Closing the Circle

By Steve Wiese, Director Implementation Services

One of the most satisfying aspects of my work is the ability to dive deeply into new areas of interest, which avoids silos that occur in other careers. This broad exposure keeps my work more interesting and enables me to provide greater value to our clients by proposing approaches garnered from other—sometimes unrelated—corners of the industry.

Steve Wiese (2001), Frontier Energy

I began more than 25 years ago with incredible opportunities to build new business models in distributed solar a decade before those markets began to explode. At the time, my colleagues and I pioneered some of the first solar leases and renewable energy credit trades in the US. These early experiences propelled further work, some of which I’m happy to say continues to this day.

Today, my team’s work is broadly diversified and encompasses gas and electric utilities; residential and commercial customers; low-income and market-rate projects; and program planning, implementation and evaluation. The range of technologies within our portfolio is broader, too, ranging from home weatherization to new building construction, and electric vehicles to load management. The largest component of our work involves delivering energy improvements to low-income customers.

My introduction to the ecosystem of programs that serve low-income communities got me thinking about solar in new ways. Under the right circumstances, rooftop solar can be competitive with other energy efficiency measures that have been funded for years via traditional mechanisms. If true, solar has great potential to reduce energy cost burdens within communities most in need and revive the moribund web of programs aimed at achieving these goals.

I recently helped pull together a dream team comprised of Frontier and key colleagues within the non-profit and utility sectors to identify and field-test these ideas. Our proposal, “New Pathways for Residential Rooftop Solar in Texas,” was selected for award by the National Renewable Energy Laboratories. During the next 18 months, our team will identify, refine, demonstrate, and evaluate strategies that widen access to residential rooftop solar among underserved communities.

While we are just beginning this project, I see it as the closing of a circle that began a quarter century ago. My career started with a new technology that was almost entirely limited to the wealthy. Now solar is becoming a viable option for nearly everyone.

—April 6, 2022

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Wrestling Successful Teams

By Ben Xiong, Program Manager

Ben coaching - Inspiring a team to be great

Ten years ago, I started coaching middle-school wrestling. Like many parents, it was supposed to be a volunteer, part-time thing to support my child’s enthusiasm. Today, I’m a high-school wrestling coach and am fortunate to have the flexibility in my schedule to manage my projects and my group of student-athletes.

As my Frontier Energy project management responsibilities and skills grew, I saw them reflected in the success of the wrestlers and wrestling team. I also found the skills I developed to keep teenagers focused and motivated also keeps my colleagues going.

At work, we know how important project planning is and I brought this skill to the wrestling program. Unlike work, I couldn’t just create milestones, assign tasks, and budget funds. I needed to understand all the personalities involved, parents and athletes, and their individual reasons for joining the team. I brought this lesson back to the office—a project plan isn’t an edict; it needs to be a starting point that enables others to bring their ideas forward.

The team was pretty small when I became head coach; many of the star wrestlers had graduated and we hadn’t been promoting the program. To rebuild, we needed to advertise. At Frontier, I lead outreach activities for several of our clients and I implemented those ideas for the team. We redesigned the logo and bought modern wrestling gear. We attended back-to-school events and talked to parents. We focused on non-traditional wrestlers and leveraged our female alumni to reach out to girls. We changed how people thought about wrestling and made it cool, accessible, and equitable. It’s the same way we market energy efficiency and electric transportation.

I also write a weekly summary about matches and tournaments that the school staff read over the loudspeaker and post on the school’s social media sites. The kids yearn for this attention, and it was a reminder that my staff yearn for it, too. I’m much better at acknowledging my colleagues and their contributions.

The most important work/coaching blend is about motivation—bringing out the best in people. All my projects have goals and metrics, a regular review of progress, and an end of year report. I do the same for the wrestlers. At the beginning of the season, each student-athlete writes down their short- and long-term goals, which we review throughout the season. Every practice becomes a step toward achieving goals, instead of tedium of repeating moves. We review goals during the season so they can reflect about their growth and identify the skills they need to develop next. It’s an application of best practices and lessons learned.

My work team and my student athletes inspired me to develop more skills, too. Last month I competed in my first Iron Man competition and beat my goal time. Next month I’m taking on new projects that will expand my technical skills. It’s great to work for a company that encourages both sides of my project management coin.

—December 16, 2021

Frontier, a Leader in Community Geothermal EM&V

By Adam Walburger, Vice President

Do you know that Frontier implemented the performance validation for a novel community ground source heat pump loop in Riverhead, New York? You can read it here.

We worked with NYSERDA, National Grid, installing contractors, and homeowners to analyze the effect of various system design features on system performance and to help the market understand the system design components that are effective and desirable in New York.

Ten manufactured homes in Long Island are on a centralized ground loop heat exchanger. Using our whole-stack approach for data-driven assessments, Frontier validated and collected readings from high-accuracy BTU meters on the central loop and the 10 individual heat pumps’ BTU meters, power meters, and other sensors. We combined the collected data and monthly bills to quantify the overall energy performance of the heating and cooling equipment, compare pre- and post-retrofit energy use, and determine energy, cost, and greenhouse gas savings.

BTU meter and heat pump
A BTU meter measures fluid flow and temperature difference between the inputs and outputs,
and calculates the energy transferred through the heat pump.
Frontier energy monitoring enclosure
Frontier’s energy monitoring enclosure that automatically collects, stores,
and transmits measured data points to our servers.

Frontier staff Nick Genzel and Carina Paton especially enjoyed interviewing the homeowners early in the project and again after they had experienced both a summer and winter on the community heat pump loop. Nick and Carina compared the homeowners’ perceptions to the measured reality.

“We found that homeowners saved more money than they expected or realized,” Nick said. “They talked about the electric bill they got every month but forgot about the propane or kerosene bill they no longer paid.” Carina added, “With quality data, we can prove the realized system performance and energy savings rather than rely on the homeowners’ feelings.”

This project was so successful that National Grid are now looking to replicate this model at scale in Upstate New York and Massachusetts.

Frontier is ready to support future demonstrations and on a much larger scale to promote this transformational electrification technology. We continue to work with NYSERDA to develop a performance monitoring standard that ensures collection of the data that is necessary to track and evaluate the performance of projects in NYSERDA’s Community Heat Pump Systems program. We also provide technical assistance to developers to implement these standards.

