DW heavy equipment inspector ‘huge supporter’ of tech, career ed

DW heavy equipment inspector ‘huge supporter’ of tech, career ed

This article was originally published on People of Saltchuk on February 9, 2019

Dennis Massingham, Delta Western, Anchorage.

Delta Western’s Dennis Massingham: ‘I’m a lifelong learner.’

By Hilary Reeves

Dennis Massingham’s work history is a menagerie of life experiences – but perhaps he saved the best for last:

“I get to work with one of my former students from when I was a teacher at the University of Alaska in Anchorage (UAA),” he said. “Ben Hansen works for Carlile Transportation; we’ve been a team for the past two years. He travels with me to our fuel terminals to perform cargo tank inspections and truck maintenance. I’ve been able to mentor him, and he became a registered cargo tank inspector on Dec. 28, 2018. I’m very proud of him. How cool is that?”

Massingham’s current title of rolling Stock Supervisor for Delta Western’s Alaska operations is a comprehensive one. He coordinates and performs the maintenance and repair of the company’s trucking fleet and support equipment in and around terminals across the state.

“The most important thing I do is take care of the cargo tanks that haul our fuel products. I, too, am a registered cargo tank inspector. My name goes on all our cargo tanks; I make sure they are safe to use and are compliant with Alaska and Federal Department of Transportation Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulations and the Environmental Protection Agency. I have a special credential from the Feds that allows me to perform mobile cargo tank inspections at remote terminals not connected to the road system. It’s a huge responsibility with much accountability.”

Back to school

Massingham grew up in rural Thurston County, Washington, near the state’s capital city of Olympia on a “small family hobby farm.” His parents owned Massingham Trucking, a company that specialized in hauling forest timber.

“Of course,” he said, “that influenced the direction I took with my education and career.”

His “first real W2-type job” was at the Evergreen Sportsman’s Club.

“It’s a skeet and trap range,” he said. “When I turned 12 years old, I filed for a permit with the State of Washington Department of Labor and Industries. I set the target machine that would fly the clay pigeons. It paid $2.75 per hour. In 2019, can you even imagine a 12-year-old working downrange at a shooting range? I miss the ’80s,” he laughed.

Massingham went on to attend what he considers a comprehensive high school vocational auto shop program at Tumwater High School, which sparked his interest in further academic achievement. He went on to earn an associate degree in Diesel Power Technology from Centralia College,

At the encouragement of an instructor, he transferred to the Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls, Oregon, and finished a Bachelor of Science in Diesel Power Technology.

“I’m a lifelong learner,” he said. “After working in the heavy equipment and transportation equipment industry for 10 years, I went back to school.”

This time, he said, he was the professor.

“I taught diesel technology at Lewis-Clark State College for five years. At the same time, I attended graduate school at the University of Idaho and earned a Master of Education in Professional-Technical education.”

From professor to fuel tank inspector

After graduating with his master’s degree, Massingham held positions at a large Caterpillar dealership in Idaho: Western States Equipment Co.

“I was a corporate trainer, training manager, HR generalist, recruiter, and probably a couple other titles I don’t remember,” he laughed. “My career is all a blur from there. As I mentioned, I was a professor at the University of Alaska before going to work at Delta Western.”

Massingham’s initial impression of Delta Western was limited to Anchorage, but he said his excitement built at the prospect of traveling to all the terminals.

“I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in many significant projects,” he said. “One project that stands out is a 350,000-gallon fuel transfer to a pair of Japanese warships that sailed to the Port of Anchorage for a fill-up. We used an engine-powered skid pump to move the fuel. The transfer took about 18 hours, and the electrical system on the engine was being temperamental with the salt spray and heavy rains. It took constant babysitting to keep running, but we completed the transfer safely, on time and under budget.”

“My career has been constantly changing, but the one thing that stays the same is I’ve always worked in the heavy equipment and transportation industry. Every job has been related to maintenance or technical education.”


While Massingham isn’t a big proponent of changing his past, his take gives pause: “I’m reflective, but I don’t dwell on the past except to learn from it.”

The aspects of his life of which he is most proud are all related to his family: 30 years of marriage to his wife, Tammy, the graduation of his son, an electrical engineer, from UAA, and the near-graduation of his daughter, a soon-to-be-nurse, from the same alma matar.

