Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Disney and Virtual Daylighting

Daylighting is great, not only because it lowers energy costs and carbon footprint, but because it keeps you in touch with your own body clock and daily signals. i.e. It makes you happier and more productive.

Daylighting, though, is hard to get into all areas of a multiple story, large floor area building.
Top floor - skylights.
Bottom floors... you could deal with this in new construction through good design of courtyards,  floor layouts and light shelves but options are limited for an existing building.

So what does Disney have to do with this?
Their latest cruise ship, the Dream, has virtual portholes for interior staterooms.

These operate by tying a video feed from exterior cameras to a video screen "porthole" in each interior room (with some playful CGI overlays). The cameras roughly correspond to the location and direction a real porthole would occupy for each stateroom.

So why not solve the daylighting problem the same way?

An array of lights with programmable illumination and color temperature controls tied to a sensor on or near an exterior window roughly adjacent to the light array could replicate the near window lighting experience throughout a section of the building. Repeat with multiple arrays tied to multiple sensors and you have virtual daylighting. User controlled task lighting, an override program for bad weather, nighttime or an offset to the illumination and color could make up for the cases where outside lighting was not ideal for work.

This would not get you LEED EB:O&M* EQ2.4 (daylighting) credit, but implement it with LED lighting arrays and integrated sensors and you could go a long way towards LEED EB:O&M EAc1 (energy efficiency), EQc2.2 (controllability of lighting systems) and maybe an Innovation credit too.

*For new construction, the credits are LEED NC EQ8.1 (daylighting), EAc1 (energy efficiency) and EQ6.1,(controllability of lighting systems). However, as noted above, for new construction you could design around the need for virtual daylighting so I focused on the existing building credits instead.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Next Best Alternative & "LEED Washing"

This article from Treehugger "The Four Sins of LEEDwashing" highlights some of the silliness that can occur from the current LEED credit system.

If you break NC v3 down by credits per category, you get this:
After you fulfill some prerequisites:
  • having a construction site pollution prevention plan
  • meeting a 20% reduction in water usage
  • performing basic commissioning
  • meeting minimum energy performance standards
  • not using CFC based refrigerants
  • having recycling plan and facilities
  • having a minimum indoor air quality plan
  • controlling tabacco smoke exposure
all you need is 40 points to be LEED certified.
This can lead to some strange configurations that would not be sustainable at all. For example:
  • A new building in the middle of the desert, far away from any housing, other development or public transit, with a grass lawn that made no special effort to control energy use could be certified  if it took extra care to:
    • Control construction waste, reuse materials, use recycled, sustainable, FSC certified wood and materials. [8 points in Materials and Resources]
    • Put a huge number of solar panels on or near the building, buy green power contracts, control refrigerant types, commission the building more thoroughly and then put an M&V plan in place to ensure that those systems continue to work as designed for a year. [16 points in Energy and Atmosphere]
    • Make a really nice interior environment for its residents by supplying extra air, light and views. By controlling indoor pollutants, by letting inhabitants control their own lighting and environment and by designing and verifying that the environmental design and those environmental controls work as designed about a year later. [15 points in Indoor Environmental Quality]
    • Ensure that residents and visitors are "educated" on just how "green" this building is... or, if that is too ironic, use organic cleaning supplies... or that is too much to ask, find a LEED AP to be a principal on the project. [1 point in Innovation and Design]
That's not very green, but is it better than the alternative: Doing none of the above?

That's a tricky balancing act.
If the bar is too low then it risks becoming greenwashing and undermining real efforts.
If the bar is too high then it risks inaction and rejection as being "too much."

So USGBC probably has struck a good middle road by starting somewhere that is arguably credible and gradually ratcheting the requirements as public and industry sentiment and awareness improve.
Not perfect but better than the next best alternative.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

How many superheroes does San Francisco need?

In the spirit of strange questions google might ask...something to get you thinking a little bit.

How many superheroes are needed in San Francisco?
Let's assume that the superheroes are needed to fight crime. All of it. In that case you'd need as many superheroes as it would take to stop all the crime in the city.

