Building Automation and Beyond: Interview with Elijah Ercolino
On Wednesday, August 10, 2016, I spoke with Elijah Ercolino, Director of Building Automation Systems at Boston University to get his take on energy and the environment, especially as related to his working in building systems.
Being deferential, Elijah pointed me to Tommy Vitolo (for larger policy questions. I asked Elijah if Tommy really knows what he’s talking about and Elijah said, “He’s a quant guy. He does know what he is talking about.” Tommy is an energy expert who works for Synapse Energy Economics, providing expert witness for attorneys, with a lot of work regarding shutting down coal-fired generation for utilities. He testifies in terms of what it means, and “9 out of 10 times it is just economics, coal vs. gas can’t compete.” Tommy does time-series analyses with a time-based demand tool using data from independent service operators, looking at load peaks, generation and on hand, with an eye toward energy efficiency versus creating new power plants. Tommy, can I interview you for any rebuttals you might want to make about what Elijah says?
Elijah framed his own work as being that of a practitioner: defining, scoping, and developing energy projects. He doesn’t do it all, and doesn’t necessarily thrive in large corporate environments; but finds enough entrepreneurial opportunity at BU, working individually and with groups to get things done. He tries to be an innovator who takes charge, recognizing patterns and addressing any challenges around funding or bureaucracy. He works with utility folks, engineering energy-efficiency measures and making appeals for funding. Some projects are no brainers, with quick payback. They made a 10% energy reduction plan 3 or 4 years ago, and BU is approaching that target, even while growing as a university. He likens himself to a military field general who is active in the field, executing and being hands on in technology and engineering. Sample projects might include insulation, steam traps, condensing boilers, optimizing controls, and LED lights. He said, “I don’t mess with geothermal.”
I asked him more about the insulation work and he said that they insulated a 15,000 square foot building with the basketball courts because the compressed fiberglass that was blown in the 1970s was useless. There were air gaps; it was uninsulated and needed to be addressed so it was a good project. He worked with the utility and vendors and the utility paid for whole thing — “100%” — because it saved so much energy. It was about a $40,000 project for a solution that will last 15–17 years. It has a high net present value (NPV), spending $0 to get $500,000 in payback. He also said that steam traps are high performing. Controls can be compelling, deferring maintenance, “not just tweaking code.” Retro-commissioning (RC) is not easy; those are big projects requiring coordination. Lighting is “simple, scalable.”
I asked him about security and he said he gets into some security issues with IP addresses and subnets. Most of his focus is on energy and he works with others, coordinating, working with utilities. BU has a sophisticated group with data analytics on a homegrown platform which was a multi-year project. They have a database of interval data — gas, electric — that is weather normalized with good tools making for nice “eye candy.”
He said that renewables are tough in urban environment. There is “little you can easily do.” There are not so many big roofs at BU. And available space is determined by the amount of stuff on the roof. High rises are not great in terms of safety; there are structural setbacks for OSHA. Solar is incentive driven because the cost is high. BU tried to get SRECS (state renewable energy credits) for a big project but the “SREC market disappeared.”i
When I asked Elijah about innovation in solar, such as thin film, solar glass, and solar in building materials he said that I “was speaking like a futurist.” Dennis Carlberg at Sustainability at BU tracks innovations. Elijah reiterated that solar is only good with incentives, “Maybe Harvard will; but BU won’t.” He said that with power purchase agreements (PPAs) there is money for solar. He does not know the status of SREC III, noting that Charlie Baker is governor now and this is non-recovery [no ARRA funding] so it “won’t get sorted out before the election.” He has his own priorities to focus on so he wants to stay out of the political debates. Returning to the topic of new technologies he said that thin film and solar windows are at a minimum a 10 to 20 year reality so he focuses on insulation, steam traps, network lighting controls, retro-commissioning, and condensing boilers, and variable frequency drives which are done at BU.