“I like to shore fish Hawaii and chill on the beach with my wife. Doesn’t Hawaii Petroleum need some cargo tank work done? Something in Kona probably needs maintenance,” he joked.

In all seriousness, Massingham said he’s excited to watch Delta Western and the other Northstar Energy companies grow.

“I see us moving into new communities – perhaps maybe we’ll see the gas station business grow, or maybe we’ll get into other energy products and new markets. Eventually, I’ll go back to school again and earn a doctorate in Education. When I get too old to crawl into cargo tanks, I’ll go back into academics or teaching. I enjoy helping people learn career-related skills and helping them grow their careers. I’m a huge supporter of career and technical education.”

NorthStar fuel pro reflects on early days in Dutch Harbor, Alaska

This article was originally published on People of Saltchuk on April 5, 2019

NorthStar Senior Inventory Specialist Robert Sevilla in Seattle.

Senior Inventory Specialist Robert Sevilla began his career in the field.

By Hilary Reeves

The winter of 2011 was a bad one for Alaskans: the snowiest winter on record and one of the coldest. That December, the crew of Delta Western Dutch Harbor heard that the coastal community of Nome was completely iced in and running out of fuel after a barge scheduled to arrive in the fall couldn’t make its delivery.

“We had to charter an ice class marine tanker to make the delivery from Dutch Harbor to Nome” over 300 miles of thick sea ice, said NorthStar’s Robert Sevilla. “I believe that if you put in the hard work and strive to better yourself every day that there is nothing you can’t achieve.”

Post-winter move

Sevilla started with Delta Western as a Fuel Dock attendant and driver in Dutch Harbor some 15 years ago. He transitioned to the role of Warehouse Administrator, maintaining the company’s packaged product inventory, then to the role of Office Administrator. By the spring of 2012, he was ready for a change.

“A position opened up in our Seattle corporate office for an Inventory Clerk, so I applied for the position and, luckily, I got it,” he said.

From there, Sevilla moved to his current position as Senior Inventory Specialist, a role that now sits in the NorthStar Energy supply group.

“I started in the field, so I enjoy seeing how everything unfolds, from purchasing our products to our site receiving them, selling to the customer to invoicing them. I get to see the paper trail from cradle to grave, sort of, and at the end of it all when the inventory is in balance, I know I did my job.”

Childhood challenges

The youngest of five children, Sevilla spent his childhood moving between the United States and the Philippines. His first job was encoding Census data for his brother’s NGO there.

“There was a project to collect data from the people living in the slums in Manila so the government would try to relocate them to better housings. It was something I understood because I grew up in a single-parent household with my mom working multiple jobs in the U.S. to make ends meet,” he explained. “She had to make a tough decision to send us home to the Philippines to stay with relatives. Living away from my parents was hard, but it built a strong foundation for my relationship with my siblings. My childhood had challenges, but I was still grateful because I knew that there are others who had less than me.”

“Living away from my parents was hard, but it built a strong foundation for my relationship with my siblings. My childhood had challenges, but I was still grateful because I knew that there are others who had less than me.”

Sevilla has been married for 16 years to his “wonderful wife,” and “has been blessed with two amazing daughters.” He said he’s grateful to have found his way to helping people in a slightly different capacity.

“I’m grateful for all the opportunities that the company has given me,” he said. “We have amazing people in place, and I believe we’re poised to do great things in our field, not only expanding the areas we service, but also venturing into alternative energy solutions. I see us continuing to be the best at what we do: providing safe, quality products and services for the people and communities that we serve.”

An energetic homecoming

This article was originally published on People of Saltchuk on April 29, 2019

Ryan Macnamara, Director of Pricing, NorthStar Energy.

Four years after embarking on an experiential quest, Ryan Macnamara is armed with the knowledge and know-how to help propel NorthStar into its (sustainable) future.

By Hilary Reeves

Ryan Macnamara was still studying marketing at Western Washington University in Bellingham when he decided to pursue an internship to help launch his career after graduation.

“I had a deep respect for Mike Garvey, whom I’d known from childhood, and I was interested in coming to join the Saltchuk family,” he said. “I reached out to him, and he put me in touch with a number of companies.”