If you look at the FBI's Uniform Crime Report for 2009 you find that San Francisco had ~38,700 crimes in the first 6 months of 2009. That is ~215 crimes per day.
If you assume that all crimes occur at night (say between 8 pm and 5 am), that is ~2.5min per crime.
If you assume that the superhero instantly knows when and where a crime occurs and takes 1 min per crime to stop the evil-doers, that leaves ~1.5 min to travel between crimes.
If you assume that the superhero can fly as "fast as a speeding bullet" and that the bullet in question is from a 45cal Colt Revolver, that's 661 mph or ~11 miles/min. So in 1.5 minutes the hero could go ~16.6 miles (without even a sonic boom to wake people up).
San Francisco land area is roughly 7 miles x 7miles, which means that one superhero could easily cover all the crimes in the city.

So the answer is: One superhero.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Mo' money, Mo' Money. Mo' Money.

A difficulty of the triple bottom line is the entrenched position that only profit matters. So justifying sustainability expenditures must occur in the context of return on investment (ROI). Redrawing the sustainability system diagram in terms of the profit aspect shows that not much actually changes:

Most of the considerations and feedback loops are still included because they all affect profitability in one way or another. However, since the focus is now on ROI, the message changes slightly to focus on comparing what each aspect costs vs what it brings. At a high level:

Contingency expenses vs Materials Cost
  • Does it add more in materials or procurement costs than it saves in insurance, continuity plans, taxes / cap & trade costs, relocation costs and opportunity costs (business disruptions)? 
  • Admittedly, the impact of one company on the overall environment is probably small which is why pricing the externalities helps (e.g. carbon pricing) as it focuses everyone on those externalized costs in a consistent, material way.
Utilities Costs vs Building Cost
Productivity Gains & Decreased Training Costs vs Building Costs
  • Does it cost more to add indoor environmental quality improvements (e.g. daylighting, thermal controls, exterior views, higher ventilation rates) than you gain through improved worker productivity and retention?
  • It helps to consider that payroll costs are generally a much larger fraction of business costs than facilities + real estate costs. So if you can spend 7% in building cost to improve productivity of payroll by 2%, you will still come out very much ahead. Something like:
    • For 1000 employees @ 250 sq. ft /ea in office space built in San Francisco is ~ $50M. Amortize over 30 years = $1.6M/yr. A 7% increase is ~$117k/yr.
    • For the same 1000 employees @ $150k/yr in payroll costs = $150M/yr. If you can improve productivity by 2%, that is ~$3M/yr.
    • ROI ~ 24.
So Mo'Money, Mo'Money, Mo'Money and sustainability really do get along.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Product positioning if you made a cleantech widget

In the last post, I used a system diagram to look at a picture of sustainability leverage points from the perspective of the owner. That can be turned around and used to look at the picture from the perspective of a cleantech vendor. Let's say someone like Redwood Systems who makes an LED lighting + sensor system that allows feedback to a building automation system.

Key messages can be tailored to the exact circumstances and interests of the building owner but two main themes seem to stand out around energy usage and environmental quality.

Reduced energy usage:
  • drives down operating costs 
    • Direct savings from the lower energy consumption of the lighting fixtures.
    • Indirect savings from the improved efficiency with which the fixtures, HVAC and process equipment can be operated based on feedback that the fine grained sensor network provides.
  • helps the planet and, thereby, your operating risks / costs
    • Reduced energy usage lowers the company's carbon footprint, reducing its impact on the environment.
    • A reduced carbon footprint, in addition to helping reduce the potential business continuity costs and impacts of climate change, also helps reduce potential liability for carbon tax or cap & trade costs.
Better control of environmental quality:
  • improves productivity and profits
    • Fine grained feedback control over the workspace allows for a more pleasant and, therefore, productive workplace. Even small increases in productivity provide large leverage when weighed against total payroll costs, especially for highly paid, specialized workers.
  • improves worker retention
    •  Deployed as part of a larger program for improved retention, having a comfortable workspace with a customizable, controllable environment decreases costs of turnover both in lost productivity and in direct training.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Big Picture of Sustainability

Where are some key leverage points in cleantech, green building and sustainable business?