Contact Nick Genzel to talk about how we can help you quantify the performance of your community project.

—October 6, 2021

Nine Codes

By Alea German, Engineering Manager

August 11 was an exciting and emotional day. After many (and I mean many) stakeholder comments and poignant speeches from the Commissioners, the California Energy Commission unanimously approved the 2022 Building Energy Efficiency Standards. The adopted codes included nine prescriptive changes for existing homes that my team and I proposed.

It’s important to understand a little about how a proposal becomes a code.

For six years, I’ve worked on California energy codes with the Frontier team in Davis. For any proposal to be adopted, the benefits of each measure over its lifetime must be greater than the costs. It also must be technically feasible and market ready. To assess this we conduct background research, market analysis, and energy modeling. Our team estimates costs and impacts on statewide energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. We develop code language and meet with stakeholders in public meetings and one-on-one interviews to vet the proposal and collect valuable industry feedback. Detailed cost and feasibility evaluations balance aspirations for increased energy efficiency with the realities of construction industry practices and capabilities. Through all this we are continuously refining the proposal, giving it robust legs to stand on through code adoption and implementation.

Once our final proposals are submitted, the Energy Commission brings them through their rulemaking process. This involves more vetting, public meetings, stakeholder comments, and multiple iterations of code. Measures that make it through all of this go to Commissioners for adoption.

2022 Energy Code graphic by California Energy Commission
Graphic credit: California Energy Commission

Code work requires considerable effort and support from a large team of smart and dedicated people. It pays off for California by having the most-aggressive energy codes in the nation. Over the next 30 years, the 2022 Energy Code is estimated to provide $1.5 billion in consumer benefits and reduce 10 million metric tons of GHGs, equivalent to taking nearly 2.2 million cars off the road for a year. Expanded adoption of new energy-efficient technologies will help reduce costs of the technology over time. The new and revised code requirements are all cost effective and will make California buildings more energy efficient and better equipped to deploy advanced load management strategies.

And these nine codes? They will apply to 13 million existing homes, almost 60% of which were built before 1978 when the first Energy Code was adopted.

So, what’s next? Well, the 2022 Energy Code will become effective January 1, 2023. To prepare and learn more, reach out to me. We are already thinking about appropriate measures for the 2025 Energy Code. If you have ideas, let me know!

Frontier’s Nine Prescriptive Existing Home Code Proposals

  1. Expand the climate zones where cool roofs are required for steep-sloped roof replacements.
  2. Expand the climate zones where cool roofs are required for low-sloped roof replacements.
  3. Add a roof deck insulation requirement for low-sloped roofs at time of roof replacement in certain climate zones.
  4. Prohibit electric resistance space heating replacement equipment under certain conditions in most climate zones.
  5. Reduce the duct sealing target for altered duct and space conditioning systems in all climate zones for single family buildings.
  6. Increase the prescriptive duct insulation requirements in certain climate zones.
  7. Reduce the 40-foot trigger for prescriptive duct sealing and insulation requirements in all climate zones for systems serving existing zones and eliminate the trigger for systems serving additions.
  8. Add a prescriptive requirement for attic sealing and insulation for altered ceilings and when an entirely new or complete replacement duct system is installed in certain climate zones.
  9. Increase prescriptive attic insulation requirements for additions of 700 square feet or less in certain climate zones.

—August 30, 2021

Looking Back, Looking Forward

By Larry Brand, President

Last week I read IEA’s Net Zero by 2050 report. It calls for 240 million homes with rooftop solar, 1,800 million installed heat pumps, 85% of buildings to be zero-carbon-ready, appliances reduce energy use by 40%, about 80% of all vehicles are electrified, and 207 MT of hydrogen are used for transportation fuel.

It occurred to me that when some of our staff started their jobs, these things were in their infancy.

David Springer was an early pioneer in technologies like radiant floor heating, rooftop solar, heat pumps, and zero net energy buildings. (You can read about some of Dave’s innovations here.) He continues to be a leader in building code development. “Our greatest opportunity to influence the direction of energy efficiency improvements is through the California Title 24 standards process,” he said.

Our Food Service Technology Center, led by David Zabrowski, started in 1986 as a small monitoring project in the back of a PG&E cafeteria kitchen. It was the first time that anyone really looked at the efficiency of commercial appliances, and FSTC work directly led to the initial ENERGY STAR labeling for restaurant equipment…with some overlap into residential.

Food Service Technology Center (FSTC) in 1987
In 1986, Betty Ferlin established FSTC’s forerunner in a PG&E company cafeteria kitchen.
A year later FSTC moved into its own building.

In the early 1980s—more than a decade before the EV1—we operated a testing center for EV charging stations. We had to ship in EVs from Europe to run our tests. It wasn’t until California’s ZEV Mandate in the 1990s until automakers’ turned their attention to batteries and fuel cells. Now Chris White leads our government, utility, and industry clients in planning for the transition to vehicle electrification.

And hydrogen. When the California Fuel Cell Partnership was formed in 1999, all fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen stations lived at the office in West Sacramento. Under Bill Elrick’s leadership, FCEV cars, trucks, and buses are on the road every day and the first fuel cell ferry is poised to start operation.

You might wonder what we’re working on now that we could see in IEA’s next report. We’re exploring technologies related to building codes, power generation, energy storage, demand response, integrating EV charging with building electrical demands, grid-integrated heat pumps, and hydrogen-powered trains. And, most importantly, making everything more affordable and accessible so that no community is left behind.

We’re lucky to have a staff of seasoned experts and fresh-from-college ideas. And to have great clients and partners that are just as excited about what’s next as we are.

—August 4, 2021

Proving Energy Savings

By Angel Moreno, Sr. Program Manager

I develop deemed savings for TRMs. I know they are a great representation of average energy savings and are well designed by stakeholder groups of engineers, consultants, program administrators, and independent evaluators. Furthermore, they are vetted and approved by regulatory bodies such as public utility commissions, so you should have a good measure of confidence in the savings.

However, most homeowners implement multiple efficiency measures and it’s important to validate the savings in the field. My team takes on the challenge of testing the difference between the deemed savings and the meter-verified savings.