It was Delta Western, Macnamara said, that most excited him – and the feeling was mutual. He began his decade-long stint with the company in Seattle a week after he graduated in 2004. By 2014, Macnamara was happily managing a bevy of accounts.
“I put my marketing degree to use learning the Alaska business, but after 10 years spent learning contract creation and management, the different types of accounts, and how to manage the relationships, I recognized that my primary gap as a professional was related to my limited operational experience,” he said.

In the early years, the solution seemed obvious: when the time was right, Macnamara and his wife would move to one of the company’s terminals in Alaska so he could begin a more “hands-on” phase of his career. But once the eldest of his two sons reached Kindergarten, he knew a move to Alaska wasn’t in the cards anymore.

“There was a time period where it would have worked, but by the time I really needed to make a change, we couldn’t do Alaska anymore,” he explained.

Enter Covich Williams, a local, family-owned Chevron marketer.

“I was approached by Covich Williams and I was immediately struck by how similar their business was to one of Delta Western’s Alaska terminals,” said Macnamara. “The company’s general manager of 30 years was leaving, and they needed a new GM to step in and manage inside and outside sales, the warehouse, drivers – everything I was looking for in terms of experience and exposure.”

Delta Western’s management was encouraging and left the door open – so Macnamara took the job.

“I learned a heck of a lot. I’m happy that I did it,” he said.

Bridging the gap with a new team

Four years later, Macnamara is back in the Saltchuk fold – this time at NorthStar, Delta Western’s parent company, working as a Director of Pricing under VP of Supply and Logistics Don Stone.

“This year, the time was finally right,” he said. “Under new NorthStar leadership, Delta Western was making big changes. I’d heard that a shared service model was being rolled out whereby critical business functions were being done at the parent company level in order to strengthen the role of site managers at the terminal locations, allowing them to focus on their strengths, take greater ownership over the performance of their local businesses, and know that they have a supportive team behind them at NorthStar.”
Macnamara has been in the office for just a month but said he already feels a synergy between his past experience, both at Delta Western and at Covich Williams, and his new role.

“With my new understanding of operations from Covich Williams I saw a perfect opportunity to join Don (Stone),” he said. “Don needed someone experienced who could take the lead developing pricing strategies for each Delta Western terminal. I would be able to have an immediate, measurable impact on the business overall, and for each one of the sites.”

Macnamara, who knew Stone from his years at Delta Western, said he’s always admired Stone’s ability to see opportunities in a complex network of interconnected, moving parts.
“He could make things come to life that other people weren’t able to even see, and you wanted to be a part of that,” he said. “Don was building up a new group dedicated to finding supply efficiencies on behalf of existing markets while probing growth opportunities in entirely new places. This team would allow me to make an impact as a connector between that global supply strategy and the local markets that I knew well. I’m excited to be a part of bridging the gap between those two worlds.”

‘A bit surreal’

One thing that’s been brought to the forefront in the years since Macnamara left is that NorthStar is an energy company chock-full of energy solutions.

“I now have the opportunity to explore energy alternatives that are a focus of this new NorthStar-Delta Western regime more than ever,” he said. “The change that thrills me the most is bridging the gap between the energy of today and the energy solutions of tomorrow. I’m thrilled to be supporting site managers so directly as a connector between the parent company shared service model and the boots-on-the-ground operations; I truly care about our sites.”

One thing that hasn’t changed, Macnamara said, is that everyone wears a lot of hats.
“It’s been a big whirlwind – a bit surreal. There’s a completely different team in place. I’m still learning about the team and the different roles and how things have changed. There’s a lot to tackle. Luckily, we have someone at the helm in Bert (Valdman) who’s a real visionary. I’m just loving being back.”

Sitka, Alaska native at home with Delta Western

This article was originally published on People of Saltchuk on June 3rd, 2019

Mike Johnson: ‘Having a strong and supportive team with a trusting relationship is key to success.’

By Hilary Reeves

Delta Western Sitka Terminal Manager Mike Johnson describes his teenage self as the type of guy who “was only interested in learning specifically what I was interested in learning.” Born and raised in Sitka, his childhood was a combination of whimsy and self-imposed work.

