I recently watched an institution make a fully mystifying decision to install a large propane boiler despite the fact that propane is the most expensive of the fossil fuels. While some in the institution were anxious to transition the organization’s facilities to renewable resource heating and had a biomass alternative specified for the installation, the decision was fully contrary to that goal.

There was much to learn in this decision. The organization faced three significant complexities:

  • the basic complexity of the repair or replacement of a large, age-degraded heating system of old, inefficient design;
  • the decision-making complexity common to organizations overseen by Boards; and,
  • the complexity of making a wise, long-term decision in a time of substantial energy use transformation.

Arguably, the third complexity above is both the most important one for this, or any, organization to solve and the most difficult to achieve. We are living in a time in which “traditional” energy use has clearly become unsustainable. Bright people around the globe are looking for ways to enable us to maintain, or enhance, our lifestyles while shifting energy sources toward those which can be sustained.

How then did this group of well-educated, thoughtful people make such a curious decision?

The administration of the organization employed a traditional mechanical services firm to advise the decision with the implicit assumption that the firm would manage the selected system going forward. With that choice, the organization eliminated from serious consideration all but the technologies with which the mechanical services firm was familiar and comfortable. All emergent energy sources were eliminated from consideration by that application of administrative information to the complex process.

This sort of “selection information” will serve as a flywheel favoring existing, unsustainable energy use until architectural, engineering, and mechanical contracting firms gain broader understanding of emerging energy technologies and gain comfort in their application.

In the meantime, organizations anxious to make wise long-term decisions about energy use are advised to carefully avoid this “selection information” trap. This is best achieved by employing an advising engineer with a broad understanding of traditional and emergent energy technologies and no vested interest in the organization’s ultimate energy application decision.