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kW Engineering:

Saving Energy and Reducing Pollution

By Priscilla Richardson

Wanna save a bundle on utility costs? Then kW Engineering in Oakland, California, can help. After their energy audits of 42 Albertson's supermarkets in Oregon, Washington, and Utah last year, the company ended up achieving a 10% utility savings for each store. This came with a payback of 2.4 years on food refrigeration control upgrades and lighting retrofits, factoring in utility incentives. Jim Kelsey, a partner in the firm, says overall, Albertson's "will save on the order of 10 million kilowatt-hours annually."

Interest in energy conservation has seen a big upswing in recent years. The August east coast blackout, combined with the energy crisis California experienced in 2000, has propelled business. "Whenever something crazy happens, it benefits us. There are only two ways to deal with these problems: either increase supply or decrease demand," Kelsey says. As a result, he sees growing interest in conservation and his firm's services.

In describing the company's work, Kelsey says, "We do primarily energy efficiency studies on new and existing commercial or industrial buildings. Architects call us in, but we usually start with owner-developers. Frequently the utility contracts with us to provide design assistance." He continues, "The clients with the most interest in us are owner occupants who are going to pay the utility bills. We will meet with the architect and building team, including a mechanical engineer and electrical engineer, to discuss different options at the start of the design. We will do computer simulations of different designs, with different window placement, shading, and mechanical options for HVAC, for example. We often can show a 20 to 25% difference in a building's efficiency before it's built."

For existing buildings, Kelsey reports, "our energy audit has two parts. First, we look for retro-commissioning measures, low and no cost things such as a change in controls and set points in equipment. For the other part, we suggest capital investment projects such as equipment upgrades, lighting retrofits, or water chiller replacement."

Kelsey and his two associates, Kevin Warren and Eben Twombly, like this work because they find it worthwhile. "The three of us came together with a shared desire to do something to feel good about and make money at the same time." Kelsey and Warren, friends since studying together in the Solar Energy Lab at the University of Wisconsin, started the firm in 1998. After each earned masters degrees in mechanical engineering, they started "working for a mom-and-pop consulting firm bought up by a big one. We didn't want that," Kelsey recalls. Twombly, with a degree in industrial engineering, joined kW in 2000 as a full partner. "We met him through industry events and our paths kept crossing. He liked what we were doing, so we invited him to work with us as an independent consultant before we joined forces." Besides the three partners, three engineers and one support person comprise the current staff.

Although kW hires "fairly slowly," Kelsey holds out the prospect of adding engineers at an increased pace, especially when they open their planned east coast branch. With responsibility for the new branch, Warren expects good business from locating in the Northeast, the center of a high utility use area backed up with public policy support for energy efficiency. The branch will open in October in Merchantville, New Jersey. "We'll work with utilities as well as businesses to verify energy savings, evaluate progress, inspect work, and double check processes," Warren says. He may start hiring within six months to a year, although he's always interested in knowing about an engineer's interest any time. As of now, all hiring goes through California.

Electrical or mechanical engineers looking to get on at kW straight out of school should have a strong technical orientation and some knowledge of HVAC and computer simulation. But "we're much more interested in personal characteristics. We need to know if can they work on their own and if can we hand something over and have them finish it," Kelsey says. Warren adds, "There's little low level engineering work here. You have to take responsibility and show a finished product to us."

For engineers already in the workplace, "we look for skills we can use such as HVAC or simulation experience. But we want self starters who can show us evidence of their ability to innovate," Kelsey says.

kW Engineering leads one of the latest trends in engineering, that of helping clients save money and utilities reduce the need for building more generation capacity. Also, as Warren puts it, "We think about the pollution saved." This makes it a prime engineering challenge for the future, one that can only grow along with the demand for power.


Company: kW Engineering

Type: Energy engineering consulting firm

Location: Oakland, California

Contact information: Visit website at

Priscilla Richardson, a professional speaker and seminar leader, specializes in tools for success, such as power networking and direct marketing. She can be reached at 540-992-1279 or

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Editor: Tom Gibson
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