Jerry Elmblad, A Plant Guy
(01/05/2010)

Vital Stats

Name: Jerry Elmblad

Age: 55

Field: Facilities, physical plant and energy management

Title: Administrative Manager

Agency: Michigan Department of Corrections

Time Served: 25 years

Jerry Elmblad’s office at the Michigan Department of Corrections in Lansing is littered with papers and publications on cutting-edge technologies.

 

“My desk is always piled high with technology stuff,” Elmblad says. “I’m constantly diving into new fields to see if we can apply technology and alternative forms of energy to the facilities we operate at MDOC. Of course, new technologies we can use are very hard to come by, but we’ve been successful in finding some that work for us.”

Elmblad, an administrative manager and 25-year employee at the MDOC, arrived in corrections by way of an engineering education with the U.S. Navy. His post-Navy career began with building inspection work. He then managed the power plant at the MDOC’s Marquette facility, which led to ever-increasing responsibility managing the physical plant and energy management for the department.

“It might not sound like an obvious path, but I joined the Navy to learn and explore,” Elmblad says. “I see myself staying in this field for the rest of my career for the same reasons — I’m constantly on the road learning new things, new technologies, new ideas.”

Elmblad has become one of the corrections industry’s foremost experts on energy use reduction.

“My main job is to oversee all of our correctional facilities — the physical plants, the buildings,” he says. “Right now at the MDOC, we’re really focused on energy reduction measures, and because of the tremendous support of my superiors, I’ve been given the freedom to travel and learn about new energy technologies to see how and if we can implement them.”

When MDOC began looking hard at ways it might save and conserve energy more than a half dozen years ago, one of Elmblad’s first recommendations was to move facilities to motion detector lighting controls, which he says helped save money and improved functionality and safety.

“At one of our camp systems, for example, it got to the point where the entire place was lit by motion detecting lights,” Elmblad says. “At night, the camp would be almost completely dark unless someone tripped a detector.

When those lights flick on, it calls attention to a certain area and it actually becomes a security enhancement. This was a huge success for us because there’s still the misconception at many corrections facilities that all the lights need to be on all the time. That camp proved motion detector lighting was worthwhile, and it helped us implement similar systems at other facilities.”

How much did the MDOC save by using motion detecting lights at the camp?

“We saved around $700 a year per light fixture,” Elmblad says. “You can imagine how that savings might become an awful lot of money across a bunch of buildings at even bigger facilities.”

However, the greatest challenge to implementing new technology, energy efficiency measures and sustainability practices — even those as simple as turning off computer screens or switching the power management setting to energy-saving mode — has to do with people and changing ways of thinking.

“Corrections is an industry where there are a lot of fixed mindsets about the way things need to be done,” Elmblad says. “I feel some of my greatest successes have come in working with people to help them see how to conserve and adapt — ways we can change to make things better and more cost-effective without compromising safety and security. Sometimes it’s just about helping people fully realize how pennies really do add up to dollars.”

Elmblad’s peers say he’s grounded and open-minded, attributes that undoubtedly serve him well as he bounces between 952 buildings at 39 facilities throughout Michigan.

“I’m a guy who actually loves his job,” Elmblad says. “I get to go out on the road and meet interesting people, and I get to teach and train people. The excitement of being able to take a concept or technology and put it into operation at a facility is very rewarding, especially when everyone buys into it.”

Elmblad’s open-mindedness and his ability to change the status quo of MDOC operations and facilities have not only bolstered his career and reputation, they made him and the agency targets for companies interested in testing state-of-the-art technologies.

“We’ve been so willing to try things in the past half decade that companies are now coming to us to see if we’ll experiment with their latest goods,” Elmblad says. “We’ll usually get their products at a very good rate — for free in some cases — to test, and if they prove their worth, it’s a win-win situation for everyone. It’s a benefit for the companies because their products are tested in a correctional facility, which as you know is a much harsher environment than a typical building or home, and it’s a benefit for us because the products come at a reduced price and help us save on energy costs.”

Recently, one such test, conducted in concert with Beta Lighting and Relume Technologies, evaluated the performance of new, high-powered LED lighting systems.

“Everyone loves LED lighting because of the efficiency, but until recently no one has made an LED system capable of generating enough light,” Elmblad says. “We tested the lights on a small scale, they proved worthwhile immediately, and we’re now [using them on a much bigger scale].”

Other exciting projects at the MDOC include an investigation into the payback period on a geothermal energy installation at one of the state’s smaller facilities, which Elmblad hopes to install if his budget allows and his preliminary analyses hold true.

Elmblad is also on the verge of installing an on-demand hot water system at a large facility in Marquette featuring hydronic technology that will use gas only when there is a need for it, rather than constantly consuming fuel by maintaining and storing heated water. The system is projected to save about 12 percent a year on natural gas, a considerable sum given the facility’s size and the hot water needs of a cold-weather state.

Though willing to experiment and tantalized by the possibility of using energy sources such as wind power — especially given Michigan’s proximity to the gusty Great Lakes — Elmblad’s policy decisions are invariably rooted in pragmatism.

“Of course, we live in an area that’s perfectly suited for wind turbines, but we’re not using them yet because they’re not cost-effective,” Elmblad says. “Our budgets are very tight, to say the least, and in order for us to invest in new technologies, we’ve got to be able to justify using them very quickly.”

Elmblad’s passion for energy conservation extends beyond his professional life, too.

“God bless my amazing wife and family,” Elmblad says. “They keep me grounded and focused, and they tolerate me when I talk to random people on the street about ways they can save money with their lighting.”

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