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Decentralizing Electricity Production

In the coming years, electricity generation, like many forms of manufacturing, will be more and more decentralized, moving closer to users and even making most users into producers.  Every building and house will become both a supplier as well as user of electricity.  This is the way technology is developing and is consistent with the way nature distributes energy around the earth.  It is the obvious future of electricity.

In 1983, I edited a book called Decentralizing Electricity Production, which grew from a conference I organized on the subject at Wesleyan University.  Contributors including Amory Lovins, physicist Bent Sorenson, economist David Huettner, and renewable resource consultant Lisa Frantzis collectively addressed why and how decentralizing a power grid would work.  They demonstrated that changing the grid from a one-way distributor of central power to a multi-directional absorber and distributor of power would improve overall grid performance and allow for the effective use of alternative sources.  This kind of grid, which you can think of as more of an organic model than what we have currently, would constantly adjust to changing conditions, supply, and demand.  The underlying thesis of the book was that having a large number of smaller producers was much more advantageous than having a small number of large producers.  The benefits of re-conceptualizing the grid this way are many:

  • Fewer line losses.  Nearly two thirds of the fuel energy used by power plants is lost before it gets to the end user.  Moving generation closer to users (and making more users into producers) would reduce the amount of energy lost in transmission.  Indeed, Sorenson's analysis showed that as users become renewable energy producers, transmission losses would decline significantly, saving energy and reducing fuel mass.
  • Less financial capital (and mass capital) required for back-up reserves. When there are a small number of large plants supplying a region, the amount of back-up capacity has to be large.  When a plant goes down, there needs to be an equivalent amount of reserve plant capacity available to make up for the loss.  But with more points of generation incorporated into the grid, the likelihood of large scale failure declines.  It is less likely, for example, that 30 percent of 3,000 small systems will go down at the same time than it is that 30 percent of three large systems will go down simultaneously.  So, as the number of generators increases, the grid requires a smaller proportion of reserve capacity (backup systems not in use at any given time).  In addition, it is now easier to precisely match supply and demand with a larger number of small producers using new nano sensor technology.
  • Increased reliability and decreased risk of failure.  Diversity and decentralization improve stability.  A large-scale failure is less likely due to a greater diversity of energy sources (wind, sun, hydro, gas, etc.) and a larger geographic distribution of those sources.  Using a mix of different renewables and traditional fuels together in a grid reduces risk because the sun might be shining when the wind isn’t blowing and vice versa.  In addition, the sun may be shining in one part of a regional grid when not in another.
  • Economies of scale. As the number of smaller systems increases, the economies of scale shift from a small number of huge energy generation plants to the mass production of smaller plants.  A more robust maintenance and repair industry that creates employment and other local economy benefits will also result.  In addition, many renewable technologies work well in distributed applications at smaller scales that are not practical for large companies to operate.

When we wrote the book, there were few small-scale energy generation technologies available and none were cost-competitive.  There were certainly no sophisticated sensors and information technologies that we now know can literally allow an electrical grid to diagnose, learn, and regulate itself.  And there was certainly no talk about a smart grid.  That's all changing now.  The technologies that will enable decentralized electricity generation look different from the technology we're accustomed to.  There are small systems that can deliver more power from their mass than large-scale generators.  These technologies will allow electricity generation to happen almost anywhere.  Entire building surfaces will become small-scale solar electric generators.  Biofuel from algae can be grown in decentralized systems.  In wind power, the number of large-scale, three-rotor wind turbine farms will level off as a new generation of innovative, smaller-scale technologies become available and are incorporated into the evolving smart energy grid.  More wind systems will be integrated with building designs that can actually amplify wind.  After all, buildings create as well as change wind currents.  Innovative designs for turbines using building-influenced wind are much more effective at harnessing available wind, using lower wind speeds, taking advantage of rapidly changing wind directions, and are cheaper and quieter than large systems.

We are already seeing thousands of businesses across the US and around the world installing wind and solar systems as a hedge against increasingly volatile fuel prices and uncertain supplies.  As more and more products and services are being transformed using biomimicry (copying the way living systems solve problems), it’s time to apply biomimetic thinking on a large scale, such as designing electric grids that mimic the way organisms regulate themselves to deal with constantly changing conditions and needs.


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Bubbles and Structures: Improving our economy’s resource performance

There’s been a flurry of new material science innovations associated with improving our economy's resource performance.  Many of these innovations are what I consider low-hanging fruit.   For example, a recent article in Fast Company describes an MIT-developed technology for reducing the mass of plastics by adding tiny gas bubbles.  The article raises potential problems with focusing purely on minimizing mass (including the need to ensure a design’s quality), and we'll discuss those in a future blog.  But let's talk about innovations in light-weighting plastics and how they relate to the underlying concepts of dMASS.   First, note that there’s a key relationship between form and mass.  When you get the form right - that is to say when you get closer to understanding how nature arranges itself  – you are more able to eliminate mass without compromising the value or desired functionality of a product. 