“I grew up on a small private island where my parents built a cabin over the course of several years,” he said. “We had no running water, no city power, and no dock, and hauled all our drinking water, fuel, groceries, and living supplies by landing our small boat directly onto the beach.”

The proud owner of “quite a few pets,” Johnson was nine when his parents helped him start a dog-boarding business on the island.

“When people went on vacation, the local veterinary shop would refer people to me to watch their dogs,” he said. “The daily fee was $6 per dog per day and I shoveled a lot of poo, but made a lot of money” – money that was soon sunk into Johnson’s very own boat, which he purchased at the age of 11.

“For the price, the boat was a real steal and seaworthy enough that my parents deemed it safe enough for me to stay out of trouble,” he laughed. “I spent my summers ranging out as far as a tank of gas would carry me, usually exploring the surrounding islands, camping, and river fishing with my trusty golden retriever, Sandy.”

Johnson’s teenage recreation settled on motorsports. He said he crashed enough three- and four-wheelers and motorcycles that he had to work to afford the replacement parts.
“I was reckless enough that I kept an inventory of spare parts so that when I crashed and wrecked something I didn’t have much downtime,” he said. “My body still hurts from those days.”

Once he was old enough to hold a regular job, he did everything from newspaper routes to mechanic’s helpers, to running a small crew at a custom meat and seafood processing plant. He also fished commercially for halibut on the family longliner boat during the dangerous “derby days.”

When his high school wrestling coach told him he couldn’t work and wrestle, that was the end of Johnson’s career in organized sports.

“I had lots of wheeler parts and gas to buy,” he laughed.

Homeschooled through elementary school, Johnson graduated Valedictorian from Sitka High School.

“I never liked school, but I endured it,” he said. “I always tried harder than most of my friends, which always resulted in good grades. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I graduated but my parents impressed upon me the need to gain a skill of some type. I decided that I would be a mechanic and enrolled in an automotive and heavy diesel technical school in Phoenix. I told myself I’d never return to Sitka except to visit.”

Returning to Sitka

Johnson returned to Alaska after his schooling and took a job as a heavy diesel mechanic for Alaska Power Service in Cordova. After several months without a single day off, he joined Allen Marine in Sitka.

“Between Alaska Power Services and where I am now at Delta Western, I ventured down many different career paths: welding and fabrication, truck driver, operations manager, fleet vessel maintenance, facilities maintenance, boat rigging and repair, small engine repair, boat captain, freshwater guiding, and crane operator, amongst other things.”
The game-changer, he said, was the day he was offered a job helping run the local boatyard, Halibut Point Marine Services.

“The owners told me, ‘you’ll need to get your CDL; we plan to enter the fuel sales market to keep you busy during the slow winter months,’” he said. “The next thing I knew, they’d bought a brand new Kenworth fuel truck and told me to drive it around the boatyard until I felt comfortable taking my road test.”

Once Johnson had his CDL, he was given a handwritten list of friends and family – Sitka is a small town and he already knew everyone – to whom he was to deliver fuel.
“I was told to get the fuel into the truck and figure out how to get the fuel from the truck into the customer’s fuel tanks,” he said. “I had no training whatsoever in handling or delivering fuel. I taught myself most everything and asked questions about the rest to anyone who would talk to me.”

Before long, Johnson was managing both boatyard and fueling operations – “a whopping three fuel trucks.” The company began fulfilling the Alaska Airlines contract for Delta Western and was subsequently awarded two other large fuel contracts. In July 2013, Delta Western bought out Halibut Point Marine Services, the company Johnson had spent five years building. He accepted a management position with Delta Western. The transition between companies wasn’t smooth.

“Most of us aren’t born with natural gifts or talents that will bring success. Most of us just have to really apply ourselves and be willing to try harder than the rest. This mindset has always served me well.”

“Within a month we’d lost all but one part-time employee and about 65 percent of our customer base,” he said. “Back during those difficult days, I was trying to hire good people to help me out in the office. I was only allowed to hire one person, but I had two absolutely awesome candidates for the same job. I approached my boss at the time and explained my quandary. He smiled and said, ‘hire them both; truly good help is so hard to find that we can’t afford not to pick them up if we have a chance.’ I hired both candidates and they are both working alongside me to this day. The boss’s advice has served me well.”
One of Johnson’s greatest challenges was and is working with other people.

