. Energy Independence was the goal, and you focused on saving a nickel. You may win a prize, but the long-term value of your asset, your building will be depressed, if you chose energy efficiency of a carbon based energy infrastructure over a (more expensive) renewable energy solution that brings you energy independence. The reason is simple the 30% more efficient building will still use 70% of what it used before, and be subject to energy price swings as before. One or two price hikes can wipe that out. And the next investment in energy efficiency will run into a wall of diminishing returns, the next 10% of savings will likely cost more than the first 30%. To begin with the 10% savings off the original will now only be 7%, and it is a project you had on your original list, but you did not choose it, because you could get 30% from other sources. But now you’ve painted yourself into a corner.

If you can do one renewable project in that same building, and you are doing a proper 30 year financial analysis, you have now permanently replaced xyz amount of BTUs from renewable sources, and you still have all your options open. This is the beginning of

Energy Independence
Only free energy is really free

energy independence. Now if there is a price hike, you may decide to do more insulation, and the result will be that your original investment, which was covering 30% of the BTU load, now will cover 50% of the BTU load, so you are getting compounding returns on your subsequent investments. The building that started on energy efficiency without first doing the make or buy decision about energy sourcing (from the grid or from renewables) can only get 7% improvement from his next investment, but you can get 20%.

In short, the two investment paths are explosively divergent, and in the end the building that  went for energy efficiency and won a prize will pay for their foolishness with lower building values. The whole problem starts with looking at energy efficiency at one point in time, versus looking at a 30 year time horizon on a CAPM basis (NPV analysis). Counterintuitively, the EPA is sponsoring energy INefficiency and capital destruction by foolishly promoting energy efficiency at ONE point in time. What is needed first is a proper make or buy decision – renewables versus the grid. Building owners may get to be on TV with their buildings for being so efficient, but they’ll pay for it in lower building values.

Energy independence vs energy efficiency

To summarize, buildings are assets that last a long time, and they are complex energy systems which must be completely understood from the supply and the demand side before you can see what your best options are. Energy Efficiency of an existing carbon-based energy system may be your only option, but you can only make that decision by doing the 30 year economic analysis first. If renewables are an option at all they provide a long-term investment path with superior returns, and a realistic hedge against energy prices. Therefore they will provide for dramatically superior building values.

The upshot is: Energy Efficiency by itself achieves the opposite of Energy Independence in a Carbon-based system, and the Energy Star program is seriously counterproductive in these cases.