This is a swag at the system, which captures, I think, some interesting connections and highlights some key leverage points.
Sustainability Systems Diagram

 Before your head explodes, the theory behind it:
  • A building owner's success is defined as a function of the triple bottom line (Planet, People, Profit).
  • There are a lot of factors behind each part of the bottom line and some of those factors affect multiple bottom lines.
  • Most factors are affected by several other factors. A few factors are "decisions." They gain their value because the owner decides to do them, not as the consequence of some other factor. These are marked in RED in the diagram.
In this post, I want to focus on the last point as I think these are key leverage points for sustainability.

Sustainable Sourcing and Sustainable Material
What materials you choose and where you get them from affects all three bottom lines:
  • Planet : unsustainable harvest of materials destroys habitats, kills species (which can further degrade habitats) and depletes resources.
  • Profit : resource depletion ultimately raises the cost of procuring materials. Habitat destruction increases the allocations you should make to account for and insurance costs you will likely bear due to losses associated with it (e.g. increased flooding, loss of location due to sea level rise or desertification, etc.)
  • People : habitat destruction ultimately limits the locations where you can run your business and that has a big impact on how your company runs (see below).
Feedback Control
How you manage your resource usage affects all three bottom lines:
  • Profit : Controlling usage to increase efficiency costs a little more to implement but can ultimately save significantly on direct operating expenses as well as on carbon costs (assuming a carbon tax or cap & trade are enacted). Good control of the indoor environmental quality also has positive impacts on worker productivity, increasing profits.
  • Planet : Increased efficiency of resource usage, especially for water or energy sources (coal, oil or land set aside for biofuel growth) helps offset resource depletion which, in turn, helps preserve habitats and species.
  • People : Good indoor environmental quality also increases retention, which reduces training costs and opportunity costs associated with head count gaps, thereby increasing profit.
Where you locate your operations affects all three bottom lines:
  • People : Location has a large impact on lifestyle. Educational, entertainment, cultural options all depend highly on where you live and that depends, most of the time, on where you work. "Better" options lead to higher retention and ultimately lower costs. If a location is too expensive, dangerous or otherwise undesirable to live near, then commute times increase, negatively affecting work life balance, hurting retention.
  • Profit : More "desirable" locations tend to attract more educated, higher skilled workers. While hiring these people may cost more money, their productivity and quality of work increase profits (See this post for more thoughts on that idea). More "desirable" locations also tend to cost more money to locate in, increasing expenses which decrease profit, therefore requiring a careful consideration of worker quality available vs real estate costs (or requiring an alternative method of working).
  • Planet : Locating to environmentally sensitive or pristine locations can result in habitat destruction which cascades into species loss and resource loss.
This is only scratching the surface of the connections captured in this diagram. I expect to come back and explore this some more.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

LEEDing to Better Building Control and Efficiency via Wireless Mesh Networks

LEED v3 has expanded the emphasis on measurement and verification (M&V) in order to offset concerns that green buildings don't maintain designed performance over time.

The rating system where this is most evident is in the LEED 2009 Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance (EB:O&M) If you dig through the credits with an eye towards the ones that:
  • Require or could benefit from some sort of real time or on-going monitoring
  • Could use a portable monitoring system comprised of sensors and small data network.
  • Address the toxicity and recycle-ability of the sensor & networking systems
You find that something on the order of half of the credits (around 46 of 92 when I last checked) could be affected by having a good sensor system available.

Sensors, of course, need a communication network to feed their data back to a building automation system, (BAS) or building management system (BMS). If you are forward thinking and lucky enough to be engaged in new construction, then you can build many of these networks into the plan. Then when you meet the USGBC requirement for ongoing performance monitoring by following the EB:O&M certification route, you will be ready. For new construction, this is probably a good way to go.

