The Potential Power of Design
IE Issue #92
The whole universe is based on design. Everything—from electrons to galaxy clusters—is designed in accordance with the basic forces of nature and even to create these forces. The four forces are: strong and weak nuclear forces, electromagnetism and gravity. I have made a case previously for a fifth force of intelligence (see IE #65). I had in mind that this force was a new and independent force with the same power to shape the universe as the other forces. In the science and engineering of energy as it relates to mankind, it is certainly a major force.
It is obvious by even a casual intelligent observer that nature really does not deal with things like efficiency the way we do on Earth. Unimaginable amounts of energy are thrown around the universe with no discernable (at this point) concern for where it goes and what happens to it and certainly no “thought” of efficiency as we understand it. Our situation on Earth is much different. We must do what we can with the energy that comes to Earth and that contained within it. We must also do this in a sustainable way if we plan to be here much longer and enjoy life.
Design is the key to successful use of the Earth’s energy. There are literally millions of examples, big and small, but a useful example is the locomotive. The old steam engines were a work of engineering art at the time, but they were only about 5% efficient at converting their fuel energy into motive energy. A modern diesel locomotive is about 30% efficient at the same job. It uses one-sixth the energy to move the same load over the same distance as the steam locomotive and does it with a small fraction of the pollution. This is a big difference with a big design change made over decades by thousands of engineers, but there are many small changes made by individuals that really add up. A small change in the valve action of a car engine can make a difference of one or two miles per gallon. A vacuum tube and transistor are both electronic switches, but a modern cell phone with thousands of transistors uses much less power than a single old vacuum tube. The IT revolution could not have been built on vacuum tubes from an energy standpoint alone let alone cost, which would have made it totally unfeasible.
At IE we are concerned with the science of energy production—a discovery of what exists—but are also concerned with the engineering and design of devices that exploit the science as we understand it. Most of the time design is a bit ahead of science, so the science is not well understood; we produce a steam engine first and later learn more so that we can produce a diesel. There are no internal combustion engines in nature that we know of, but often we try to mimic what we see in nature and modify it to fit our needs. Transistor-like crystals are naturally occurring and part of the invention of the transistor involved studying them before a useful manmade device could be produced.
We are now at a time where it is urgent that the efficiency of use of our natural resources increase dramatically. This is widely recognized but not being well implemented. We at IE are trying to facilitate the discovery of new science and the accompanying engineering. These new discoveries will in the long run produce new, much more efficient products, but we also need to make the best use of current technology. We are in a transition where we see the possibilities of future science but have little idea when these will be realized and how good they will be. At the same time, urgent action is needed but a lot of the actual action is poorly thought out and often full of unintended consequences. The idea of ethanol from corn was obviously flawed from the beginning by any intelligent observer, but the government felt it had to do something and industry was more than willing to take their money to build plants even if they made no sense in the bigger picture.
Our exploitation of solar and wind energy is in danger of serious misdirection. Renewable energy is now big business and these businesses are eager to encourage government supported projects that involve their products and services without regard for the real merit of the project and the long-range consequences. Huge wind turbines and solar arrays are being installed around the world without sufficient consideration of the variability of the power produced and the ability of the grid to properly distribute it. A so-called smart grid costing billions of dollars is proposed in the U.S. to help distribute this power, but it may be just adding to the error. A well-known but under-utilized solution makes far more sense in many circumstances. That is cogeneration, the distributed generation of electrical power and the local use of the heat that is otherwise wasted.
A utility company which builds a big central power plant spends millions of dollars constructing cooling towers to dissipate heat that is badly needed somewhere else. The heat is not as valuable as the electricity per unit of energy because it takes roughly three units of heat to produce one unit of electricity, due to thermodynamic and mechanical limitations. This same fact implies that two-thirds of the energy spent making the electricity is turned into heat, which then is worth about 22% as much as the potential mechanical energy of the fuel, versus the electricity which is worth 33%. Thus the heat generally is worth about 67% as much as the electricity. This is a significant percentage that far offsets the greater thermal efficiency of large power plants compared to small cogeneration plants. Distribution losses are also eliminated, so the small plant is overall very close to the efficiency of the large one. But, it is producing, at that point, free heat while the large plant is spending money to throw heat into the environment, often where it is not wanted.
A cogeneration power plant designed for a few hundred residential units can produce electricity at about 7 cents per KWH using natural gas or oil as fuel, including the operating and equipment cost and all maintenance. In southern New Hampshire where I live, electricity costs about 15 cents per KWH. The cogeneration system could sell the electricity at 10 cents per KWH with a good profit and the heat then is free to use for the best purpose. In a multi-family building that would be for heat and hot water in the winter and hot water in the summer. Excess heat in the summer could be used to run an absorption cooling system as well.
It has been said many times recently that water is the new oil and blue is the new green. The importance of proper water distribution and treatment is widely recognized to be as important as the energy problem. The current situation with water is similar to that with energy. Big, inefficient, expensive systems with often marginal quality of output are now the standard system design. Equipment is now being designed that can treat and recycle water on a distributed basis. A few years ago most people would not have accepted recycled water, especially fully recycled water that was to be for drinking as well as all other uses. This is changing and—upon unequivocal demonstration of the safety, reliability and cost of these new systems—recycling will be accepted. This will take years, but the benefits will be huge. The wide implementation of such systems will have the capability of solving both the supply and disposal problems associated with water. This can be done worldwide since the total system is fairly self-contained. The total water consumption for cities and industry could be cut over 90% and the environment substantially cleaned up.