“I’ve figured out that people are both the problem and the solution, most of it depends on how you treat them and how you relate to them. Learning this has been a long journey for me.”

His Sitka team, he said, he great – driven, focused and can take a joke.

“We do a lot of that around here,” he laughed. “Having a strong and supportive team with a trusting relationship is key to success. Without a strong team, nothing would get done and I’d be quite ineffective.”

He said what he most enjoys about the career and company he’s settling into is the variety of the work – and the thrill of the chase.

“One minute I’m flying a desk, the next I’m fixing something, the next I’m in a tank truck hauling fuel to a first-time customer or out on a sales call,” he said. “Heck, recently I’ve been traveling to other scenic small towns in my region seeing new things and meeting new people. I enjoy the challenge and the thrill of the chase.”

A subsistence lifestyle

Johnson said that his only regret so far is the fact that he once worked a “dead end, do-nothing” job in the public sector.

“If I could take it all back, I’d have stayed in the private sector for my whole career,” he said. “I consider those years of my life as wasted years; it’s where I learned the meaning of bureaucracy and ineffectiveness.”

He’s most proud of his wife and three boys, and is, as one might expect, most comfortable in the Great Outdoors. He said he has more hobbies and interest than time or money: marksmanship, light construction, the restoration of a 34-foot pleasure boat first built in 1969, and coaching a youth competitive clay target team that normally places among the top three (of 22) teams in the state.

“I also spend a lot of time camping and exploring,” he said. “I live as much of a subsistence lifestyle as I can. I normally set out to harvest at least seven Sitka Blacktail deer, lots of halibut, sockeye salmon, spot prawns, octopus, and a few other species. I grow what I can in the garden also.”

Every July, Johnson takes his family on a 10-day boat trip to Tenakee Springs, a small community between Sitka and Juneau built around natural hot springs.

“My family just about plans their lives around this annual pilgrimage and it’s the biggest event of the year for my kids,” he laughed. “We live on our boat during the trip and go more or less wherever the wind blows us – so long as we are in Tenakee on Independence day for the celebrations. For such a tiny town they put on a really big event and the kids have an absolute blast every year.”

While Johnson’s retirement plans have him outdoors (and still working) – “maybe a winter caretaker position at a remote lodge” – he said he’s having fun turning over lots of stones for Delta Western and doing what he can to help the company grow.

“We’ve got some very innovative people working here and we’re willing to think outside the box for the first time in a while. I could see us expanding into different areas of the state and possibly into other areas in the Northwest. I think we’ll be working on buying and selling the energy sources of the future and focusing more on the relationships with some of our larger customers to grow into the same geographic areas that they expand into. I think we will be looking into some very strategic partnerships that will be an absolute game-changer for us – that will give us an edge over our competitors and help us to better serve our customers.

“I tell my kids all the time that if they want to get ahead in this world they need to be willing to try harder than most everyone else around them. Most of us aren’t born with natural gifts or talents that will bring success. Most of us just have to really apply ourselves and be willing to try harder than the rest. This mindset has always served me well.”

The Chiller Plant as Living Lab: What High-Tech HVAC Systems Can Teach Students

This article originally appeared on The NEWS
By Bert Valdman, CEO of NorthStar Energy

Facilities leaders faced with curtailing rising costs and meeting sustainability targets while keeping building occupants comfortable and maintaining climate control for labs and other sensitive spaces need increasingly sophisticated systems to achieve their goals. These systems justify themselves based on hard-dollar returns on investment. But looking at them only through that lens misses a significant opportunity to contribute to the institution’s educational mission.

Campus physical plants that have become internets of things — requiring cloud-based management, machine learning, and visualization tools — could serve as more than unseen controllers of the classroom environment. They could be the classroom. Mechanical engineering students could explore the plant with managers and engineers to see how a cutting-edge HVAC system works, for example, and visualization tools could bring the plant into the classroom. The trove of data these systems produce could also give data science students meaningful analytics projects.


What will students see when they look inside an advanced campus HVAC system? What could they learn about?