However, if you're in the position of having an already complete building and you want to obtain EB:O&M, getting such a network in place could cost a considerable sum due to the wire routing involved. In such cases, using a low power wireless network would be preferable. Given the large area to be covered by a wireless sensor network and the large number of discrete sensors needed, this kind of application lends itself to a wireless mesh network (ala IEEE 802.15). Basically a network that uses the nodes to communicate with each other rather than requiring all units to communicate with a central access point. The more nodes (sensors) in place, the better the network becomes... and it's low power enough to run on batteries for months at a time... important if you need to pay someone to replace all those batteries.

UC Berkeley has pioneered work on this topic, coining the phrase "smart dust," and spun off at least one company (Archrock) that aims to address this kind of market space.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

If it is true, it will return. Recovering lost knowledge.

If the first Industrial Revolution had a motto, we like to joke, it would have been "If brute force doesn't work, you're not using enough of it."
- William McDonough & Michael Braungart : Cradle to Cradle
That is the world that was built for us and that we grew up in. A world of cheap power and the belief that wielding that power was the "best" answer to everything. From a building perspective, that led us to glass encased, sealed boxes in the desert. As long as you have the cheap power to cool (and heat) them, then things are fine. But when you don't, what do you do?

Turns out that our forebears knew and built differently.
- Verandas to shade large sections of the house.
- Trees and Ivy to shade the walls.
- Natural ventilation to draw cooler air in and push warm air out (double hung windows and high windows with ground floor doors in factories).
- Heavy earthen walls to act as thermal buffers.

When you couldn't count on brute force, you had to build differently.

And now, with the push to put a soft landing on climate change making "cheap power" decidedly not cheap, we're rediscovering that there are better ways to build.

A great example is Passivehaus.
In short: Seal and insulate the house to an extreme. Use passive solar (and appropriate shading), ground source heat and body heat to make the place warm. Use exhaust air heat exchange to keep the warmth inside. Use the most energy efficient fixtures and appliances available to keep electricity usage down.
Here is a recent example of Passivehaus in California!

And there is more to learn from nature itself via biomimetics (e.g. how termites manage to control climate in their mounds).

The truth is out there if we are willing to bend with nature rather than to try to break it.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

To be a good member of society, you must first break the law.

NPR had an interesting story this morning about some of the challenges facing "socially responsible" companies. Top among them being "shareholder primacy." That is, the law governing corporations actually requires the CEO to pursue shareholder profit even at the expense of other corporate goals or values.

In short: the law does not recognize two of the three pillars of the triple bottom line: People, Planet, Profit.

Joel Bakan wrote a book touching on this topic: The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power.
Two relevant takeaways being:
  • The current definition of cost in the profit = income - cost equation encourages externalization of as many costs as possible. The costs don't go away, they are just borne by someone else. In effect, you could say, the corporation is stealing from the parties who end up paying the cost.
  • The corporate structure encourages this behavior but the structure was put in place by people. Therefore people can change it... though it won't be easy.
There is also an organization trying to change this:
They have put together a legal and support framework to put the other pillars back into the articles of incorporation and thereby allow officers to address all stakeholders', not just shareholders', interests.
In their own words:


Expand the responsibilities of the corporation to include the interests of employees, consumers, the community, and the environment.

A. Give legal permission and protection to officers and directors to consider all stakeholders, not just shareholders
B. Create additional rights for shareholders to hold directors and officers accountable to consider the interests of employees, consumers, the community, and the environment, while also serving the best interests of shareholders.
C. Limit these expanded rights to shareholders exclusively; non-shareholders are not empowered with a new right of action.
It's a little bit crazy to need the law to be amended to allow a corporation to act like you or I as private citizens are required to act.

An alternative is to go private (or stay private) and remove the legal pressure of shareholder primacy. But I suspect that is another topic altogether. Building a business model around this requires some deep thinking, planning and a different idea of what "exit strategy" means from the outset.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Solar Thermal in the Desert - A Design Optimization Problem

Solar thermal power is an efficient, well proven method for generating power from sunlight by concentrating sun light in order to heat up a working fluid that, in turn is used to generate steam to run turbines. You need to put these things where there is a lot of sun. Such places are usually hot and dry... e.g. deserts.

