Integrated Design Makes “Smart Garage” Part of Utility’s Infrastructure

Garage of the Future
Garage of the Future (photo by Elsie esq., CC 2.0 Attribution License)

The Rocky Mountain Institute’s Andrew Demaria blogged a few weeks ago about “smart garages” that combine smart cars, a smart home network, and much smarter utilities into a synergistic system that optimizes power usage. After describing a “day in the life” of a smart garage:

Given the utility is experiencing a peak load period, it asks my house if it can use the spare power in the car’s battery and send that electricity elsewhere in the grid. What’s more, it will pay¬†me for that power. Since I like being paid, I have already programmed the system to accept such requests.

The article then goes on to list the highlights of a recent Smart Garages conference organized by RMI. Attendees included representatives from auto manufacturers GM, Ford, and Nissan, utilities PG&E and Duke Energy, and consumer-focused companies Walmart and P&G.

Integrative design like smart garages requires all these organizations to work effectively together, based on official or de-facto standards. Although the cost of making such a transition will be hundreds of billions of dollars, the associated business opportunities, especially for those companies who can help tie all these disparate parts together, are commensurately huge.

Amory Lovins Named A World’s Best Leader By U.S. News

Amory Lovins
Amory Lovins

Amory Lovins is one of my true heros, and I’m thrilled to hear that U.S New has named him one of World’s Best Leaders in their report this week. Lovins has inspired multitudes (and this blog) with his vision of “getting off oil at a profit” and “drilling for negabarrels under Detroit.” The Rocky Mountain Institute, a “think and do” tank that he founded 26 years ago, takes this vision and makes it happen for Fortune 1000 companies, the military, and governments around the world (including Portola Valley, just up the street from me, where he spoke a few weeks ago).

Lovins argues that, contrary to the common belief, efficiency is much cheaper than energy use. Especially when pursued with a technique he calls “integrative design,’ doing efficiency right results in lower energy use, lower costs in the first place, and better productivity. The last point is critical – efficiency improves not only the bottom line by reducing costs, it also improves the top line by increasing productivity and profits.

So why aren’t we pursuing energy efficency faster, if it has so many benefits? Many companies are doing so, getting benefits that go directly to their bottom line and give them a competitive advantage, like Dupont. And Intel. And Wal-Mart.

In 2006, for example, RMI partnered with Wal-Mart to boost the fuel efficiency of the retailer’s truck fleet. “When Wal-Mart came to us,” he says, “we had a lot of internal discussion, because they have big issues,” notably the company’s history of labor problems. “But we decided if we worked only with perfect companies, we wouldn’t get anything done.” The collaboration has proved fruitful. Wal-Mart is now working to retrofit its 6,800 trucks with designs developed by RMI that should allow its fleet to go from getting 6 miles a gallon to between 16 and 18 miles a gallon by 2015, saving about $500 million annually.

These companies, and many more, are enjoying an “unfair advantage” due to their pursuit of efficiency. But for many companies, there are mixed up incentives, such as between commercial landlords and their tenants. The landlord has to pay for the efficiency, but the tenant reaps the benefits – their interests are not aligned, and so “business is usual.” In his books and talks, Lovins provides techniques, guidelines, and policy suggestions to help align these incentives.

For more on Lovins, I can recommend his books, Winning The Oil Endgame and Climate: Making Sense and Making Money (both available free for download) and Natural Capitalism, written with Hunter Lovins and Paul Hawken.

You can hear Lovins in numerous talks and interviews available as podcasts, including this outstanding series of five talks at Stanford University in 2007. Download those to your iPod or mp3 player and prepare to be amazed by the possibilities.

Congratulations Amory!

Sahara Forest Project: An Awesome Example of Mega-Integrative Design

The Sahara Forest project will use seawater and solar power to grow food in greenhouses across the desert. Photograph: Exploration Architecture
The Sahara Forest project will use seawater and solar power to grow food in greenhouses across the desert. Photograph: Exploration Architecture

The Sahara Forest project represents integrative design at a huge scale. (Integrative design combines multiple design improvements to get an overall improvement that’s bigger than the sum of its components.) As it says on the the Sahara Forest project home page:

The project combines two proven technologies in a new way to create multiple benefits: producing large amounts of renewable energy, food and water as well as reversing desertification.

The two technologies are the Seawater Greenhouse, invented by Charlie Paton, and a concentrating solar energy generation capability. The synergies arise in several ways – the energy generation provides the power to run fans to work the greenhouse, while the greenhouse creates excess fresh water for cleaning the mirrors of the generator, for example. The team that’s come together to create the project also represents some interesting synergies:

An inventor – Charlie Paton, creator of the Seawater Greenhouse; an architect – Michael Pawlyn of Exploration Architecture, previously of Grimshaw and the lead architect on the iconic Eden Project; an engineer – Bill Watts of Max Fordham & Partners, an engineering firm that focuses on energy efficient systems for the built environment.