At Georgia Tech, which hosts class visits to its chiller plants, students can get a look at two large, optimized chiller plants with mixed-equipment systems—a common situation. One plant has seven chillers, seven condenser water pumps, seven cooling towers, and one free-cooling heat exchanger, and the other has seven chillers, seven condenser water pumps, and three cooling towers.

Technology includes a state-of-the-art chiller that can handle wide variations in water flow, a water- and energy-saving pump configuration, and an advanced optimization software implementation tailored to meet rigorous network security requirements while providing the continuous support and monitoring needed to maintain energy and cost savings. Georgia Tech and Optimum Energy worked together to develop a way for Optimum Energy’s cloud-based OptiCx solution to function without direct network access. Every five minutes, data passes from the BAS to data loggers, which OptiCx reads through a VPN-protected database. Now the Georgia Tech team can see and evaluate system performance in real time.

The University of Texas at Austin demonstrates a multiple-building, data-driven HVAC implementation. The campus optimized four chilled water plants (totaling 45,000 tons) on a common loop with a 4 million gallon thermal energy storage (TES) tank in a series of projects that followed the three laws of optimization:

  1. What cannot be measured cannot be optimized;
  2. Optimize systems, not just individual components; and
  3. Optimization must be automatic, dynamic, and continuous for maximum efficiency.

The project included control of chiller staging for all four plants, variable differential pressure control and flow control, and TES charge and discharge. The university is now saving 21,000,000 kWh, 200,000 MMBtu of steam usage, and 4 million gallons of water annually.

Learning opportunities depend on the plant setup, but the chance to experience a plant before and after optimization, or to compare optimized and unoptimized plants, would be enormously valuable. The monitoring data and performance statistics an optimization platform produces provide plenty of ways to explore the factors in plant efficiency.
Even newer plants have teaching potential. We worked on a university bioscience research facility plant that was only five years old and had inflexible climate requirements. Post-optimization, the plant runs 27 to 37 percent more efficiently and is a living demonstration of maximizing efficiency. The university’s director of facilities and lab services converted it to an all-variable flow plant and then added an optimization and control layer. From the variable speed drives and sensors installed on chillers, pumps, valves, and tower fans, the software collects a tremendous amount of data about the plant equipment, including water flow, electrical power consumption, load conditions, and more. It compares the data to control algorithms, assesses plant conditions in real time, and then automatically changes pump and fan speeds using chilled water temperature, equipment staging, and other operational changes to maximize efficiency.


Last year I taught an entrepreneurship class with two other clean-tech executives at the Institute for Sustainability and Engineering at Northwestern University, and it was clear that students crave hands-on experiences with the latest technology and need to understand real-world applications.

Most colleges and universities are not yet bringing students into their chiller plants and boiler rooms when they upgrade, but they’re missing a real opportunity. One of our engineers, a former campus facilities manager, brought in mechanical engineering students as interns and found the experience mutually beneficial. “They bring a lot of enthusiasm, and it helps them to put theory and practice together,” he says, adding, “It’s the greatest way to hire new staff. The benefit for the university is obvious.”

Colleges may even benefit from new ideas from students—our engineer also sponsored an annual senior project at the engineering school, and ended up implementing a couple of ideas the students came up with. We’ve seen the benefits of working with students ourselves. At Optimum Energy headquarters in Seattle, we worked with University of Washington students on a machine learning project, and found that both sides benefited. As one of the students told a local radio reporter about the program, “Oftentimes when you take a class everything’s super neat, everything works out super nicely. But that’s not the real stuff. In the real stuff, there’s actual work to be done,” like discovering a faulty sensor that messes up your datasets.

Based on our experiences, we will gladly have engineers work with students on-site at our installations. We encourage facilities directors at colleges and universities to invite students to learn in the chiller plant and boiler room: they’ll be contributing to their institution’s educational mission and gain a new perspective on their plant.

Schools that view their HVAC plants as part of the educational experience can engage their students with the next generation of building technology in a way that gives them the insights needed to develop ever simpler, more powerful, and more cost-effective building systems. They’ll know what a high-performing plants looks like, because they’ll have seen one in action. That’s an ROI that will benefit the entire world.

