A Smart Energy Efficiency Strategy – Lucas Dixon of Plug Smart

Today’s guest is Lucas Dixon, project manager with Plug Smart in Columbus, Ohio. He helps schools and other organizations improve their energy efficiency and use the savings to fund even bigger energy efficiency projects.

…it allows schools to borrow money without passing a levy, a tax levy, to do these types of projects so they can do all the projects up front and the energy services company, when we’re doing a project that’s Plug Smart, has to guarantee those savings. So therefore the school’s not liable for that risk. The energy services company is. So they can do the entire project. If they don’t save what we tell them they can save, that’s on us. Lucas Dixon

Lucas Dixon of Plug Smart

Lucas Dixon, Chief of Strategy at Plug Smart

A lot of the projects that Lucas manages involve replacing old incandescent or fluorescent lighting with LEDs. During the interview I made a joke about Thomas Edison being upset over the imminent demise of his incandescent light bulb. Actually he would probably be excited about LEDs if he were around to see them. As I was putting the show together I realized I didn’t know who invented the LED. So I decided to do a little digging. This episode includes a story about Nick Holonyak, Jr., inventor of the LED. It’s available in a separate post entitled Who invented the LED?

Lucas Dixon, Chief of Strategy, Plug Smart

Lucas Dixon is just starting his career but he’s already got a pretty impressive resume. He is Chief of Strategy and a project manager at Plug Smart an innovative energy efficiency company. He’s been a board member of Green Energy Ohio and Chair of the Sustainable Transportation Division of ASES. He was co-founder of the 2009 Ohio State University Solar Decathlon Team and an advisor for the 2011 team. He also advises the OSU chapter of the American Solar Energy Society and helps them get ready to go build solar projects in Haiti.

DB: Where are you from Lucas?

LD: Columbus, Ohio.

DB: Did you go to “The Ohio State” by any chance?

LD: I certainly did go to The Ohio State University.

DB: Okay, what does PlugSmart do?

LD: Plug Smart is an energy efficiency company based in Ohio, focused pretty much in the Ohio region. We save energy for customers all across the spectrum, from K-12, Higher Ed, Industrial and Commercial buildings.

DB: Okay, Tell us a little bit, go into a little detail about some of the projects that you would do or maybe your favorite project.

LD: Sure, so we have done all sorts of projects but the most common trend in projects is using energy efficiency and the savings they generate to fund other capital improvement projects. So, we do a lot of work for K-12 schools in Ohio, and for example we will do LED replacements going from either T12 or T8 32 watt fluorescents to a LED replacement that generates really good energy savings and then you use that energy savings to buy down the cost of maybe a new rooftop units which are more expensive or have a longer payback to get a project that meets the school’s payback requirements.

DB: So would the school…? Like let’s say you put in LED lights and does the school have to wait a certain amount of time to see what the energy savings is going to be before they commit money from their budget to the next step?

LD: Well actually in the state of Ohio there’s a program called House Bill 264 and it allows schools to borrow money without passing a levy, a tax levy, to do these types of projects so they can do all the projects up front and the energy services company, when we’re doing a project that’s PlugSmart, has to guarantee those savings. So therefore the school’s not liable for that risk. The energy services company is. So they can do the entire project. If they don’t save what we tell them they can save, that’s on us.

DB: So you obviously try to be pretty accurate and even conservative about the estimates.

LD: We certainly are. We have to be conservative.

DB: What happens if you’re off by a decimal place or something?

LD: We write a check.

DB: Wow. So you really are held accountable then. But that’s good. It keeps the program healthy and protects the taxpayer.

LD: That’s right and we’ve had to write a check before so we know.

DB: How did that happen?

LD: Just an engineering error. We looked at a lighting solution. We thought it was a 40 watt T12 bulb and they were 34 watt T12 bulbs. So you multiply that over a thousand fixtures or two thousand fixtures in a school and you’re a lot of watts short.

DB: Yeah, right. That makes sense. So what types of bulbs are you usually replacing with LEDs? Are these old halogen bulbs that use a lot of power?

LD: Yes. There’s a lot. We’re at a kind of turning point in LED technology right now and the cost curves have come way down. For a while now exterior, wall pack LEDs, gym lighting, has made good sense to go from high pressure sodium or metal halide to LED. The cost and the payback make real good sense, especially if those are lights that are on all night. If they’re on a timer the payback goes down but if they’re on all night that makes sense. You’ll see a lot of gas station canopy lighting has all gone LED recently. Those long run hours and the cost of replacing those bulbs. A lot of time you have to get up on a ladder or get a boom truck or stuff like that. It all makes sense for LED. The fluorescent technology, what most square footage of commercial, school, hospital, the standard 4 foot T8. Pretty much T8 is the dominant fluorescent technology out there. It’s been very recently where replacing those fixtures has made sense to go LED. The payback historically has been maybe in the 12 year range, but it’s coming down. It’s getting down in the 5 or 6 year range. And if you’re already having to go do a big lighting retrofit or a ballast retrofit, which are the components of the fluorescents, now you can count that cost, that avoided cost against your project payback and that even helps it even more. So it’s really starting to make some good sense for customers to do it and the light quality’s better. You get some additional dimming technology, things like that you can put in with it. We’re seeing LED retrofit kits where you actually come in and put a new outwardly facing fixture up there, you can do complete fixture replacements or you can do LED tube retrofits which are the most cost effective right now where you’re taking the ballast out of the system and just putting in an LED tube that fits in the sockets of the fluorescent fixture.

DB: Wow, what does that look like?

LD: Well they’ve gotten a lot better. Originally when they started out it looked like that thousand points of light syndrome that you just saw. But they’ve gotten a lot better on the distribution of it and they’re frosted bulbs. If you look at it you don’t see the actual LED diodes. And they work pretty well so they look pretty much just like a fluorescent tube.