For the first time in decades, automakers are actively pursuing ways to reduce the mass of cars to improve fuel efficiency without compromising safety.  In fact, Ford has identified vehicle weight reduction as a major part of its plans to improve fuel efficiency. 

Mass savings can occur without a functional reduction in material performance for a number of reasons.  Most notably, but not surprisingly, many components of cars and other goods are simply overdesigned - way overdesigned - and improved understanding of how different materials perform under different circumstances allows for better matching of materials to needs.  Maintaining performance must also occur because of the way that the nitrogen atoms comfortably disperse themselves among the other organic carbon chain structures.  They are usurping a certain amount of the volume (space) within the product, which causes the polymer molecules to readjust their structural relationships.  Trapped gasses can obviously have structural characteristics.  The bubbles could allow the redistribution of compressive force around them similar to the way an arch allows for eliminating some of the mass of a wall or a bridge by efficiently redistributing the compressive force around it without weakening the structure.  (See our video, Design Matters, for more on how this works.)  For engineers and material scientists, the trick is finding the right arrangement of open spaces and structural elements that best perform a desired function.  

There are many other examples of bubbles (or empty space) being used to displace mass.  Small bubbles are being used in structural building materials like cellular concrete and a variety of foam products.  They are also beginning to appear in building and construction products as insulating material for both sound and heat, as in super lightweight insulation.  IKEA is using a technology that creates strong structural components in lightweight furniture by replacing the normally solid inner portion with a honeycomb arrangement of cardboard that has large open spaces.  The result is furniture that’s as strong as wood, yet has a mostly empty core.  It’s achieved by finding the most effective way to arrange the cardboard network inside.  In A Simple Lesson in Sustainability and Creating Business Value, Kristin mentioned a software applet that instructs printers to arrange tiny holes in the ink surface of printed letters, saving 25 percent of ink without noticeable affect for the reader.  A Dutch company called Freedom of Creation has several interesting designs, from iPhone cases to furniture, that reduce mass by using empty spaces.  

In most cases, this kind of mass reduction can be achieved because of an increased understanding and mimicry of structural arrangements in nature.  In the end it is form that determines the behavior, and therefore the value, of a given material or product. And mass can be reduced by better matching certain forms with certain tasks.  This is the beauty and direction of real design innovation.  For products where maintaining material volume is an important benefit, integrating space and structural elements is an important strategy for achieving dMass objectives.

MuCell, the lightweight “bubble” technology for plastics, is a great example of a strategy to improve mass performance.  The technology introduces nitrogen gas bubbles into plastic during injection molding.  The largely-empty gas bubbles are distributed among the otherwise regular molecular structures, reducing the total amount of plastic mass required to make automobile components or other products.  According to the company licensed to use it, the technology results in material that’s strong but weighs up to 50 percent less than comparable material.  Ford estimates it could reduce vehicle weight by 10 percent.  As we have seen with many examples in our newsletter, mass savings accrue not only through the reduction in material of the product itself, but in the multiplier effect of resource savings throughout the product life cycle - it takes less fuel, water, and capital to mine, manufacture, and transport fewer materials.

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Putting the economy on a diet? It’s value, not just amount that matters

dMASS is not about austerity or self-denial.  It is about harvesting the most useful benefits from the least resources...Leadership in business is delivering more benefits to customers with fewer tons of resources. 

The vet recently told me my dog is "gravitationally challenged."  I was mortified.  While mass and weight are not technically the same thing, on this planet the mass of something can be measured by the degree of gravity's influence on it - by its weight.  Here I am advocating dMASS and my dog is obese.

For a long time, I have lectured about the comparability of what doctors call an obesity epidemic spreading around the world and our economic obesity epidemic.  If you prefer politically correct terminology, our cars are gravitationally challenged.  So are our buildings and our manufactured products.

The comparison between metabolic and economic obesity is more than just a literary device.  Nature is organized energy patterns and processes that are manifest at different scales.  When a doctor helps someone plan a diet, the trick is not just reducing food mass intake; it is also important to ensure nutrition.  A good diet is nutrient-rich.  That means that the essential benefits of eating can be obtained from less total food mass intake if that food is nutrient-rich, rather than nutrient-poor.  Jared Diamond is just one of many scientists to point out that some cultures developed faster because the available native foods were higher in protein and other nutrients, so less time had to be spent harvesting, transporting, and processing food to get what was needed from it.

I look at the economy in the same way.  dMASS is not about austerity or self-denial.  It is about harvesting the most useful benefits from the least resources.  We need to re-design our products, our organizations, and our buildings and infrastructure using this simple principle.  We need to harvest many more benefits from every ton of resources we use.  This is only hard to do because we somehow came to think of mass and benefits as inherently proportional.  They are not.  We have confused the products we create with the benefits they deliver, the massiveness of the buildings we build with their function.

If I want my dog to be healthy, it won't do to simply give her less food.  The same is true for economics.  Leadership in business is delivering more benefits to customers with fewer tons of resources.

Read more:

Designing to eliminate mass for competitive advantage – where things are headed

Lightweighting: dMASS design in action

How to overcome resistance to change with innovation

And others under the Design category.

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