Talking ’bout Co-g-g-generation

Before I read this story in the New York Times, it didn’t occur to me that milk and data centers would have much in common. In a nutshell, IT behemoth Hewlett Packard has calculated the biogas generated by manure from a 10,000 cow dairy operation could be harnessed to generate enough electricity to power a one megawatt data center.

“Information technology and manure have a symbiotic relationship,” said Chandrakant D. Patel, the director of H.P.’s sustainable information technology laboratory, which wrote the report.

And that’s the key word – symbiotic. The natural world is typically portrayed as a zero-sum competition for survival, red in tooth and claw. But in truth it’s equally true that the natural world is a story of highly efficient symbiotic, win-win arrangements – just like the dairy farm co-generation scheme.

From bacteria in our intestines to birds hanging out with crocodiles, natural systems are an ongoing lesson in symbiotic efficiency with nary a niche going unexploited. Human systems need to get more symbiotic. We’ve blogged before on increased efficiency perhaps being a more pressing near term need than alternate energy. Co-generation is a concept that seems a symbiotic natural.

The first Wiktionary definition of co-generation is “the production of heat and/or power from the waste energy of an industrial process.” The city of Aalborg, Denmark provides an example. An agreement with Aalborg Portland, the largest producer of ready-mixed concrete in Scandinavia, delivers surplus heat from the factory’s cement production process to the city’s district heating system (itself a great way to boost building heating efficiency, but that’s another post), providing heat for some 30,000 homes.

On this side of the Atlantic, our client Wheelabrator launched the first large-scale, commercially successful waste-to-energy project in the United States in 1975 providing an effective way to drive a new efficiency into the existing waste disposal process. Today Wheelabrator has five such plants generating almost 230 megawatts of electricity annually.

And co-generation can scale down to the business or even the individual home with technology that seems a closer fit to the second Wiktionary definition for cogeneration: “The simultaneous or serial production of heat and electricity from the same source”.

The world is facing hard choices about energy sources and usage. The efficiencies of co-generation present an opportunity to get more out of things we’re already doing – like walking, for instance.

Fables of Abundance

The other week, I blogged that renewable energy alone will not be able to compensate for an anticipated precipitous decline in world oil supply. We said we need to invest in energy efficiency to bridge the gap. This week, I look at the challenges of becoming a more efficient world, starting with you and me.

In the mind of the average consumer the image of efficiency and its close cousin conservation is one of deprivation and austerity. Certainly not the stuff that made America great! America was built on fables of abundance.

But doesn’t efficiency have its own attractive tale to tell? Take the iPad, for instance. Turns out it’s really energy efficient. Among the many ballyhooed features of the iPad, right up there with the sexy interface, is its amazing battery life. Wait – praise for efficiency? Sure, because that’s efficiency delivering something people really want; truly mobile computing. After all, who wants a mobile device that needs to be tethered to an outlet? The iPad isn’t just slick fun – it’s slick , fun, freedom!

The trick is to find similar gut-level needs that, “marketed” effectively, can motivate us to adopt ways of living that reduce our spiraling energy demand and offset some of the anticipated energy gap mentioned in my last post. So, what gut-level need can energy efficiency deliver?

How about control for starters? People like the ideas of self-sufficiency and self-determination. Especially in uncertain times, feeling like you have a firm grip on your ship’s tiller is empowering. Technologies and initiatives that increase energy efficiency could be positioned as delivering personal control – a bulwark against the uncertainties of see-sawing gasoline prices, rising utility bills, increased commuting costs and carbon taxes.

Or, what about status? People like to stand out, get noticed, feel like they’re ahead of the pack in some way. When gasoline breached $4 a gallon in the US back in 2008, a new breed of braggart emerged on the American car scene – the hypermiler. In the world of hypermiling, status wasn’t about horsepower and 0-60 times. It was all about miles-per-gallon. Want to be king of the hypermile hill? Drive smarter. Right now, utilities are tapping into that same competitive quest for eco status by sending monthly statements that show how your energy use stacks up to similar homes in your neighborhood. (It’s anonymous.) Many were surprised that the odd-cool look of the Prius sold so well even before the spike in gas prices. They assumed it would be best to camouflage a hybrid under the wrappings of a more traditional looking car body – like Honda did with its hybrid Civic. But early adopters often want to stand out. Why spend the extra money on planet and climate saving efficiency if nobody notices? The same principle can be applied well beyond the automotive segment.

