Designing for “radical efficiency”

Do you cringe when you hear the supposed cure for all business ills — “innovate, innovate, innovate”? What does that mean, exactly? How about some concrete examples or guidelines? One could do worse than follow the thinking of Amory B. Lovins, cofounder, chairman, and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute, Snowmass, Colo. He calls for the use of “integrative design for radical efficiency.” According to this approach, when energy efficiency is a goal, optimizing each system component independently produces non-optimal complete systems.

For example, consider that the biggest use of motors is with industrial pumps, says Lovins. “Current systems usually have long, relatively thin pipes with sharp bends to transport fluids to be pumped,” he says. “The designer probably optimized the piping for an acceptable amount of friction, balancing this against the higher costs of larger pipes. But this arrangement requires the use of larger, expensive motors and expends a lot of pumping energy — a wasteful, inefficient solution at best. A better idea is to begin downsteam, starting with fat, short, straight pipes with zero friction and then fitting the pumps and motors. This would allow the use of smaller pumps and motors, which would actually slash the overall pumping energy needed by 80%.”

Lovins also says “efficiency is cheaper than fuel.” In automotive design, for example, starting downsteam and radically simplifying manufacturing would help produce a more efficient vehicle. “In current cars, 87% of the fuel energy never gets to the wheel,” he says. “Only 6% of the fuel accelerates the car and only 0.3% of it moves the driver. Just increasing the energy at the wheels by one unit would translate to eight fewer units of energy needed at the tank.”

Lovins suggests considering how Toyota developed its 1/x concept car. “The use of carbon fiber parts meant workers could just pick up parts by hand, so there was no need for elaborate hoists or exhaust-spewing tow-trucks,” he says. “The design also produced a strong yet lightweight vehicle. And, because color could be added in the mold, there was no need to paint the car.” The 1/x is said to get 600 miles on a four-gallon tank of fuel.

Conventional building design is also wasteful, says Lovins. “The thinking is that the more you use, the more it costs — for instance, insulation in a building. Most engineers would figure you need as much insulation as would pay for itself over time in lowered heating bills. But this approach doesn’t account for the costs of the furnace, ducts, and other equipment needed to supply the heat. In contrast, an integrated approach might entail using the newer “superglass” windows, which lose up to 42% less heat than a standard double-pane window. It also might entail the use of “superinsulation,” a different approach to building design, construction, and retrofitting.” A superinsulated building typically has thick insulation, airtight construction, and a residential heat-recovery ventilator for fresh air. The design only requires a small back-up heater, eliminating the need for a furnace.

Rocky Mountain Institute,
10xe, — a partnership between Rocky Mountain Institute and Autodesk Inc., which has the goal of providing a tangible guideline to whole-system thinking for radical efficiency gains.
Autodesk Inc.,

By Leslie Gordon, Contributing Editor

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