Elijah was the founder of the BU Alumni Energy Club, which had great informal meetings at Pavement Coffeehouse (previously Royal Express) as well as some larger events. He says that now that his baby is 2.5 years old we can do the coffeehouse again. With two kids, ages 6 and 10, I said, “Yeah, it’s so easy after 2.5 years. You won’t believe how much free time you have on your hands.”
In terms of generation, he said that people are doing renewables and that offshore wind is interesting. But the real story is gas prices. Fracking changed everything — putting coal plants out of commission. I challenged him on the environmental issues associated with fracking and he agreed that is a problem but cited other issues — driving cars, smoking, people working dangerous jobs digging up coal for burning — saying, “it’s our capitalist system.” “Is fracking clean, no, but it is cleaner than coal — 20% on C02.” He said we are moving incrementally toward a solution. Is it “a bridging fuel?” I asked. He said, yes, could call it that. He hasn’t looked at the data; but a pipeline might be a 40 to 50 year bridge. He said fracking has its issues and some learning remains to be done; but they are learning how. At least they don’t have to deal with mercury and coal ash and safety underground. He switched his condo from oil to gas and the bill went from $10K to $2.K — that is the most compelling reason. It is “still a hydrocarbon, yes, but has 25% less C02 and costs one-third. “What about methane and leaks in pipes?” I asked. “That is certain, he said, “and cause for alarm for people at BU.ii Methane leaks kill trees.” But he said, “Look at the Exxon Valdez or Deepwater Horizon — there is no panacea,” noting that we live in a carbon intensive world. He just bought his first car in a while — a used Subaru with high miles that “gets me from point A to point B.”
He said he grew up off the grid; his parents put in solar panels because they didn’t want to be on the grid. Harvard might do that; but for BU a 10 year payback does not make sense. The 1%ers can do it. George Bush was using wind and solar on the roof in Kennebunkport and Texas is big on wind. But if there are no incentives then “a deal is not happening.” Incentives are needed to get that going as they did in Europe — Germany, Spain, France. “What about subsidies to oil and gas?” I asked, and he said, “If so, then those should be cut. They can compete on their own.” He said that if energy is not viable without incentives, public policy should treat them equally.
Elijah is also a town meeting member (TMM) in Brookline and I asked him about the energy issues facing the TMM. He said that there are not many, because, in the big picture, utilities cost less than 1% for the town. Benefits and labor and capital plans are much bigger. But the town is making good steps, moving to LEDs on roadways. He said that Tommy Vitolo is the expert, working on the Warrant article on community solar solar purchasing. Elijah is on the TMM Green caucus, which is addressing issues such as use of plastic bags, noting that there are pros and cons to those. There are pipeline resolutions; but they have “no teeth.” He said, “we are all reasonably aligned in Brookline.”
Elijah said he was tech excited — but he is now more of an applied person out to solve challenges. But he said he “loves his Popular Science and Popular Mechanics.”
ii BU professor Nathan Phillips is researching this: https://www.bu.edu/energy/research/technologies-engineered-systems/methane-emissions/
Proposal for MIT Climate Mitigation Solutions 2016 by mgevelber. Michael Gevelber is an Associate Professor in Boston University’s Mechanical Engineering Department. (Elijah’s former professor): “Minimizing HVAC Energy Use Through Low-cost Software-based Airflow Optimization” http://climatecolab.org/contests/2016/mit-climate-mitigation-solutions/c/proposal/1331588
“Eversource program increases Brookline students’ energy efficiency knowledge” http://brookline.wickedlocal.com/article/20151126/NEWS/151129514
“COMMUNITY CHOICE AGGREGATION SUBCOMMITTEE of the Selectmen’s Climate Action Committee” http://www.brooklinema.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Minutes/04082016-3699
“TOWN OF BROOKLINE DRAFT COMMUNITY CHOICE AGGREGATION PLAN Frequently Asked Question” http://www.brooklinema.gov/DocumentCenter/View/9760
“Tommy Vitolo on Green Buildings” http://www.tommyvitolo.com/issues.php