For a recent project we designed and applied a paired t-test: a statistical test that compares the mean values of meter-verified vs deemed on the same population of homes.

  • HYPOTHESIS: We proposed that the difference between the mean meter-verified result and the mean deemed result was zero.
  • STATISTICAL SIGNIFICANCE: The p-value is the statistical significance of the findings. If the p-value was below 0.05, we rejected our hypothesis (and concluded that there is in fact a difference) as this indicates that there is less than a 5% probability that the difference is zero.

We found that sometimes meter-verified savings were higher than deemed, and sometimes they were about the same.

Average Annual Energy Savings graph

So, what’s the big difference in HVAC? For HVAC equipment that gets replaced at the end of its useful life, the TRM assumes the old system would have been performing equivalent to a minimally code-efficient system, and uses NREL system performance curves to estimate consumption. However, those systems were performing well below code, and we can see that in the AMI data when we stratify HVAC by replacement type: end of life or early retirement.

We also dug into the attic insulation measure and found some interesting patterns when we stratified by baseline R-value. Savings in the categories of lowest baseline R-value (R-0, effectively no insulation) were significantly lower at the meter than the TRM estimated. But the population of homes in those lower baseline categories was relatively small. Most homes had existing baseline attic insulation in the R-9-14 range, and those homes outperformed the TRM estimate.

Ultimately, our findings resulted in changes to some of the TRM assumptions, which helped the deemed savings do a better job of estimating the true average savings in a portfolio of efficiency measures.

Is it time for you to check on how your portfolio is performing? Email me to get started. Want a job like mine? Visit our careers page!

How we did it: A Meter-Verified Study of Deemed Savings

Here is how we tested if advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) data measures up against deemed savings from the TRM:

1. We obtained project tracking data for 21,772 homes that installed attic insulation, air sealing, duct sealing, air conditioners, and heat pumps between May 2017 and June 2019.

2. Then we classified the homes based on the measure(s) installed (it is common to see more than one measure installed at a home), as well as by key parameters such as heating and cooling type, attic insulation R-value, and air infiltration reduction level. All in all, we had nine different measure combinations and 14 key parameter categories.

3. Applying the deemed savings from the TRM, we calculated ex ante energy and demand impacts for each home.

4. Next, we obtained hourly interval AMI data for those same homes from May 2016 through June 2020 because our analysis required at least one year of usage data for the periods before and after the measures were completed.

5. It was too much data for a spreadsheet—it crashed our computers. We wrote multiple scripts in Python to read the data.

6. To identify and remove AMI data that wasn’t suitable for analysis, we executed a rigorous data cleaning procedure. We were left with 11,969 homes after the data cleaning.

7. For each home that remained after data cleaning, we established customized best-fit multivariate regression models for pre- and post-installation periods, incorporating statistically significant predictor variables for heating- and cooling-degree hours, time of day, and a COVID variable to account for consumption changes resulting from stay-at-home lockdowns. We automated a linear regression for each °F combination of heating- and cooling-degree hours that output the model coefficients associated with the reference temperatures that produced the lowest prediction error.

8. Then we removed any homes whose models showed high prediction errors. That left us with 10,017 homes, which is just 46% of the original 21,772.

9. To produce weather-normalized hourly annual load profiles, for both pre- and post-installation periods, we applied the coefficients generated in the regression analysis to a typical annual weather profile (we used TMY3 data).

10. Oh yes, we also referenced a control group of non-participants to explore exogenous effects; those social, cultural, and market factors unrelated to DSM program activities. We found that the average weather-normalized consumption for the control group was slightly higher in the post-period than the pre, indicating that our analysis in the treatment groups (i.e., those 10,017 homes) is likely somewhat conservative in general. Meaning, a full accounting for exogenous effects is likely to increase savings.

—June 24, 2021

Data Entry Dog
Angel’s dog pitched in by monitoring the data cleaning procedure.

Lessons Learned

By Brandon Tran, Intern

software design photo

Internships create an important link between classroom learning and how those lessons apply in the real-world. I was a sophomore at The University of Texas at Austin, majoring in business and computer engineering, when I started my Frontier Energy internship. I joined the team that develops P3, a platform that utilities use to process energy efficiency programs.

As I finish my internship and start the next chapter of my career, I’m taking three important software design lessons with me.

Takeaway 1: Flexibility is really important.

Each utility and each individual efficiency program have their own unique—and sometimes intricate—requirements to complete processes like approving work and issuing payment. For example, when approving a contractor’s work, one program might require six steps to approve work and one to process payment, and another might require two work approval steps and six for payment processing. You can’t tell a business to change their processes because the software doesn’t work that way, and you can’t make software so rigid that changing a process takes months of reprogramming. P3 uses workflows that are a series of individual, granular actions that can work the way the utility works. This was huge for me in understanding how to design elegant software and have enormous flexibility for the customer.

Takeaway 2: Design for every user.

Many people are involved in an efficiency project and the user interface needs to be easy for all of them. I built the forms that customers, contractors, and utility program administrators used to enter data that would then calculate savings. It was important to give people instructions that were clear and easy to follow, and then to make sure to validate that data. Several times I found myself so involved with the validation and calculations, that I completely forgot about the user. I learned to always put the user first, and make sure what I design makes sense for every user and all skill levels.

Takeaway 3: Energy savings matter.

When I started, I knew very little about energy efficiency. By working on P3 and the Deemed Savings Engine, I learned about how state Technical Reference Manuals calculate the savings for energy efficiency measures. It showed me the importance of replacing HVAC, water heating systems, improving insulation, and other EE measures. I’ve seen the numbers. It makes a difference for utility customers and for the world.

As I close out of my time with Frontier Energy, I am very grateful for all the lessons I learned in the last 20 months. Certainly about software development, but also about working as part of a team with a common mission and goal. The mentorship and experiences in the workforce were vital to my education. I’m lucky to have had this opportunity and I am excited to apply everything I learned as I continue to work in the software space.

—May 28, 2021

Equity in Efficiency Programs

By Larry Brand, President

A new client recently asked if we implement equity programs differently than other programs. All our programs are equity programs—it’s important that every potential customer have access to incentives and rebates that help them reduce their energy and water use. However, we do have programs that target very specific customers—programs with income qualifications, for renters, for rural and agricultural areas, for small businesses, and others.

