Knoxville and the stimulus

A curious article in Wednesday’s New York Times about how US cities are going to use the flood of stimulus money earmarked for energy efficiency. The story’s focuses on Knoxville, TN and a group of energy auditors hired by the city to root out inefficiency in public buildings.

What the Times doesn’t say is that these audits are being done in advance of an Energy Savings Performance Contract (ESPC) that the city may enter into with Ameresco. You can read about that in this article from our local paper. Unless I’m mistaken, the potential ESPC has little to do with the stimulus funding, though perhaps some of the funds could be applied to the ESPC.

The great thing about an ESPC is that it’s revenue neutral. As an example, suppose the city of Knoxville is paying $1,000,000 per year in utility bills. An Energy Services company (ESCO) performs an audit and identifies $1,000,000 in energy efficiency upgrades that the city needs (new chillers, boilers, more efficient streetlights, etc.). These upgrades promise to reduce the city’s utility bills by $200,000 per year.

Under an ESPC, the ESCO secures financing and installs the new equipment at no charge to the city. The city agrees to pay the ESCO $200,000 a year until the loan is paid off.

So before the ESPC, the city was paying $1,000,000 in annual utility bills. After the ESPC, the city pays $800,000 per year to the utility and $200,000 to the ESCO. The ESCO makes a profit and keeps people employed. The banks make a profit on the loan. The taxpayers win because the city’s costs remain the same and they do not have to raise my property taxes.

Another blog for my feed

The about page for Data Evolution says the blog is “dedicated to exploring the disruptive changes underway in global data markets,” and their interests seem to overlap quite a bit with my own: statistics, data visualization, R, public policy, etc.

I particularly liked the post entitled What can Darwin’s finches tell us about the downturn. If you’re getting tired of the doom and gloom coming out of Washington these days, read this post. It’s one of the few things I’ve read lately that makes an attempt to look on the bright side of the current crisis.

Naturalists studying Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos Islands had found that during the wet season — when food was abundant — all birds were well-fed regardless of the length of their beak. But in 1977, an extended drought left only one in seven finches alive on the islands. Those that survived had longer beaks, which presumably gave them an advantage in finding food. “The birds were not simply magnified by the drought: they were reformed and revised. They were changed by their dead. Their beaks were carved by their losses.

The post concludes:

Downturns are not only good for innovation, they are necessary. While innovation may occur in times of plenty, crises allow the right innovations (hybrid cars) to outcompete the wrong ones (SUVs). This assumes that crises are allowed to run their course (the case against bailouts), but that there are at least some survivors (the case for them).

Three Quotes from Tukey

John Tukey (1915-2000) has been called the father of modern exploratory data analysis and data visualization. These quotes (the first two via The Endeavour, the third from his Wikipedia article) should be read and taken to heart.

To statisticians, hubris should mean the kind of pride that fosters an inflated idea of one’s powers and thereby keeps one from being more than marginally helpful to others. … The feeling of “Give me (or more likely even, give my assistant) the data, and I will tell you what the real answer is!” is one we must all fight against again and again, and yet again.

The data may not contain the answer. The combination of some data and an aching desire for an answer does not ensure that a reasonable answer can be extracted from a given body of data.

Far better an approximate answer to the right question, which is often vague, than an exact answer to the wrong question, which can always be made precise.

That said, a few years ago I purchased a copy of Tukey’s Exploratory Data Analysis. It contains a lot of great ideas, but I must say that if ever a book needed an editor, it is that one.

Self Monitoring

In an article on Good, David Pescowitz of boingboing writes about self-measurement, and rounds up some of the products and websites that facilitate data collection. He also points to an episode of This American Life about a rather strange individual who writes down everything he does.

I’ve done some self-monitoring at various times, but I guess I’m not obsessive (or dedicated) enough to keep up with it.

Macro vs micro power generation

It’s electrical energy day on the Alternate Blog. I just ran across this guest post by Amory Lovins on the Freakonomics Blog. In it, Lovins argues that the day of gigawatt-scale power plants has passed; economics now favor smaller, neighborhood-scale plants that produce electricity and use the waste heat to produce heated or chilled water for district heating and cooling systems. Key quote:

Central thermal stations have become like Victorian steam locomotives: magnificent technological achievements that served us well until something better came along. When today’s billion-watt, multi-billion-dollar plants retire, we won’t replace them with more of the same.

Google to meter your electricity use

This sounds pretty cool. Google is working with a number of electric utilities to provide consumers with real-time access to their electricity consumption data. According to the post on the Official Google Blog:

We believe that detailed data on your personal energy use belongs to you, and should be available in an open standard, non-proprietary format. You should control who gets to see your data, and you should be free to choose from a wide range of services to help you understand it and benefit from it.

Of course, to take advantage of this you have to have a smart meter. My utility still uses the old dumb kind. There are commercial products available that provide the same information. I’ve been considering buying this device. I have this simpler device and have used it to characterize most of the plug loads in my house.

BMI of Playboy Centerfolds

Here is an interesting (if a bit NSFW) exercise in data visualization. These are compelling data to say the least, but I wonder about their quality. Does anyone believe that Price Waterhouse is certifying the measurements of the centerfolds? In other words, are the models really getting thinner, or has the magazine just been lying more and more over the years?