Casebook from the Rocky Mountain Institute will highlight whole-systems efficient design.

– Cameron M. Burns

While most leaders understand the value of systems thinking and the need for interdisciplinary solutions, there is no guideline to enable radical efficiency in design. To bridge this gap between understanding the problem and actually solving it, the Rocky Mountain Institute kicked off a modest project known as Factor Ten Engineering, or 10xE for short (for “10 times the efficiency”). This initiative aims to create a series of tools that will help engineers design for radically less energy and resources than current best practices to achieve the same goal or create the same product. These teaching materials — centered around a casebook of extremely efficient projects and systems — will be used to teach efficiency concepts and design to engineering students and practitioners.

Throughout RMI’s 27-year existence, the staff has sought to influence the design, building, and retrofitting of power and industrial plants, commercial and residential buildings, and vehicles and transportation systems early in the development process so they’re designed correctly up front, eliminating costly late redesigns and inefficient creations.

One of the challenges our researchers run into year after year is that the people creating inefficient processes and systems are simply unaware they are doing so. And even if made aware, they don’t know how to do things differently. The reasons often boil down to a few familiar parameters: assumed cost, time, tradition, and skills.

10xE has its genesis in the Factor Four notion put forth by Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins in their 1995 report to the Club of Rome, Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use. In it, the authors argue that energy and resources can be used much more efficiently, to the tune of four times as efficient, at least. “Factor Ten represents Amory Lovins’ belief that we can do even better,” notes Alok. “It might not necessarily be 10 times the efficiency. It might be eight or six, but the basic premise of this project is to see, when these principles are applied, what’s possible.”

The effort has begun to gain financial support and momentum, moving from concept phase to implementation.

A Different Kind of Ideal

The main focus of the 10xE project is the casebook. In it, RMI and the Institute’s research partners (university engineering schools, engineering firms, and their customers) are assembling several dozen case-studies in which regular, dis-integrated engineering will be compared with highly efficient engineering design, laid out on facing pages so the reader can easily compare them and understand why the superefficient design typically costs less to build.

The cases themselves will seek to span the range of engineering disciplines and main applications. More important, they’ll be chosen to illustrate and develop practical principles of design integration to achieve big energy and resource savings more cheaply than small or no savings. The aim is for a broad base of projects covering multiple disciplines and demonstrating whole-system design consideration, notes Alok Pradhan, RMI’s project manager for 10xE.

A case study of a data center that is currently being built is a good example of the type of projects the book will include, he says. It’s expected to save 80 percent of the energy and 10 percent of the capital cost of the previous, supposedly good, design.

“In that particular data center they managed to eliminate chillers, which is a huge energy savings; they made the computer code more efficient so the center didn’t actually have to do as much computing; they removed extra load and unnecessary servers; they changed some of the electrical hardware to make the servers best-in-class; and they retrofitted the buildings,” said Alok.

At present, RMI researchers are working with partners along the engineering value chain to refine how the casebook will come together during the next few months, with the possibility of a study in July or August to convene researchers for intensive collaboration over a two-week period. The book itself will be published in 2010.

“It’s very important that we drive change as soon as possible,” said Lionel boney, who heads RMI’s Office of the Chief Scientist. “The things we design now have a lifespan of anywhere between 15 and 20 years for a car and 50 and 100 years for a building. The more we wait, the longer it’s going to take to have an impact.”

“10xE will hopefully foster an entire generation of newly and better educated students who will go on to do amazing things because they have been properly trained,” he said. “This won’t just change the built world around us, it’ll change our fundamental relationships with both what we the build and Earth itself.”

Cameron M. Burns is senior editor at RMI. To submit a case study suggestion, contact Tali Trigg, ttrigg@rmi.org.