I asked Frontier’s staff about what they do differently to implement targeted programs. Steve Wiese said, “We administer five low-income programs in Texas and in New Mexico and they are driven almost entirely by agency and non-profit allies who refer individual customers.” Other staff concurred and said that when we launch a new program or target a new area, we look for established partners. “We connect with community-based organizations, churches, libraries, and family service agencies, and then conduct much of our outreach through them because they have close and trusted relationships to the end customers,” Steve said.

Diverse people

Acterra is a community partner in California. Executive Director Lauren Weston said, “Incentive applications can be very complicated. Our clients are best served by one-on-one consultations, screen sharing, paper applications, and phone support.” Since last year, Acterra’s team has been using Zoom to help clients fill out applications. “We share screens with our clients and walk them through each step of an application,” she said.

Steve said, “Most rebate and incentive programs have online applications and a way to easily attach electronic invoices, tax records, and other required documents. Online applications are impossible for people without internet access. In most of our programs, we have a way for applicants and partners to mail or fax an application and supporting documents. They can even call us, and whenever possible we’ll help them complete the application over the phone.”

Frontier is collaborating with The LEAP Institute, an organization that works with Spanish-speaking farm workers, on a rebate program that will minimize the required back-up documentation. The LEAP Institute’s executive director Rey Leon explained, “Many of our clients live in very remote areas. They can’t scan and upload documents because they are 40 miles from the nearest scanner. Reducing document uploads will remove a barrier for them to participate in EV rebate programs.”

In Frontier’s direct install programs, we minimize the time the customer must take off work or away from their family. Pre-inspections and assessments are completed virtually and the customer schedules installation at a time convenient for them. Frontier’s Katie Cooper said, “In our income-qualified programs, the first contact we have with the customer is when we come to install the measure. We do everything we can so that the customer thinks energy efficiency is very easy!”

Tina Neuhausel, Executive Director of Sustainable Contra Costa, said, “Equity is more than language and income. Equity is serving veterans and active military, single parents and grandparents raising their grandchildren, retired people and people who are just starting out in life—and those that might be starting again. Equity programs reach people where they are instead of asking them to come to us.”

Which brings me full circle. To reach people equitably, we do more than just build an online application and use social media to ask people to enroll. We design every program with personal touches that help customers find, apply for, and have great experiences.

—April 30, 2021

Talking Technology with Engineers

By Rich Myhre, Vice President

“Contrary to the stereotype, I believe engineers love to talk about their work and are capable communicators. The key to effective dialogue with engineers is to take the time required to understand the technical and economic trade-offs inherent in virtually every engineering decision.”

Terry Gross, host of National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air”, titled her memoir of interviews, “All I Did Was Ask.” My projects for the Electric Power Research Institute allow me to role-play Terry Gross when interviewing developers of advanced power generation and energy storage technologies. Here are a few techniques I use when interviewing engineers:

First, make sure the interviewee knows your audience is their peers: engineers who will select, build, operate, and maintain power generation and energy storage technologies. Utility engineers want the details underlying system and component designs, real-world costs, and the measures taken to assure operating flexibility, reliability, and longevity. This may be different from the interviewee’s normal audience. For example, founders and CTOs of startups are accustomed to talking to investors with a “pitch deck.” They may focus on market size and technology performance in best-case scenarios while simplifying both costs and the technology itself. In contrast, project engineers frequently talk to co-workers and suppliers, and may describe their systems, equipment, and controls in detail using supplier or company jargon. Although suppliers and power companies may use unique names for processes and parts, an audience of engineers will understand the concepts if described in terms of role, function, and materials of construction.

Rich Myhre - talking technology with engineers

Successful interviewing requires building rapport, being a good listener, and drawing out details at the right level to tell a full but easily digested story. Technology developers and plant operators are usually relieved to know you’ll share draft interview notes with them for review before publication, and often are willing to provide more information as a result. I ask clarifying questions, as needed, to be sure I understand their processes well enough to provide good drafts. Although technology developers will be guarded about their “secret sauce,” a middle ground between full disclosure and a black box can usually be found. Comparing and contrasting their technologies’ unique features with others known to the audience can help. I remind the interviewees of my interest in helping them put their technology’s best foot forward.

My goal to the audience is to describe technologies in matter-of-fact language, without marketing claims or opinions. Communication of engineering concepts is facilitated by diagrams, figures, tables, and graphs. The adage about a picture being worth a thousand words is certainly apropos.

If you are a technology developer I might interview, let me to offer a few tips. Start by explaining how your technology works, which aspects are based on proven components and materials and which aspects are novel or untested at scale, the steps remaining to market entry, and your plans for scale-up and cost reduction once the technology is commercial. After that, you can tell me how it stacks up against competitors. And keep in mind the audience’s priorities and bandwidth. They are keen on where you stand and what’s next, but may not have the time or interest to retrace the path that brought you to your current design.

In her book, Terry Gross wrote, “What puts someone on guard during an interview…is just the fear of being misunderstood.” When interviewing technology developers, my goal is to reassure them that my audience of engineers shares their interests: accuracy, context, and fair comparisons. This is an exciting time of transition in the power industry, with a great demand for concise, factual information on new technologies and their promise. I am fortunate to have the chance to facilitate communication among engineers. From my perspective, the process is fundamentally simple: All I do is ask.

—March 30, 2021

Everything I Need to Know about HVAC Systems I Learned from my Economizer

By Kristin Heinemeier, Engineering Manager at Davis office

I’ve been interested in economizers* for more than a decade. While they are one small component of a larger system, I see them as a microcosm of the entire HVAC industry—the issues that affect performance of an HVAC system can be seen in economizers, on a smaller scale. I learned:

“If you don’t know it’s broke, you ain’t gotta fix it.”

One field study found that two-thirds of economizers don’t work, which my surveys with contractors corroborated. Hidden on the rooftop, economizers are neglected, broken, or disabled to fix other air conditioning problems, or weren’t configured or installed correctly—or maybe never even connected.

“If everybody’s comfortable, there’s no problem.”

When an economizer is jammed open it brings in 100% outside air, summer and winter, and an HVAC system uses a lot of energy to condition the hot or cold air. Because comfort isn’t affected, it’s likely that the only way the problem is detected is by carefully and critically looking at energy bills.