And there are many more human needs and wants that efficiency can be paired with (how about efficiency gadgets for that never ending human need for novelty?), but the point is we need to harness self-interest, not pretend it doesn’t exist. We start by choosing and creating the right words, imagery and ideas that motivate action and behavior. Efficiency and conservation have been too often aligned with abstractly noble or utilitarian sentiments; saving the planet or perhaps saving some money (eventually). Getting an efficiency mindset to really take hold demands a belief that it can deliver something personally valuable.

By building more compelling imagery – starting with us as marketers and reaching all the way up to the Marketer in Chief – efficiency has as much, possibly more, intrinsic appeal as alternative energy. After all, lots of the alternative energy stuff is “five to 10 years away” and seemingly always will be (where is my hydrogen economy?). Insulation, smart glass, telecommuting, car sharing, geothermal heat pumps, new urbanism and smart planning? That’s efficiency, and that’s here, now ready to deliver more control in uncertain times, status among peers, novelty and more. So, if you’re starting out in a quest for green market dominance with a venture that’s efficiency or conservation-focused, look to spin a new fable of abundance based on the self-interest needs or wants that your product or service can deliver.

Are we there yet? Time for energy efficiency to get its sexy on

How soon before we hit peak oil production? According to the U.S. military, it might be two years from now, or even less. If true, we’re well on our way to the real Energy Crisis. And the key to riding it out just might be efficiency technologies like that itchy pink insulation in your attic.

Peak oil is the point when the world’s oil production reaches its highest rate and begins its inevitable decline, creating an oil deficit relative to demand.

That will happen globally in 2012 with “severe” shortfalls on world markets by 2015, according to a report issued by the United States Joint Forces Command. The UK’s Guardian newspaper covered it. Peak oil in the U.S. has already passed. It was 1970 for the lower 48 states.

So we just fill the gap with all kinds of renewable energy projects, right? Wrong.

It will take decades to spool up replacement technologies and attendant infrastructure. See, oil is a very energy dense and convenient source of power. Battery technology is a long way from matching oil’s energy density, and it has its own “peak” problems (lithium doesn’t exactly grown on trees). It will also need a materials-intensive charging infrastructure program to even begin propelling the millions of passenger cars currently on the road. Bio-fuels? Also not as energy-dense as petroleum, meaning you’d have to produce a hell of a lot more of it to replace a lesser volume of petroleum. Also, bio-fuels have a raft of production scaling issues that are, again, many years away from being addressed (let’s talk dry materials storage and handling!). Oh, and ethanol tends to pick up water easily and is fairly corrosive, so the existing gasoline pipeline transportation infrastructure isn’t well-suited to handling it.

Without a couple decades to work through these problems, we’d be better off focusing not on producing replacement fuels, but increasing efficiency – making the most of what’s at hand.

For instance, let’s tighten up our buildings. Buildings account for almost 50 percent of energy consumption in the U.S. (and a proportionate share of carbon emissions), according to the EIA. As we gin up those turbines, let’s be retrofitting the building sector – utilizing everything from smart glass like SAGE to advanced insulation materials and onsite combined heat units. And build this stuff into new construction.

Dare I suggest telecommuting? We’ve spent decades building a robust, intercontinental Internet. Surely it can handle remote workers, ecommerce and funny cat clips on YouTube.

Efficiency measures like these are in our collective DNA. A market-based economy is supposed to excel at efficiency and we’re generally good at it when we make the effort. Unfortunately, the easy availability of cheap energy has limited its appeal to date. Why insulate if heating oil is cheaper than Pepsi?

Back in December of 2009, President Obama unveiled a program of incentives to drive efficiency behaviors – and jobs – which subsequently became known as “cash for caulkers.” This passage from the linked article is telling:   “I know the idea may not be very glamorous, although I get really excited about it,” Obama chuckled as he described the discussion at a roundtable on job creation he took part in just before his remarks. “Insulation is sexy stuff.”

I agree, but for most folks, we’ll need to sex it up a bit, as the Brits say. There’s an image problem with energy efficiency. Ever since President Carter put on a sweater and went on national television in February of 1977 to say that we’d have to turn down the thermostat to build a better future, the concept of efficiency has been firmly wedded to that of sacrifice, rather than something sexier, like, say progress. Efficiency is a topic ripe for an extreme makeover.

So how, exactly, do we make energy efficiency sexy? More about that in my next post.