September 29, 2016

JP Drouin: Creativity in Engineering

The Association of Energy Engineers recently named JP Drouin as “Young Energy Professional of the Year 2016”. This is a good opportunity to speak with the Ecosystem engineer about his short but impressive career. First interview in a series of two.

Ecosystem – JP, what got you started on the path to innovation in the energy sector?

JP – When I was studying mechanical engineering, I could see that energy efficiency was the field of the future. I believed in energy efficiency, it was meaningful to me. I saw that it could have a greater impact than, for example, working in aeronautics for private jets (a field that many of my engineering friends decided to pursue). After graduating, I joined Ecosystem, and I knew right away that I was in the right place at the right time. What struck me about Ecosystem was the company’s culture, values, emphasis on innovation, and especially our commitment to delivering results.

How did you develop your sense of technical innovation?

JP – At Ecosystem, the key figure in innovation is the company’s cofounder Richard Tremblay. He brings new engineers on visits to mechanical rooms and talks to us about energy in ways we’ve never seen in textbooks. It’s especially striking to see him in a mechanical room, touching the equipment, using his hands to assess the heat intensity of a pipe, pressing his ear against ventilation ducts and evaluating air speed by the sound that’s produced… and leaving the building, nodding his head with a sly smile and a vision for a potential project that he sums up in a few words, a few numbers. We are astonished when, after weeks or even months of calculations, we realize that Richard had hit the mark the first time. This was impressive for me to see as a young graduate.

Did it seem like your mentor had the ability to magically assess a building?

JP – No! (laughing) Before visiting a mechanical room, we’ve already studied the energy bills and started developing hypotheses. To verify these ideas, we need to be able to visualize where the energy is going, where it’s consumed. But we can’t see energy. That’s why Richard puts his trust in all his senses, in particular touching, hearing… and intuition!

Other engineers have the tendency to rely too quickly on tons of data and calculations and get lost in that. Richard showed us how to start by looking for what’s hidden “behind the curtain”, to understand the overall functioning of a building or a group of buildings.

It’s only once we have a clear vision of the energy profile of buildings that we can validate our intuition through calculations and identify suitable energy efficiency measures.

So, after understanding a building’s profile, it’s time for creativity. But what does creativity look like in building mechanics?

JP – It’s finding solutions that reach our clients’ objectives—energy or otherwise—even if sometimes these solutions may seem counterintuitive to the market or our clients. It also involves having the time and the right conditions to be creative. That is what’s great at Ecosystem, that all the conditions are there to foster creativity.

What are some of the results?

JP – One of the best examples is converting steam systems into hot water systems with heat recovery.

When I started at Ecosystem, conversion from steam to hot water was already our flagship measure. We had already done this at a hospital in Rimouski, Quebec. It was a first, I believe. We then implemented this measure in many buildings across Quebec, then Ontario and New York. To this day, it’s still a highly innovative measure because few other companies have mastered it technically at the same level as Ecosystem.

And the heat recovery?

JP – When combined with a steam to hot water conversion, heat recovery can bring the efficiency of a heating system from 60% to more than 400%. It’s a powerful measure that can make all the difference in a project. And it requires creativity. This measure can take different forms depending on the building in which it’s being implemented. It can involve a heat pump, a geothermal system, or an aerothermal system.

In what ways did your knowledge and creativity continue to evolve at Ecosystem?

JP – I volunteered to move to New York and help develop our market there. I met a lot of people, including directors of technical services, operations managers, directors of energy and sustainable development departments, and so on. I realized that these managers had diverse and complex needs related not only to the building, but also to the occupants. We’re dealing with a spectrum of different but interrelated needs: energy consumption, operation and maintenance costs, GHG emissions, asset renewal, occupant experience (comfort, resilience of heating and cooling services), adaptability of energy systems to future campus growth, etc. I saw that I should put my efforts into understanding these needs and helping my clients identify them, while also providing my clients with ideas and direction about the best ways to resolve their challenges. In other words, now that I had learned the technical side of my profession, I was learning about the importance of human relationships, of building trust with clients. For a project to be successful, we need to combine our holistic understanding of buildings with an understanding of the needs of those who occupy and run them, while also being able to clearly communicate our vision.

In the United States, cogeneration (generating electricity and heat from natural gas) is a prevalent energy efficiency solution. How did you develop your expertise and creativity with regards to cogeneration?

JP – By diving right in. When we got to New York, we began working on Ecosystem’s first project implemented in the United States. It was at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital in Brooklyn. This is where the story gets interesting. A cogeneration system needed to be added in order to generate savings in the hospital, but the heating system was incompatible with this measure. It was a steam system! It needed to be converted to hot water. And who could do that best? Ecosystem. We had already converted dozens of systems from steam to hot water in hospitals in Quebec. By combining this with cogeneration, Ecosystem was able to promise Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital more than $400,000 in energy savings per year.

And it worked: the project is now generating $600,000 in annual savings. It was named Energy Project of the Year by the Association of Energy Engineers in 2014 and received an award from the U.S. Green Building Council in 2015. Why do you think it received so much recognition?  

JP – I can’t completely explain it, but Ecosystem projects seem to attract attention and stand out. I think what they found impressive in this case was that we undertook a steam to hot water conversion in a hospital running 24/7 with patients who require uninterrupted care. It certainly wasn’t the easiest solution, and a more traditional engineering firm would have chosen a path that involved less risk management. But in the end, it was the solution with the greatest economic value and that best responded to the client’s needs. That was Ecosystem’s first project in New York and it put us on the map. This opened the door for projects in other hospitals, schools, universities, colleges, etc.

What are you working on now?

JP – I’m developing different types of energy projects in collaboration with our growing New York office. At the moment, I’m motivated about the possibility of helping universities across the United States with developing strategic visions to address energy challenges on their campuses. Whether in New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, or California, the need is there and the potential is incredible. I can see it: dramatic energy savings can be achieved, along with major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

A subject that can be addressed in a second interview?

JP – Certainly.

Interested in learning more?