In order for the future to be sustainable, it must be more interconnected than the present. Think in terms of biomimetic design on the grandest scale of all: In order to recognize every possible opportunity to maximize the potential of each calorie of energy that is spent somewhere in the universe, and to capitalize on cyclical patterns of reuse and re-uptake for every molecule of matter to create a zero-waste society, we will need to expand our level of thinking to the very outermost ring.
This is the level at which industries operate like ecosystems, with one borrowing would-be waste from another and re-using it as fuel or raw material. Man-made creations must interact with, and create outlets for, one another if we are to realize the fullest potential for sustainability.
Last Tuesday I listened in on a conversation that was particularly inspiring in this regard: a teleconference follow-up to the Smart Garage Summit held October 8-10 in Portland, Ore. The three-day charrette, hosted by the Rocky Mountain Institute MOVE team, united representatives from major automakers, utilities, nonprofits, universities, national labs, tech companies and more to discuss opportunities for collaboration between three sectors in particular that have previously operated in isolation: buildings, electricity storage and vehicles.
The coming together of these three systems will be transformative for both energy and the consumer, said Michael Brylawski, cofounder and leader of MOVE. He outlined four significant opportunities in the foreground: reduction of oil dependence; carbon emissions reduction (both in the transportation sector and in energy production, as plug-in hybrid electric cars using and storing energy on the grid could help stabilize the still unreliable aspects of renewables like wind and solar); economic stimulus from U.S. investment in building an infrastructure of charging stations; and a revolution in consumer control allowing the end user to decide for herself, for example, whether she'd like her car to charge up using completely clean energy sources, and at what time of day or night she wants charging to occur.
And we might see this kind of thing happening very soon. As Brylawski put it, "this is a lot closer to realization than we thought. This isn't about invention, it's about integration and consumer awareness to make it happen." Andrew Tang, senior director of the Smart Energy Web at Pacific Gas & Electric, predicted that early forms of this kind of collaboration would begin happening within 3 to 5 years.
Changing these energy/infrastructure relationships seems like it will cause ripples further out as well. The intermingling of these industries will encourage – and rely on – the intermingling of societal structures. For example, early charge stations will be easiest and most profitable to construct where there are large groups of cars, like in parking garages. This fits very well with models like car-sharing, which serve dense populations.
According to MOVE team member Laura Schewel, a Smart Garage car share is a likely follow-up project. "Car shares are a great match for the Smart Garage business proposition: they drive more miles per day (and since this depends on operational savings, that's a big deal) they expose a lot of people to the new technology, and they already have a model that utilizes dedicated parking spots (which could become dedicated charge spots)."
And the system has potential to change the way we interact with our neighbors, as well:
"Families with the PHEVs/EVs will be able to power the neighborhood in case of a black-out," Schewel says. "Today, some regions have municipally owned electricity utilities. If you neighborhood has solar panels and some wind, and xEVs, in the long run, one can imagine see micro-utilities at the neighborhood scale. This is a LONG way off but it is a potential outcome."
Early iterations, within 2 to 5 years, are even expected to incorporate the use of smart-charging technology in a plan known as V1G, which will allow consumers and utilities to work from both ends to lessen peak power loads and direct, for example, wind power – which is often strongest at night – to charge cars at night, when they are usually parked anyway (the charging process takes only a total of 5 hours). In the more distant future, Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) bidirectional battery technology will allow cars to soak up energy at night "and give it back at 3pm when the demand is high," says Schewel.
This is all much more than imaginative talk. RMI is moving quickly, and their next phase is to create test markets in a sampling of 20 U.S. cities, with the goal of anticipating and working through the kinks in as many different environments – different climates, different population densities, different commuter patterns, etc. – as possible. According to Schewel, RMI will have a document of recommendations and analysis for what cities they can do written by the end of the year, and three initial cities lined up by mid-January. She says Portland is a very likely partner. (For more updates on this program, check regularly here.)
The cost of the new infrastructure proposed at Smart Garage is high: in the hundreds of billions of dollars, according to one participant. But the team seems certain that once the investment is made, the return will be positive. And the benefits are linked to broader problems that still need solutions: a more secure and localized energy infrastructure, and shaving peak demand in general, particularly as we make the necessary transition away from fossil fuels.
The Smart Garage group agreed that consumer confidence will play a key role in hastening the development of the new technologies and systems that will make these programs real. Transitional technologies, like hybrid vehicles, are already helping to boost consumer awareness of the possibilities beyond cars that run on oil, and that's a step in the right direction. As David Bieselin, director of communications at Cisco Systems, put it, there is still a lot of work to be done to educate and inform consumers that integrated technologies will one day perform better for them than the ones that they're used to: "We need to make sure that consumers know that green doesn't equal hardship."
I'd like to revisit an idea that Alex introduced in 2007: Strategic Consumption. This is not just about mindlessly (or even mindfully) buying new things that are labeled "natural" or "green." This is about using consumer choices to vote for a new kind of future. By buying in early, these groups can effectively support companies whose work is so new, so innovative and so cutting-edge that most standard big-loan investors find them too risky (particularly right now).
Consumers, individually, are more flexible. We're not asked to finance the whole project; we're merely asked to give a vote of confidence, to announce our willingness to live differently and to try something out. For those who can afford it, this is an important vote to consider.
We may be – and almost certainly are -- at the brink of the next great industrial/information revolution. This time, let's hope it's an integrated revolution.
Photo credit: flickr/frankh, Creative Commons license.
Very exciting, thanks for the update.
If anyone knows of similar work going on in Europe please post links!
I loved your Smart Garage story. What really got my eye was the graphic. I have been thinking about solar power generating bus shelters where cars could power up. My personal preference for solar is its off the grid, decentralized aspect, so I guess I really don't get the grid stabilizing potential of plug in cars. What really excited me was this paragraph:
"I'd like to revisit an idea that Alex introduced in 2007: Strategic Consumption. This is not just about mindlessly (or even mindfully) buying new things that are labeled "natural" or "green." This is about using consumer choices to vote for a new kind of future. By buying in early, these groups can effectively support companies whose work is so new, so innovative and so cutting-edge that most standard big-loan investors find them too risky (particularly right now)."
With regard to the last sentence, I have been wanting to transfer what we have learned through the CSA structure to sectors beyond agriculture. A CSA (it wouldn't necessarily be a food group, just the same economic structure) of say 200 households could aggregate $100,000 with shares priced at $500. Yes this is small potatoes when you're talking millions. But it would allow marketing and education during the building stage.The idea of combining the power stations in an urban environment with car sharing is genius. The share could buy membership with car sharing benefits until the solar power kicked in.
Just an idea.
We can do so much more than just a hybrid! I've been attending and organizing AltCar events on both coasts for more than half a decade and many styles of vehicles are available that use no gas at all. In our workshop this week the wizards got two formerly gas motorcycle/scooters to run on nothing but water and power storage.....why aren't we seeing more technologies like these featured?
I'm very glad that people are buying Prius and SmartCars, and even happier when they contact CalCars initiative and get the extra plugin that allows their Prius to get over 100+ MPG. A great start, but these are baby steps; we need to end oil fuel for transportation in our lifetime. We have many cleaner options available if we choose to focus there.