But, running a power plant typically requires significant amounts of water to run and cool the turbines.
This 2002 report summary puts the number for wet cooling at around 15,000 gal / MWh.
Fortunately, there are technologies to use much less water: 200 - 250 gal / MWh, a >90% drop. However these technologies are:
  • Expensive: ~7x to 17x the wet cooling system cost 
  • Less efficient: 
    • power output must be reduced at times when the ambient temperature exceeds the design temperature (to avoid damaging the turbines) 
    • Output of the heat cycle drops when the output temperature is high.
So, in this context, when you hear about a project like Ivanpah, a 400MW solar thermal plant to be put in the CA desert, near (~60miles from) Death Valley National Park, you should be wondering where the water will come from.

View Larger Map

Fortunately, BrightSource Energy is using dry cooling so that they "Will use 100 acre feet [~32 million gal] per year, the equivalent of 300 homes’ annual water usage."  If every power plant did this, following the logic of my previous post,  it would:
  • easily beat the ~20% improvement you'd need to be equivalent to all buildings being LEED 3.0 for water efficiency
  • would be enough to meet the ~46% improvement you'd need to replace all the water used domestically and industrially.
So at least you know where much of the $1.4B in loan guarantees from the DOE must be going and it's a good thing.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Sustainable water use - how much does fixing the dripping faucet matter?

While there is much focus on energy usage as a key issue in sustainable development, water usage is also a very important issue.

The USGS has an interesting summary of water usage in the United States for 2000.
One huge take-away is summarized in this figure from the report: A breakdown of total (fresh + salt) water usage.
  • 34% of water is used for agriculture
  • 48% of water is used for power generation
  • 11% of water is for domestic use
  • 5% of water is for industrial use
Reworking these numbers to show only fresh water usage:
  • 40% is for agriculture
  • 39% is for power generation
  • 13% is for domestic use
  • 5% is for industrial use
 So if all domestic and industrial buildings were to obtain the highest level of LEED v3.0 credit for water efficiency (WEp1 and WEc3 (40% reduction in total water usage for 4 points)), that would mean:
  • 8% is for domestic use
  • 3% is for industrial use
A total drop of ~7% vs the 79% combined agriculture and power generation usage.

Put another way:
  • If you could improve efficiency of agriculture's and power generation's water usage by 23%, that would equal all the water used by domestic and industrial consumers combined.
  • It would take less than a 10% improvement in agricultural + power generation water usage to be equivalent to making every home and business in the US maximally water efficient per the LEED v3.0 standard.
So in the big picture, leaky faucets probably don't matter in the way that making agriculture and power generation more efficient would matter... but you don't hear much about that in the news...

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Systems Thinking about a Problem at Work

This is an analysis of a situation I saw playing out at work. It revolved around off-shoring labor in an attempt to reduce costs having unintended consequences. In particular, one heroic worker was fixing incoming quality problems in an attempt to "be good" but was, in fact, making the problem worse by hiding the impact of the off-shoring decision.

See the embedded presentation below to step through the problem. I suspect this will look familiar...

I've used a systems dynamics based diagram to sketch out the factors and feedback. I've found this to be a very powerful approach for looking at complex problems to understand the underlying factors.

This site has a pretty good tutorial on how this works.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Between a Gladwell and a Strogatz

A bit of an odd juxtaposition but here are two talks about ideas that I find very inspirational for my work.
  • One says that seemingly simple things may actually be complex.
  • The other says that seemingly complex things may actually be simple.
 But both suggest a deeper order exists somewhere inside the system.

 Malcolm Galdwell: On Spaghetti Sauce 

"There is not perfect spaghetti sauce. Only perfect spaghetti sauces"
"We cannot always explain what we want deep down."
"What is the great revolution in science over the last 10, 15 years? It is the movement from the search for universals to the understanding of variability."

Steven Strogatz: On sync

Simple rules give rise to complex behaviors.
Feedback produces surprising behavior that we don't fully understand (we can say "how" (simulate) but not "why").
... and the Book is better than this video but the video does give some sense of the main idea.