“Installers and service providers have control over performance.”

I conducted an informal survey on the “HVAC Fault Detection and Maintenance” Facebook group and many said sometimes it’s necessary to leave the economizer nonfunctional to fix comfort or indoor air quality problems, even though the best solution would be a system-wide upgrade. Rather than troubleshoot and fix a potentially complex problem, it’s easier to jam a two-by-four in the damper and within minutes become the hero of the day!

“Owners have ultimate control over performance.”

Lower-priced economizers can have bad damper seals, inaccurate sensors, simplistic controls, and poor performance. When I co-wrote a mandatory requirement in California’s Title 24 to add diagnostics for all economizers, I was warned that alerting contractors wouldn’t do much: they often know the system isn’t performing and don’t say anything because owners don’t want to pay for a fix.

Left photo: Wire Harness not connected / Right photo: Jammed damper
(left) This economizer on an existing building had been installed years earlier but was never connected at all.
(right) With unintentional irony, a building operator used this economizer controller itself to jam the fresh-air dampers open to provide immediate comfort, with a disastrous cost to ongoing performance.

The solution to these economizer (and by extension—HVAC) problems is a win-win combination of quality factors:

  • Monitoring and diagnostics: to detect if a system is not performing and diagnose specific faults.
  • Inherently better (but possibly more expensive) designs: eliminating fragile linkages and adding redundant sensors.
  • Provide skills and time for quality work: enabling contractors to understand the entire system and giving them the time to diagnose the system and fix root problems rather than apply a band aid.
  • Provide accountability: Fancy controls and diagnostics are nice, but they won’t fix a broken industry. Manufacturers, installers, maintenance contractors, and owners should collaborate to make sure that systems perform well.


—February 26, 2021

* Code-required components on roof-top air-conditioning units that use fresh outside air to cool buildings instead of recirculating warm air.

Reducing Energy Use for C&I Customers

Energy Insight, Inc. joins Frontier Energy

“Our focus is on multifamily, commercial, and industrial,” said Matt Haley. On January 1, Matt’s company, Energy Insight, Inc., merged with Frontier Energy. “We bring 30 people who are experts in program design, auditing, installation, and implementation of electric and natural gas conservation programs. In exchange, we have a wealth of new capabilities to offer our clients.”

The team supports C&I clients from two offices in Minnesota, plus staff onsite at two utilities, and provides services to 24 municipal and investor-owned utilities in the Midwest. “Our staff interact with about 1,300 commercial and industrial customers a month,” Matt said. “They range from churches and offices to small businesses like muffler shops and bakeries to huge manufacturing plants. It’s a great job; we get to travel all over North America, see how businesses make things and contribute to the economy, and help them save money by reducing their energy use.”

Frontier Energy Minnesota staff

Matt talked about three facilities that stood out during his team’s 30 years of conducting audits: Kenny’s Candy, a Minnesota company that makes licorice twists and gummies, “it was fascinating to watch the production of quality candy and help them figure out how to reduce their energy footprint.” A plant that manufacturers night vision goggles, “it was the most complex, technology-driven manufacturing process I’ve ever seen.” A 40-acre food processing plant that makes SPAM and other packaged meat products. “It took us two weeks to assess every piece of equipment that used compressed air, electricity, natural gas, water, hot water, chilled water and steam and then break out energy costs and savings for each of the 30 products in one plant.”

The team also conducts four types of energy/economic studies for C&I customers nationwide: Compressed Air, Steam Trap, Energy Analysis and Audits (ASHRAE), and Sales Tax Exemption. “Our process is thorough,” Matt said. “Our comprehensive approach identified significant opportunities for clients to save electricity, natural gas, and water. For example, our recommendations for Cortec Advanced Films’ Cambridge facility can reduce their electricity use by 11% and natural gas use by 22% for a combined annual cost savings of nearly $51,000!”

“The Minnesota team is a great fit for us,” said Larry Brand, Frontier Energy’s president. “In addition to their technical skills, they share our core values for teamwork, customer service, and integrity. We’re very happy to have Matt and his talented team join the Frontier family.”

Ready to learn more about our new C&I offerings? Email Chris White.

—January 22, 2021

Lessons from ARRA Funding

By Nancy Barba, Manager Los Angeles Office

Economic Recovery sign - Lessons from ARRA Funding

The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding was an amazing, and unparalleled, opportunity. I helped implement, administer, and secure $30 million in funding for home upgrade programs that had lasting impacts and shaped the way I design programs today. As I talk with clients about “shovel-ready” programs should federal funding become available in 2021, I’ve been sharing four lessons I learned from my ARRA projects.

Lesson 1: Be prepared to move the money.

The programs I implemented were funded through the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program, a new $3.2 billion block grant that DOE administered and just one sliver of DOE’s massive economic boost. Each EECBG recipient had to move the money fast. Our local government partners and clients aimed to retrofit 30,000 homes by scaling up existing whole-house retrofit programs. As the implementer, Frontier Energy soon discovered that existing programs couldn’t scale as fast as they needed to. My team pivoted and designed a faster, more flexible program, Flex Path, that had its own timeline and tempo. For future funding, we’ll focus on pace and scale simultaneously by leveraging existing resources and workforce instead of tagging on to other programs.

Lesson 2: Design programs for the people with the fewest resources.

Whole home retrofit customers tended to be more affluent homeowners. Flex Path used a combination of measures from a menu-based approach, varied incentives, and reduced upfront costs for homeowners, that increased the number of moderate-income customers that participated. However, the program was still out of reach for many low-income households. In future programs, we’ll incorporate alternative financing mechanisms, like on-bill financing, and the layered incentive approach that we use with clients’ EE programs today.

Lesson 3: Concentrate on the workforce.

ARRA programs included extensive consumer education and advertising to drive demand. We found that despite all the mass media investment, retrofits were triggered by a homeowner’s problem, like a broken water heater, and driven by the participating contractor. We shifted budget from consumer outreach to contractor co-op marketing and saw a direct correlation between marketing and retrofits. We use a contractor-focused approach in other EE programs with the same result and will design future programs with the workforce as the motivating element. If a program or measure makes business sense, then the contractor will help it make sense to the consumer.