Published November 19, 2018

Want More Smart Buildings? Amp Up the Collaboration

This article originally appeared on FacilityManagement.com

By Bert Valdman, CEO of NorthStar Energy

“Smart technologies are defined by their interconnectedness,” points out a recent ACEEE report on smart building markets. The companies that buy and sell them, however, are defined by their disconnectedness.

Intelligent buildings have been a concept for decades (a quick search turns up a research report from 1991). Sustainability thinkers have been advocating them for years, and they’re a hot topic in building trade publications. So why is it that the brightest thing about most buildings remains their always-on lights?

There are many answers to that question: misaligned incentives, lack of accountability for energy costs, the fact that some professionals in the building maintenance sector see standardization and automation as threats to their livelihoods. Those are all topics of discussion, if not sufficient action. But there’s another core issue that’s been largely overlooked: every actor in the smart buildings universe is an island. Here are some of the culprits:

  • Corporations looking to control their energy destiny and improve sustainability often aren’t structured to drive action across the enterprise. Energy-related decision making is decentralized, and local purchasers typically lack the time and expertise needed to make sense of an onslaught of new technologies.
  • Emerging companies in smart building and energy technologies burn through precious capital waiting out the resultant long purchasing cycles and building large sales and business development teams to reach the many levels of decision makers.
  • These teams all target the same commercial and industrial customers with siloed solutions.
  • Established energy service and building technology conglomerates know customers want integrated, comprehensive solutions, but they’re structured to market individual portfolio company products and often hesitate to cross organizational boundaries.

One way to break down these boundaries is to adopt a collaborative business model akin to those sustainability leaders have used to advance fair trade and resource conservation.

What Does Collaboration Look Like?

A shared services organization that is customer focused and solutions oriented, and that receives active support from commercial customers seeking integrated solutions and willing to provide needed data, could be the answer. This model would enable emerging companies to go to market more efficiently and could incorporate a vetting component that makes technology capabilities and comparisons transparent for corporate buyers.
We can take a cue from the food world, where various forms of pre-competitive collaboration are increasingly common. Industry organizations in coffee, chocolate, seafood and other sectors bring together key players in the supply chain—importers, processors and retailers, say—to support projects that ensure a sustainable, high-quality supply chain that benefits all participants. (See “It’s all hands on deck to save seafood supply chains” for a few examples.) Smart building owners and vendors can achieve similar results by working together as an ecosystem.

Many of the products and solutions that smart building technology companies offer are complementary. These companies spend a considerable amount of time and money on marketing and sales, going after the same customers at the same companies. A highly skilled and trusted shared services organization that marketed members’ products in a fair way would get technologies and services to market more efficiently.

It would also address barriers that prevent large corporations from moving forward on energy initiatives: complexity, a lack of familiarity with the technology, and trust. A shared services organization could develop a checklist of everything in a building that uses energy or water; technologies and practices that will make building systems maximally efficient; and specification, purchasing and use guidelines.

In concert with this planning and education tool, the organization could present integrated solutions that meet an enterprise customer’s particular financial, operational, and sustainability goals—for example, a suite of lighting, HVAC optimization, and demand management technologies that shrink the electric load; distributed renewable energy resources that reduce each facility’s dependence on the electric grid along with its carbon footprint; and a control dashboard that orchestrates the whole thing while providing business intelligence.

Who should lead this effort, or something like it? The utility industry is ideally positioned to take this on (and I say this as a former utility executive): they run the backbone energy systems and they have relationships with technology providers and commercial users. Enterprises could also lead by actively seeking integrated solutions, encouraging collaboration among technology companies and service providers, and materially supporting a collaborative approach.

Think Forward, not Backward

It’s easy to come up with reasons a collaborative approach wouldn’t work, but they’re all based on a status quo mindset positing that something can’t happen because it hasn’t already. The model could take off if we start with an initial commitment to not waste time creating elaborate contractual structures focused on “what if it doesn’t work?” We can find ways to maintain each participant’s intellectual property. If we don’t bog it down from the beginning with nuclear disarmament–level negotiations, we can create a collaborative structure that benefits emerging technology companies, energy conglomerates, corporate enterprises, and the world at large.

A collaborative effort can scale faster, deploy technology faster, and drive innovation into the DNA of an organization faster. If we are willing to work together, we can create the intelligent buildings we’ve all been seeking, but somehow always remain in the future. We just have to care enough to invest the effort.