The Sahara Forest post at Treehugger features a long interesting response in the comments by Pawlyn in response to questions raised by other commenters.

This is one of several projects I’ve read about recently that combine energy generation via visible light with use of the excess heat to achieve much higher solar energy conversion efficiencies. For example, this report in Science Daily last year about a prototype PV/Thermal system that was projected to capture 80% of the energy. While it complicates the mechanicals of the system, it certainly seems to make sense to take advantage of the heat created as a side effect of PV energy collection, especially since the PV cells work better – are more efficient – at lower temperatures. The heat needs to be removed anyway!

So far neither the project’s website or news reports about the project have many details about its progress or funding, but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on.

Running Some Numbers On Rooftop Solar Energy in 2018

Solar power systems installed in the areas def...
Solar power systems covering the areas defined by the dark disks could provide more than the world total primary energy demand in 2006 (assuming a conversion efficiency of 8%). Image from Wikipedia.

I recently asked physicist Richard Muller whether he thought the price-performance of solar electricity generation would follow a Moore’s Law-type curve. He said that this would not occur due to improving the efficiency of solar collection, as the current levels of efficiency – 20-40% – are reasonably high. However, he added

“I do expect the price to drop by a factor of 10, so we will have lots of solar.”

Well, in the nature of things, there’s definitely a limit to how much energy a solar PV collector can get from a square meter of sunlight. (There’s about 1kw of energy in a square meter – as I learned in Physics For Future Presidents, by Professor Muller – so we can expect to get 400 watts or less.) The amount of this energy per square meter we can collect will go up, but asymptotically approach (at best) the physical limits.

On the other hand, I’d argue that the cost of collecting it can go down a nearly unlimited amount – certainly multiple orders of magnitude. So what will solar PV look like in 2018 – ten years from now?

Continue reading “Running Some Numbers On Rooftop Solar Energy in 2018”

Carbon Mitigation Through Carbon Fiber?

A cloth of woven carbon filamentsImage via Wikipedia

Here’s an idea – let’s just suck the excess CO2 out of the atmosphere and turn it into carbon fiber to build superlight cars! These superlight cars would significantly reduce our demand for gasoline in the short term, and enable a right-sized hydrogen-based transportation fuel economy in the long term! Sounds great, right? But it’s a pipe dream right now – today carbon fiber is made from PolyAcryloNitrile (PAN), which is made from petroleum, and it’s an expensive and time-consuming process to make the fiber, and to make automobile parts from it.

Let’s quickly tot up the pros and cons of carbon fiber as part of a profitable solution to the world’s energy problems:

Pros:

  • Enables superlight cars, which require much smaller (therefore relatively less expensive as well as more efficient) engines to provide equivalent performance to current cars
  • Huge safety advantages, due to a) vehicles having less kinetic energy due to lower weight and b) structures can be incredibly strong and or selectively weak to protect passengers and provide crumple zones
  • Can significantly reduce the number of parts per vehicle
  • Can significantly reduce assembly time per vehicle

Cons:

  • 2-10 times more expensive per part than steel
  • Carbon fiber production significantly lower than necessary for application to even a fraction of new vehicles
  • Cycle times for parts are typically in hours, rather than minutes as for steel parts
  • Design expertise is limited
  • Process for making fibers is environmentally unfriendly
  • Fabrication techniques have a large amount of fiber waste, compounding the cost disadvantage

Despite the advantages of carbon fiber, the disadvantages seem so overwhelming that many analysts have discounted it as a near term option. For example, the recent MIT report “On The Road In 2035” asserts:

“Polymer composites [that is, carbon fiber reinforced composites, ed.] are also expected to replace some steel in the vehicle, but to a smaller degree given high cost inhibitions.”

So, the future for carbon fiber is not looking rosy. But… There is some hope on the horizon. The companies, organizations, and research labs that break the code can look forward to significant returns, so the investment in addressing carbon fiber’s disadvantages is large and growing. Several startups are promising significant improvements in cost and cycle time, while multiple labs are addressing the questions of feedstock, environmental impact, cycle time, and efficiency. Amory Lovins at Rocky Mountain Institute already argues that the time is now to initiate the transition to composite cars, with his Hypercar.

In the next installment, we’ll cover the following topics on the work of improving carbon fiber composites.

  • Reducing the cost
  • Improving cycle time
  • Reducing waste
  • Using environmentally friendly processes for feedstock generation, fiber creation, and fabrication
  • Other alternatives for strong, lightweight composites, including new biomemetic materials
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