Lesson 4: Be prepared for the money to run out.

We were relentless in getting non-ARRA funding and continued the program for several years. However, all programs end eventually and when it did, we saw many grantee programs’ momentum fall off a cliff. Contractors that built a business around energy efficient technologies couldn’t sell them without generous incentives. Some contractors closed shop and others returned to box swapping. In our current programs, we teach contractors about a range of equipment, techniques, and sales approaches so they can maintain the push for energy efficiency when the rebates end.

If the new administration launches an energy stimulus package, it will likely build on the principals of 2009 ARRA and incorporate many of today’s issues including equity, affordable housing, and assisting small businesses.

I’m interested in your thoughts about ARRA and what we might see coming from DOE next year. Send me an email and connect with me on LinkedIn.

—December 10, 2020

Hot Tubs and DERs: A Lesson in M&V

By Dan Robb, Frontier Energy DER Expert

Hot tubs and DERs image

In August, my wife and I bought a house because 2020 wasn’t quite crazy enough! The home sat vacant for months; the appliances, HVAC, and other systems hadn’t been touched for a long time. During our final walkthrough, it occurred to me that the hot tub sitting in the backyard was full of water, but I had no idea how if or how it would work. It made me think of the energy systems that I’ve been monitoring for years.

I perform monitoring and verification (M&V) for complex distributed energy resources across the U.S. Some DERs, like photovoltaic panels and battery storage systems, have no moving parts and operate in silence. You can stand next to one and have no idea if it’s working well—or working at all. Others, like offshore wind farms or fuel cells located on the roof of a high rise, are in places that makes visual verification nearly impossible. Companies and utilities want to make sure the DER are working at peak efficiency and that the energy production, emissions reductions, and provided grid support are correctly credited so they can be monetized.

Here’s what we do. When the DER is installed, Frontier adds sensors to record and collect interval performance data. The exact requirements vary significantly depending on several factors, however actual on-site measurements are always required. A datalogger records the sensor readings into a time-stamped data file that is then uploaded to our system for verification.

In its most basic form, verification ensures that the data is accurate and includes documenting the chain of custody of data from sensor to recording device to transmission. This process includes many data quality checks to ensure the authenticity and accuracy of the data. Data quality is always important but is crucial to the companies that generate renewable energy credits (RECs) for programs like California’s LCFS and SGIP, New York’s NYGATS, WREGIS, New England’s FCM, and Massachusetts’ APS, and SREC programs. Frontier is a trusted third-party verifier and data provider for these and other REC programs.

Back to the question that I am sure is on your mind—the hot tub. The home inspector said it was in working condition but when my wife first turned it on, only one of the eight jets worked. I trusted the inspection report but didn’t verify the data. Now I’m monitoring its water-heating performance to decide if it’s worth repairing. I have higher hopes for the furnace, especially now that we received our first snowfall of the season here in Upstate New York.

—November 23, 2020

Forecasting EV Sales in Your Territory

By Chris White, Sr. Manager, Transportation and Power

EV Formula Mix bowl

Who has the “right” recipe for chili? In Southern Indiana, where I grew up, chili has spaghetti and a side of peanut butter bread. When I moved to Ohio, beans replaced spaghetti and Fritos were the garnish. With each move—Texas, Louisiana, East Coast, and California—the chili was different, and equally delicious.

Methods of forecasting EV growth are as varied as chili recipes. This is a technique I use to estimate EV adoption based on population growth and new car sales. It can point out actions a utility or local government can take to encourage a greater number of new car buyers to choose an EV and measures that can keep used EVs in the local market. (Think of it as adding your own spices.)

The EV Sales Projection Recipe

1. Define the geography.
I prefer to use census tracts and exclude non-residential areas; it might be faster to select by major metropolitan areas or county and factor in that some sections will have few households.

2. Estimate the new car buyer population.
This is a great summary of Federal Reserve Bank data about the new car buyer demographic. Find the number of households in your geography that match the demographic and the mean or average number of vehicles in each household.

3. Estimate past new cars sales.
Use your state’s New Car Dealers Association and DMV registrations, if available, to find the number of new light-duty vehicle sales in the same calendar year as the demographic data. Take note the percentage cars and light trucks and by classification (luxury, SUV, compact, etc.). The level of detail of this data varies from state to state and may include fleet vehicles.

4. Approximate the number of new cars in the geography.
Divide the number of households by the number of new light-duty vehicles. This is where working at the census tract level is helpful.

5. Estimate percentage of EVs.
Use DMV or rebate data to find the number of new EVs in the same year as steps 2 and 3. If possible, note percentage of sale by EV type—SUV, sedan, luxury. You might also want to eliminate PHEVs from the EV numbers.

6. Forecast population growth.
Add data to estimate the number of households likely to buy a new car during the next 10 years. This might include population change, land use planning, and transportation planning that can increase—or decrease—the number of detached homes. Some places have detailed data, others assume 1% population growth per year for the region.

7. Forecast new car sales.
New cars sales have been stable since 2015, including this year. Although no one knows what 2021 will bring, assume that the same percentage of households will buy a new car every year for the next ten years.

8. Plug in the EV percentage.
Use the percentage of EVs in step 5 to estimate the number of new EVs every year for your “business as usual” forecast. You can increase the percentage of EVs each year or two based on the predictions of makes, models, and price ranges. This is why knowing the percentage of light trucks in the geography is helpful.

With this baseline data, we can figure out when the percentage of EV sales needs to ramp up to meet a local goal or how to plan infrastructure to broaden the appeal of EVs to certain market segments.

Email me for the spreadsheet to use as a template for your own market estimates or give me a shout if I can help. Or we can trade chili recipes.

—November 2, 2020

Using OBF to Make Efficiency More Equitable

by Chris Bradt, On-Bill Financing Lead

For generations, utilities have delivered light, power, water, and heat to their customers’ doorsteps and the customer takes it from there. More recently, utilities recognized that what customers do behind the meter matters and started incentivizing energy and water efficiency upgrades with rebates. This has unintentionally created an equity gap. Rebates are effective for residents and businesses who have savings accounts or access to affordable credit, but for many these financing mechanisms aren’t available.

Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, San Leandro, Piedmont, Emeryville, and Albany residential security map

The picture above is a 1939 map of Oakland, Berkeley, and surrounding communities. In the 1930s, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, a federal agency, rated neighborhoods to guide investment. The red areas, which were predominantly communities of color, were deemed the greatest financial risk. “Redlining” made it difficult for residents to get loans for homeownership or maintenance, which led to cycles of disinvestment. Nearly 80 years later, redlined neighborhoods across the county are largely low-income areas. Residents and businesses tend to have smaller financial reserves and less access to credit, which significantly decreases their ability to participate in utility programs. These customers, however, can reap the greatest financial and environmental benefits from efficiency upgrades.

Residential customers

On-bill financing can make efficiency upgrades more equitable. With a unique approach called tariffed on-bill financing, the utility helps their customers invest in efficiency. The utility pays for measures up front and the customer repays the utility over time on their monthly bill. The customer sees an immediate, but small reduction in the utility bill and if the customer moves, the new customer assumes the payments. Other models for on-bill financing operate similarly, but typically involve a loan that the customer repays in full if they move, which can be difficult for customers with financial constraints.

Frontier implements OBF programs for several electric and water utilities and we’ve learned three valuable lessons:

1. For the customer that finances efficiency, the value proposition is very different from that of solar. Efficiency savings and ROI can be incomprehensible to customers, especially for projects with multiple measures. It’s important that outreach and marketing clearly communicate the immediate benefits of increased comfort, improved performance, additional safety, and/or better indoor air quality.

2. The utility bears some financial risk, but like other utility investments the risk is low. If a housing unit is empty or the resident doesn’t pay the utility bill, the on-bill investment isn’t being repaid. Financial partners can offer a no-payment grace period or a loan loss reserve, but the partner is typically paid for taking the risk through an initial stake, higher interest fees, or service fees. An advantage of on-bill tariff is that charges collected from all ratepayers backstop the investment. In the tariffed on-bill programs that we work with, unpaid collectibles are less than 0.1%.

3. Financing programs, whether loan or tariff, trigger statutory and regulatory issues that utilities are unfamiliar with, like the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and state credit protection laws. Lending laws are unfamiliar to many utilities, but they are not as scary as you might think.

It’s my personal mission to help people use less energy and water. I often think about how we, as an industry, can change business-as-usual practices to reach people who can least afford efficiency upgrades and yet stand to benefit the most. Contact me at [email protected] and connect with me on LinkedIn and let’s share ideas.

—September 25, 2020

Solar PV, Battery Energy Storage, and EV Charging

by Adam Walburger, Frontier Energy DER Expert

As municipalities and utilities begin to shift their fleet vehicles to all electric, they are also considering battery energy storage. BES can keep charging stations operational when the power is out and reduce costs associated with demand charges. However, the costs associated with solar PV and BES can be substantial.

Frontier and our partner DKS Associates are creating year-by-year plans to transition light-duty fleet vehicles to electric by 2030. My team’s role is to model the additional electrical load that car charging adds at facility, and then estimate hour-by-hour energy consumption and cost, including potential demand charges.

Central Garage EV Charging Data Profiles

Most clients have one or two primary overnight parking locations and several additional “domiciles,” each with a handful of overnight cars. Vehicles’ duty cycles range from less than five miles a day to more than 100 miles a day. Therefore, each domicile has a unique energy profile. Some will never draw enough power to slip into a demand charge while others could see demand-setting events several times a day. In areas with pervasive PV installations, utilities’ peak periods are shifting from late afternoon to early evening, which will coincide with charging times as fleet EVs return to their domicile location for the night.

Corp Yard Typical Day DER Operation

With a good picture of energy demand, we review satellite images and building plans to determine if a domicile has enough physical space for PV and long-duration BES. (Pre-COVID we did site inspections, but we’re getting good at estimating roof and parking lot sizes from Google Earth.) Off-site storage is also an option but hasn’t been feasible in any of our completed transition plans. In current projects, our model shows that BES yields a reasonable payback at only one or two domiciles, and not necessarily a primary parking location. BES has the best return on investment at locations at which high-mileage vehicles charge—those that return to base every day with a nearly depleted battery—by time-shifting low-cost PV generation into the early evening hours to offset a portion of vehicle charging needs. Currently BES is a costly option and for most fleet domiciles the more cost-effective approach is to combine load management and behavior change. As prices decline, we expect BES deployment at additional facilities to meet the dual goal of resiliency and ROI.

For many of our clients, though, EV transition is part of a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and decarbonize their buildings and fleets. Our transition plans to date show that opting for a zero-emission fleet, including BES instead of generators, can reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions from light-duty vehicles by more than 95%.

Interested in how this could work for you? Drop me an email.
[email protected]

—August 25, 2020

The First ZNE McDonald’s

by Richard Young, Director, Frontier Energy Commercial Foodservice

In 2014, Frontier Energy’s Food Service Technology Center (FSTC) partnered with New Buildings Institute and Rocky Mountain Institute to model a zero-net energy quick service restaurant for McDonald’s Corporation. Last week, McDonald’s announced completion of a first-of-its-kind zero-net energy quick service restaurant that uses many of the recommendations in the modeling study.

According to DOE, a zero-energy building has an energy use intensity (EUI) of 20 to 30 kBTU per square foot per year. A typical office building has an EUI of about 70. A quick-service restaurant, like McDonald’s, has an EUI between 600 and 2,000 due to energy-intensive cooking, holding, sanitation, refrigeration, and ventilation equipment.

A typical McDonald’s has a small footprint and very limited capacity for onsite PV. To get to ZNE status, we had to decrease energy use by 60% compared to a best-in-class McDonald’s. We met that goal by focusing on an integrated design with four strategies:

  • Capturing and reusing waste heat from refrigeration, dish machines, exhaust air, and equipment flues to preheat water and augment the HVAC system
  • Extremely efficient ventilation to minimize airflow rates and the transfer of waste heat to the building HVAC system
  • Sensors and controls to reduce standby energy losses
  • The most energy-efficient appliances for cooking, holding, and refrigeration

Reducing or eliminating stand-by energy consumption is a challenge in commercial kitchens, particularly for quick-service restaurants. Griddles, fryers, ovens, toasters, warmers, and espresso machines need to be hot and ready to prepare the next order even when customer traffic is slow. FSTC-tested appliances that “sleep” when business is slow and quickly ramp the heat back up to serve customers were a key component in the study, and we were glad to see that the ZNE McDonald’s implemented many of these appliances.

