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Close-up: Doug Poffinbarger

Executive sees 'exciting time' for energy consulting industry

Reducing emissions and energy costs while helping the environment is the goal that drew Doug Poffinbarger to energy consulting.

As a principal of PE Consulting, Poffinbarger helps cities, universities, utilities and contractors create green buildings that are inexpensive to operate and produce little emissions.

PE Consulting serves as a consultant on most projects, providing full-service engineering services, energy audits for existing buildings, LEED and Energy Star certifications and climate action and energy master plans. Since the company opened its doors in 1994, it has saved its clients a combined $1 billion in energy costs through efficiency retrofits and initiatives.

Reducing carbon emissions is a personal goal of Poffinbarger, and he practices what he preaches as an energy consultant in his own home. Though he lives in a tract home that was not designed for efficiency, Poffinbarger has retrofitted the house to be in the top 1 percent of efficiency in the development.

Poffinbarger installed an automated lighting system so that lights turn off automatically when no one is in the room. The home utilizes the sun and wind for passive heating and cooling.

Because Poffinbarger and most other employees at PE Consulting primarily work from home, the company has a zero carbon footprint, he said.

"We truly walk the walk," Poffinbarger said.

One of the most visible projects the company has worked on is the recent retrofit of the City of Encinitas Civic Center. PE Consulting helped design renovations to a strip mall that now serves as municipal office space. The building is certified LEED Gold for its efficiency and includes a 100-kilowatt photovoltaic solar installation on the roof. A series of skylights provide natural lighting and reduce energy consumption.

The offices are cooled using a chiller that pumps air past ice and into the building. The facility is also heated using a thermal energy storage system. LED lighting illuminates the rear of the building, also reducing energy consumption. In all, the measures reduced energy costs for the facility by 78 percent, Poffinbarger said.

Most of the energy conserving measures are visible from the Encinitas Library, which is perched atop a hill overlooking the Civic Center complex. PE Consulting installed a kiosk in the library where the public can view an interactive video presentation about the project.

The majority of PE Consulting's work is energy auditing, a field that is currently misunderstood by the general public, Poffinbarger said. Many inexperienced companies offer free energy audits to get in the door and can actually cost unsuspecting customers thousands of dollars, he said.

"The public doesn't really understand the principals behind an energy audit," Poffinbarger said.

When it comes to energy audits, you get what you pay for, Poffinbarger said. A good design can save hundreds of thousands of dollars in long-term energy costs. Once a building is constructed, it can cost tens of thousands to complete a retrofit, he said.

It is also important to note that an efficient building will not necessarily reduce costs on its own, Poffinbarger said. The building and its energy systems must be managed properly in order to create a savings. PE Consulting offers both energy management and retro-commissioning, a separate service that ensures a building is performing to its potential. The service costs little and typically pays for itself within two years.

When he looks to the future, Poffinbarger is unsure which direction the energy consulting industry will shift. Led by San Diego Gas & Electric, the region's effort to become the world's first smart grid city could be a boon to the industry, but it "depends on how the utilities play ball," he said.

PE Consulting currently works with SDG&E, conducting energy audits for homes and businesses. It is unclear yet whether the utility will contract with consultants to install smart metering technology, or attempt to do most of the work in-house, Poffinbarger said.

Poffinbarger has observed a similar problem with the federal stimulus funds allocated to energy retrofit projects. Because state and local governments are currently fiscally challenged, they are avoiding laying off employees by putting them to work on energy-efficiency projects, rather than hiring outside consultants. As a result, the funds are not funneling to the private sector as intended.

Government employees usually lack the skills required to do complete energy efficiency retrofit projects, and thus the funds are not spent in a way that maximizes taxpayers' savings on energy costs, Poffinbarger said.

Poffinbarger joined PE Consulting in 2003, after tiring of the stigma attached to his work running nuclear power plants, he said.

"I would tell people on airplanes what I did for a living and they would look at me as if I glowed," he said.

He decided to enter the energy consulting business to save money and help protect the environment for his own children and future generations. The present is a very exciting time to be involved in the energy efficiency and sustainability industries, he said.

"I'm petrified for my children that the environment will be squandered away," Poffinbarger said. "But we can fix it. What excites me most are the opportunities we have."

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