There are big forces that will resist these changes just as in the energy case, but in the long run the technology will be overwhelming and the benefits so obvious that even the obstructing role of government will be overcome. Some of the acceptance will come from the fact that the alternative methods are becoming bankrupt. Government will have to give in for economic reasons. Industry will change slowly but will make the transition once the government stops buying the old equipment and methods.
The buildings that this equipment serves are part of a well-designed system. For example, single family houses do not lend themselves well to either cogeneration or systems that can fully recycle water. Systems will eventually be designed that will address this to some degree, but the house itself is part of the problem. They are inefficient thermally and structurally as well as in their use of land. The problems of urban sprawl, including road construction and transportation costs, are also serious issues that will contribute to a trend away from single family houses. The world is rapidly becoming more urban, which is a good thing from an energy point of view. The area of the country that is most efficient per capita in use of energy is Manhattan. That is because cars are not used much and buildings are big, which means they lose less heat per square foot due to common walls. Another significant reason is the use of cogeneration, which can be done even with a large power plant if there is enough demand for the heat within a reasonable distance.
Most of these changes will start with new projects by innovative developers and approved by municipalities that are truly progressive and rational. Much of it will be done in Asia where problems are acute and there is the will and skill to try new things. The net result of intelligent design of buildings that include this technology will be dramatic. A well-designed multi-family condominium or apartment building can offer almost all of what is desired in a single family residence, including privacy and access to outdoor space. Privacy is often better than in a typical suburban development with houses separated by less than 100 feet and much activity open to view from neighbors. A well-designed building will be much safer than a single family house from wind, fire and intrusion because of concrete and steel construction and good security systems. Maintenance costs are less per square foot and the building is thermally much more efficient. The building will take up much less land per dwelling, so a development on a given area of land will offer much higher quality outdoor space than an equivalent single family development.
The overall development can achieve an 80% reduction in overall utility costs and offer a higher quality of life. No sacrifice of quality of life is necessary to achieve energy and water efficiency; in fact the same technology that offers the efficiency along with the overall building design can enhance the quality of life. A development of 100 or more units is big enough to capitalize on some excellent equipment performance. It soon will be possible to build such a building that can be off the water, sewer and electric grids and contribute nothing to the landfill and sometimes effectively take from the local landfill. This is due to significant developments in the field of water treatment and gasification of trash so that it can be burned in a cogeneration system. Such a development can recycle over 95% of its water and offer water of much higher purity than any current water utility. There would be no sewage discharge. Instead, sewage would be treated on site and the solids turned to compost that could enhance the gardens; any excess could be burned in the trash-to-energy system. All of these systems will meet and mostly far exceed any EPA requirements.
This building proposed herein is a state of the art building, which gives rise to the question: where is the solar and wind component? Light is a valuable energy source. It can be used for electricity generation via photovoltaic (PV) systems, active or passive solar heating or for growing things. In the example building, cogeneration is used so there is no need of it for heating. Electricity generated by the system would be about one-fourth the cost of using a good PV system, but the biggest reason not to use PV is that light is far more valuable in contributing to the quality of life of the residents. PV systems of any significant size would create shadows, reducing the light entering the building that can be used for lighting and growing plants, both of which are efficient and life-enhancing uses. The example building would have a green roof that might even have a park and greenhouse. Even in a cold climate a significant portion of high value food could be grown on the roof and any other area with sufficient lighting. PV can’t come close to competing with such uses, but good design is essential to achieve these objectives. Good design is rare and difficult. It is far easier to throw up a few PV panels and make bogus claims about being green and maybe get some tax credits than it is to produce genuinely good design and an environment that is a joy to live in as well as low cost and easy.
Wind energy might be used to produce some of the energy if the building is high enough and the area is reasonable for wind. Many areas will produce reasonable wind energy returns on investment for a modest system on a high building. The system must be unobtrusive, safe and not reduce the quality of life in the building. This will generally confine its capacity to 10% or less of the electrical usage. Electric power use will be low because lighting will be efficient and very little will be needed to distribute the heat and hot water. Cooling loads will be low due to good building design and the waste heat from the cogeneration system can contribute to running the cooling system.
A typical water and sewer bill is about $1,000 per year in an urban area in the northeast U.S. This pays for the construction and operation of the complex big pipe system required under the current paradigm. A well-designed system that combines all state of the art technologies in a well-integrated system can offer much better water quality and no polluting discharge at $200 per year. The overall building can offer a high quality of life, consuming only 5% of the water of a similar size conventional development, consuming only about half the energy for electrical power and essentially nothing for heat or hot water. Essentially nothing would be sent to the landfill because recycling would be used and the rest of the trash would be gasified and burned to produce electricity. Some biomass could be diverted from the local landfill, such as waste wood to be gasified and burned in the trash-to-energy system. This could have the net effect of keeping material out of the local landfill.
Intelligent design—from the choice of land, building design and mechanical and electrical systems—can dramatically reduce our environmental footprint today. These designs can get us to a future where systems based on newly-discovered science can further reduce this environmental impact by reducing the overall energy usage even more.