DB: I see. So you mentioned that the quality of light is actually better with LEDs than fluorescents.

LD: It is yeah.

DB: That’s good to know because in my house my wife and I take turns switching out the CFL bulbs because she hates the way they look and I haven’t been able to find one that looks good enough.

LD: Now there are folks that, you know, you’ll never replace the incandescent, right? But from a kind of a quality and clarity of light the LED is hard to beat but on the spectrum you can get LEDs that are trying to mimic the incandescent bulb, then you can get some that are more in the blue scale and things like that, you know for a daylight look.

DB: Do you think there will come a point where they won’t even make incandescents.

LD: We can hope.

DB: Yeah, maybe the code will just kind of do away with them.

LD: Well they’ve tried but the congress in its infinite wisdom has backed off from that.

DB: Are they trying to respect Thomas Edison’s memory.

LD: I think that’s what they’re probably trying to do. I think Thomas from the grave is shaking his fist.

DB: Yeah, he’s probably upset about it. Well you were talking yesterday about a project that you have in Haiti. Is that through Plug Smart?

LD: That is not. That is through The Ohio State University and a student chapter of ASES, the American Solar Energy Society at The Ohio State University. It’s called solar education and outreach and it’s a student driven team that does projects on campus related to solar and one of the projects that they do is an annual trip to Haiti to install small off-grid solar systems at schools, rural schools in Haiti. And they design the systems, they procure the material, they pre-assemble them here in the states and then they go to Haiti and put them up on roofs. They work with some existing mission group that’s going on in the country so they have a good place to stay where it’s a safe environment, etc. And there are tools down there that they can utilize but when they go they’re on their own and they’re in charge of putting it up there and wiring it up and making it work and it’s both an incredible experience for the students and that’s kind of the focus of the university, increasing the students’ capacity and building capacity in them. But it’s also extremely powerful for the communities around these schools. These are schools that don’t have electricity and they have no way to run and light the buildings after hours. It’s an incredible change.

DB: What area of Haiti are they working on?

LD: I’m blanking on the name. I believe it’s northeast of Port au Prince about 45 minutes out of Port au Prince.

DB: And how many schools? Do you know?

LD: We have done now, I think six individual schools, so six individual systems.

DB: How many times have you been down?

LD: I have not been down.

DB: So when are you going down?

LD: I’ve been working to get down. The students… It really is a student driven team and I work hard to not try to take control or keep them from going off the rails. It’s part of the learning experience, but it’s just one of those things where I’ve worked with them a lot and helped them put the system together but it’s about them and it’s about them taking control and taking ownership of it. They raise the money to do the project. They procure everything. If it doesn’t work they have nowhere else to look besides themselves.

DB: I’d say that makes it a lot better experience, knowing that they’re just in charge of themselves and it’s not like they have a tour guide with them.

LD: It really is. The university has some restrictions on making sure that the place they stay is safe and otherwise but from the university standpoint this is an independent kind of student led activity where these guys and gals are in charge of themselves and making a project work. It’s worked really well. The students coming out of this program have all used it on their resumes, used it to help define their career path and have gone on to be very successful. It’s been cool.

DB: Are they mostly off-grid?

LD: Yeah, these are all off-grid systems.

DB: Like battery backup lighting.

LD: Yep, so it’s all lighting. So a lot of times we’ll bring and wire up LED lighting in these things. We’ve used some interesting LED technology. I think Luminera??? Is one of the brands that has kind of sponsored us and sent some fixtures down but we use off the shelf components and it’s a system integration type project where they plug it in but these schools had no lighting before. We’ve done mostly lighting and some laptop charging so we have put in some outlets and sized some battery banks to accompany a few laptops at one of the schools we did.

DB: That’s a nice thing. That’s important too. So how did you get interested in this stuff? In my freshman seminar series I had the opportunity, it was on energy and peak coal and climate change were kind of the topics of the seminar series. And I got to listen to a speaker by the name of Lonnie Thompson and he’s a climatologist, focuses on drilling ice cores in tropical glaciers to measure historical CO2 content in the atmosphere. This guy, he’s drilled more ice cores on these glaciers than anyone else in the world and his wife actually. He and his wife are a team. And all the ice cores are at Ohio State University in a big freezer on campus and we went and saw that and it’s hard to be a rational thinker and understand the science and have that not affect you in terms of this is a serious problem and we need to take this seriously and this is something you can dedicate your life to or get interested in and help. So that’s where my passion comes from and it kind of set me on a path.

DB: It’s not really rocket science is it?

LD: It’s not. As much as our politicians would like us to think it is hard science it’s really not. There are more complicated things that you engage with or deal with every day in the medical field in technology, in your cell phone. All that science that went into creating that stuff is way more difficult to grasp than climate science.

DB: Can you describe what they do with the ice cores? How they determine ancient CO2 values?

LD: Yeah, so they drill these cores and they bring them back to Ohio State and they break up the cores so that they’re mapping weather patterns where you have different thicknesses of ice depending on how much snow fell on the glacier that year and how much precipitation was in the glacier and it packs in and that’s where you’re trapping air bubbles in the ice so you have a history of this. You go back and then you’re able to find the years that you’re looking for and then you melt or make a cut and extract part of that ice core and you melt that part of the ice core and then do a chemical analysis on the amount of CO2 in the air in the atmosphere at that time. That builds the trends to show how CO2 affected global mean temperature and that’s what we’re aiming for. That’s what they want. What they want to show is we’ve had warm periods before the CO2 was here and they want to build the case for those as a contributing factor and I think they have.

DB: We thanks so much Lucas. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

LD: Absolutely. Yeah this was fun.

DB: I hope I’ll talk to you again soon.

LD: Indeed.

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