This article was written by Joy Green in March 2008. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.
What happens when disruptive ideas combine?
We’ve heard a lot about distributed energy generation and smart grids recently – cities could act as distributed power plants, channeling energy from hundreds of thousands, even millions of individual rooftops (think micro-wind and solar PV) into common use and minimizing transmission losses. In essence - your home or building generates clean power and sells the surplus to the grid at peak prices for you during the day– it buys any excess energy you need during the evening when prices are low. You could plug your hybrid car into this fabulous integrated system and depending on the time of day it would either sell surplus energy from its battery to the grid or charge itself up ready for use the next morning.
We’ve also heard a lot about product-service systems. At the moment, as I’m working on an urban mobility futures project at Forum For The Future , I’m particularly interested in the Velib scheme in Paris – the self-service, easy access bike hire scheme with banks of bikes outside metro stations and other key points that has got thousands of Parisians cycling again (Similar to Barcelona's Bicing system - ed.). You pick up a bike anywhere you need it and drop it off, no-fuss, at your destination. Like the smart grid, this is also a form of distributed infrastructure – you could call it a lightweight public transport infrastructure that smooths the peaks of demand for the more traditional system of the metro and the bus.
And if you combine them?
MIT recently outlined a service model for personal urban mobility that does just that.
Imagine the Velib bike scheme in Paris supplemented with self-service electric, stackable two-seater mini-cars at transport interchanges and hundreds of other points all over the city. These mini-cars are designed for multiple short urban trips so they don’t need huge bulky batteries or high top speeds. They’re tiny (six stack in the same space you’d park a regular car), lightweight, ultra-maneuverable and super-convenient – you’d never have to worry about finding a parking space again. You just swipe your card, pick up a mini-car whenever you need one from a nearby stack, and drop it off at another stack when you are done.
This already sounds like a good service model, but what makes it much more interesting are the potential second and third order effects. When the cars stack together, they effectively become large, intelligent batteries plugged into the grid – and the perfect partners for smart grids and distributed power generation. Car stacks could mop up and store excess energy or provide an extra boost of local power as required, so would be a particularly good fit with buildings that generate power from intermittent renewables such as solar or wind (or even, by the coast, wave power). In essence, each mini-car doubles as a mobility service and an intelligent energy storage device. With a hundred or so mini-cars in a stack, and hundreds or thousands of these car stacks in a city, you’d have enormous battery capacity being added to the electrical grid – perfect for large-scale distributed energy generation from renewables on buildings. The batteries would provide the flexibility to cope well with fluctuations in demand and generation.
If you then add in ubiquitous mobile networking and ‘embedded intelligence,’ things get even more interesting. William J Mitchell at MIT speculates on these mini-cars
* knowing patterns of energy prices and mobility demand, and intelligently playing the energy futures market
* operating in an environment of fine-grained, highly dynamic road congestion pricing, and intelligently playing in the road space market
* knowing parking space availability and dynamically adjusted prices, and intelligently playing in the parking space market
In effect, these cars becoming “Google for the city, efficiently getting you to its resources, while taking account of time and cost constraints”
Even without this heady third stage though, the proposal is a potential distributed system that integrates energy, transport and the built environment. It’s an idea for personal urban mobility that takes on many of the perceived strengths of the car – convenience, independence, weather protection and safety. (One caveat here though - it would be difficult to predict how many car journeys this system would actually displace without running a pilot project. Velib has so far mostly displaced public transport journeys – which is also helpful for easing pressure on creaking infrastructure – but had little effect on car use.)
It’s also a little closer to how an ecosystem works – flexible, interlinked and resilient. And this is a lot closer to how we’re going to have to think and act if we’re going to solve problems like personal mobility in a world where there are 9 billion of us and 6 billion of us live in cities.
Smart Grid, Meet the Product-Service Model is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.