Now, more than ever, restaurants need to find ways to reduce energy costs. Every restaurant can significantly reduce their utility bills by using energy and water efficient appliances. Read the results of a plug-load study that Frontier recently finished or contact me to brainstorm ideas for making any hospitality business more efficient and ZNE-ready.

—July 21, 2020

Red Frog: Off-Grid Island Resort

Red Frog resort in Panama - Green Globe certified

“It’s the right time to invest,” said Gerardo Aguilar of MGM Innova Capital. “We want Red Frog to be ready for the turnaround!”

Red Frog Beach Island Resort on Panama’s Bocas del Toro archipelago, was designed in concert with nature. “When we founded it 17 years ago, our goal was to be socially responsible and environmentally sustainable,” said CEO Joseph Haley. “Our first steps were to preserve 80% of the property as a nature preserve and establish a foundation to improve the lives of the people who live in the nearby community. Then we built a beautiful eco-conscious property that has more natural forest than when we started.”

In 2015, Frontier Energy’s Energy Insight team conducted a comprehensive certification process that made Red Frog the first Panamanian destination to be Green Globe certified. “The resort had to meet 340 criteria, including sustainable management, environmental practices, social and economic elements, and cultural heritage,” said Energy Insight’s Tanuj Gulati.

The resort is not connected to Panama’s electrical grid. “We have to generate our own power,” Joseph said, “and as you can imagine, a vacation resort has significant electrical demands.” That’s where Gerardo comes in.

MGM manages private equity funds to implement projects that can mitigate climate change while generating financial, social, and environmental benefits. “We started working with Red Frog and Costa Rica-based Verde O Nada to reduce their need for diesel,” Gerardo said.

Maintaining solar panels at Red Frog
Maintaining solar panels with rain water catchment

“The first step was to add solar and integrate it with the diesel generator to create a microgrid. It reduced fuel by 40%, but solar only provided about 20% of the energy needed,” said Verde O Nada’s Michael McKuen. “Then we worked with Energy Insight to increase efficiency by installing LED lighting, new HVAC, pool pumps, and more efficient controllers.”

Early in 2020, the team started working on the next step of Red Frog’s energy independence by adding 1.7 MW of solar and a 4 MWH battery storage system. “Verdo O Nada already manages Red Frog’s microgrid and the BSS will be one more tool to use,” Michael said. “The BES will substantially reduce Red Frog’s energy costs even as the owners repay the investors.” Joseph added, “These DER assets add value for our villa owners now and in the future.”

When the COVID crisis hit, Panama closed its airport and tourism stopped. The team didn’t even consider slowing down the project. “This is the best time to do it!” Gerardo exclaimed, “The resort is empty, so guests won’t be bothered. The construction workers can stay in the student housing to avoid the boat commute to the island.”

“It’s a heavy financial investment, even in a booming economy,” Gerardo said. “We’re bullish that tourism will return, and our technology will provide clean energy for Red Frog’s owners and visitors,” Michael added.

“There’s no better time to do this,” Joseph said. “We are starting to receive requests for long-term villa rentals. If you’re working from home, why not work from paradise? Long-term, it’s a smart and responsible investment for our resort and for the environment.”

—June 24, 2020

Unlocking Direct Installs in Texas

Karya Management manages 53 multifamily properties throughout the Houston, Texas area. “Karya Management’s philosophy is to create a community,” said Swapnil Agarwal, CEO and founder of Nitya Capital and Karya Management. “We don’t just manage the properties. We incorporate activities like after-school programs and established a foundation to invest in quality of life initiatives for our tenants, employees, and the community at large.”

Karya takes advantage of energy efficiency programs that Frontier Energy administers for CenterPoint Energy. “It helps tenants manage their bills,” said CenterPoint Energy’s Chris Lallier, “and helps reduce the load on the grid and conserve energy.” In the Multifamily Direct Install Program, contractors install LED lights, faucet aerators, low-flow showerheads, and water heater pipe wrap in apartments at no cost to the property owner or tenants.

In late April, Frontier Energy’s Steve Wiese called Karya’s regional manager Suresh Chachlani to discuss shifting timelines for already-scheduled work due to shelter-in-place orders. “We started talking about opportunities for direct install work at other properties and realized that the key to unlocking work was to train Karya Management’s maintenance staff to do the installations.”

“Our three properties in Baytown (Texas) have older, less efficient buildings,” Suresh said. “We expect that most tenants will continue to work at Baytown’s refineries because they are essential workers, but they will also spend much more time at home. We could be proactive with the Direct Install program to help tenants control their energy bills.”

Suresh Chachlani, Karya Management, and Edwin Velazquez, Frontier Energy, prepare to conduct a walk-through audit of a vacant apartment to order materials for a direct install that Karya’s maintenance staff will perform.
Suresh Chachlani, Karya Management, and Edwin Velazquez, Frontier Energy, prepare to conduct a walk-through audit of a vacant apartment to order materials for a direct install that Karya’s maintenance staff will perform.

Using the maintenance staff to do the work was a great solution. “Each property is like a family; the employees and tenants all know each other,” Suresh said. “It wouldn’t be like letting a stranger into your home. We can strictly oversee the proper use of PPE and maintain sensitivity to tenants’ needs.”

The Karya team immediately started contacting tenants at all three properties via letters, emails, and phone calls to let them know about the project’s benefits. Karya also communicated that the process would help ensure the safety of tenants’ families and maintenance employees.

In early May Frontier Energy’s Edwin Velazquez led a walk-through audit of three vacant apartments. “We identified thousands of opportunities for LEDs to replace existing incandescent bulbs,” he said. After the audit, Edwin ordered materials and modified the installation plans for the maintenance staff. “Materials are expected to arrive around May 18, and installations in 480 units at three properties should be complete by early June,” he said.

The LEDs will help every tenant reduce electricity loads and lower the electric bills during the hot Texas summer. The project helps Karya Management demonstrate its ongoing commitment to conserving energy, helping the community, and—most importantly—helping tenants.

—May 14, 2020