How to Make Buildings Truly Smart – and Keep Them from Losing Their Minds

This article originally appeared on FacilityManagement.com

By Bert Valdman, CEO of NorthStar Energy

We all hear a lot about intelligent buildings – so much that you’d think they were everywhere. But when you look at the data, it seems that most buildings are as dull-witted as ever.

Energy efficiency is a core aspect of a smart building, and yet building energy use has risen over the past several years in even the most efficiency-conscious cities, according to an analysis of data from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Technology is not the problem. U.S. commercial buildings could cut energy use 29 percent on average by taking full advantage of controls technology and implementing a few other basic energy efficiency measures, a study by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found.
The United Nations, noting that about 40 percent of today’s global greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings, is taking on the problem with its new Global Building Network. The network, with Penn State’s Institutes of Energy and the Environment as a lead institution, aims to create an international framework that will make buildings more sustainable, more efficient, and healthier to live and work in.

Standards are clearly important. Issues like ineffective controls and a mismatch between design assumptions and building occupant behaviors deserve plenty of scrutiny. Part of the problem, though, is the persistent issue of performance drift – buildings and building systems should be highly efficient, but performance deteriorates rapidly or never matches the model. To really solve that problem, we need to rethink the metrics we use to measure energy design for smart buildings.

Accountability Drives Efficiency

Singapore provides an excellent model. It has been rolling out a policy that builds in accountability for meeting carefully crafted performance targets, and the city is already seeing significant success. Singapore started with a standard for cooling systems based on metrics for efficiency rather than gross energy use. This puts the responsibility on the designers: a cooling system can meet an efficiency-based performance standard even if building operators overcool. If the building doesn’t meet that standard, you know the problem is the system, and if it does but still uses too much energy, you know the problem is operational.

As for drift, advanced high-performance systems require monitoring and support to function optimally over time. Singapore addresses this issue by requiring that the system’s design and construction include measurement and verification features. Initial results from Singapore’s shift in metrics are dramatic: cooling systems in existing buildings subject to the standard are demonstrating an average efficiency improvement of nearly 50 percent.

Now Singapore is moving on to overall energy use indices (EUIs) for various building types, along with a simple way to track energy performance. The idea is that with all these guidelines in place, it will be easy to see where performance problems are coming from – the system or its operation – and the route to a more efficient building will be clear.

More Ways to Inspire Action

Another way to encourage accountability is to establish a metric for building efficiency that is relevant for all types of facilities – weather-adjusted BTUs per square foot, for example. That would allow easy benchmarking: publicly rating facilities within their category (data centers, hospitals, office buildings, and so on) would give designers and operators a target and a motivation for working to make them top performers.

Linking energy modeling to energy action would also lead to better performance. Architects now have tools that let them model energy usage in any number of scenarios to see where the greatest savings are. Similarly, building operators can visualize their energy use and the effects of various actions through dashboard tools, but they often don’t take action because doing so seems too complex or disruptive. These visualizations need to be tied to automated optimization software that takes the friction out of energy efficiency decisions.

Visualization and action are symbiotic. Unless dashboards drive actions, they will always be one-dimensional. Conversely, if all you’re doing is acting, you won’t be able to accurately assess the value of your actions or see when things go off track.

Designing for Today’s Needs, Not Yesterday’s

Real building efficiency also requires reimagining building infrastructure with focus on sustainable use. Building components that use the most energy, such as lighting and HVAC systems, often are designed, configured, and used based on the habits of decades past. When that happens, even systems that incorporate the latest technology will use more energy than necessary.

The biggest challenge with HVAC systems – which account for nearly 50 percent of the typical commercial building’s energy use – is that they are more highly engineered and complex than they need to be. They’re also sized to meet maximum peak energy needs, not for efficiency. In the retrofit market, the best we can do is improve poorly designed systems. That’s well worth doing in terms of efficiency results, as the Singapore example shows.

But when designing new buildings, we can and should be asking: What would the perfect HVAC system look like? What would the perfect lighting system look like? How can all the building’s systems connect holistically to eliminate waste? That’s how we’ll get a technical answer to the performance drift problem, along with truly smart buildings.


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