SUMMARY: Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI)—an independent, entrepreneurial, nonprofit think-and-do tank that creates abundance by design—believes that many of the world’s biggest problems are caused by inefficient use of energy and resources, largely caused in turn by poor design. After years of exploration, we are activating a pathfinding project called 10xE. It aims to accelerate the fundamental reform of engineering pedagogy and practice by transforming how engineers think about design. Our proposed method is to create, test, refine, disseminate, and create strong “demand pull” to propagate and apply a vivid casebook showing very large (often order-of-magnitude) energy and resource savings, with uncompromised or improved performance but generally capital cost—that is, yielding not diminishing but expanding returns to investments in efficiency.
PROBLEM SPACE: Traditional economic theory holds that the more resources you save, the more the next increment of savings will cost. Yet this theory of diminishing returns holds only if each additional increment is achieved in the same way as the last, and in a manner that has no other benefits. The theory ceases to be relevant when the designer looks at the system as a whole. Whole-system engineering—optimizing an entire system for multiple benefits, not isolated components for single benefits—can often “tunnel through the cost barrier”. As a result, more efficient systems can cost than systems with small or no savings, by capturing helpful interactions between components.
RMI’s 1983 headquarters illustrates this principle. Piecemeal design traditionally optimizes a building’s thermal insulation against avoided heating-energy costs—but ignores the avoidable cost of the heating. RMI eliminated that equipment in a climate that can get as cold as –44˚C, while reducing total capital cost by ~$1,100: superinsulation, superwindows, and air-to-air heat exchangers cost less up front than the furnace, ducts, fans, pipes, pumps, controls, wires, and fuel-supply apparatus they displaced.
We have already identified many such cases and the practitioners who created them; engaged distinguished Deans of Engineering who are eager to use our casebook; and begun to enlist leading design firms and their major clients. We are under no illusion that simply writing a casebook, however compelling, will overcome academic inertia. Rather, we intend to create conditions that will cause the CEOs of very large purchasers of engineering services to tell their favorite Deans, “We can’t hire your graduates unless you teach them in this new way, because they won’t be able to produce the breakthrough results that our competitive success requires.” Deans tell us that they respond to such calls with alacrity. And among in-service practitioners, ability to gain decisive competitive advantage through breakthrough design is the most potent mode of outreach.
SOLUTION: We recognize that there are non-technical barriers to resource-efficient design that retraining engineers will not address. Through a parallel project, we also aim to train business managers to appreciate the profit potential of resource-efficient design and to understand how they can tap into this potential in real-world practice, while managing the risks involved.
Our commitment to 10xE rests on 25 years’ thought and application leadership in advanced energy and resource efficiency. In particular, RMI’s main source of both revenue and effectiveness is diverse private-sector consultancy that has lately redesigned more than $30 billion worth of superefficient projects—factories, buildings, and vehicles—in 29 sectors. In retrofit cases RMI typically finds energy savings around 30–60% that repay their incremental cost in a few years. New-facility savings often reach 40–90%, typically with capital cost.
If the designs had been properly done in the first place, the results we achieve would be impossible. Rather than correcting these errors in minute particulars, it would be far better to extirpate them at the source by reforming engineering pedagogy and practice, hence design mentality. To this end, in full consciousness of its difficulty, we have hatched the ambitious 10xE project.
Integration differentiates 10xE from other “sustainable engineering” programs sprouting around the world. Efficient design is about more than designing clever, highly efficient components. In nature, individual species and organisms create a lot of waste, and hence might be considered inefficient. But integrated ecosystems are highly efficient because outputs of some components are inputs to others, reducing total net waste to zero (each organism’s wastes are another’s food). Applying analogous systems integration in an engineering design space allows for superefficient solutions at comparable or lower net capital cost up front.
This project will assemble an outstanding group of diverse and creative engineering practitioners and teachers from around the world to write a casebook of integrative, radically efficient engineering, with instructional methods to teach whole-system design to undergraduates and practicing engineers.
Beyond developing the casebook, we are also building a network of engineers and teachers to alpha- and beta-test the draft so we can refine it and get it into the field as soon as possible.
The book will include a thorough engineering analysis of several dozen of the most compelling cases, each organized in facing columns alongside the standard-practice case to contrast how they yield such strikingly different results—e.g., how using fat, short, straight pipes rather than skinny, long, crooked pipes saved at least 84% of the pumping energy in an industrial runaround loop, with superior performance and lower capital cost.
The design examples and the principles they teach will build on each other, so that by the end of the book, readers’ mental furniture will have been so irreversibly rearranged that they’ll never design the old way again, at least without wincing. The cases will span the range of engineering disciplines and main applications. Through astonishing but, once understood, obvious cases, we aim to bring to firms and classrooms worldwide a sound and compelling pedagogic basis for the nonviolent overthrow of bad engineering. This will not be easy, but it is essential to the human prospect; and as Henry Ford said, “Nothing that is right and worthy is impossible.”
Equipping the next generation of engineers and retreading current practitioners with new tools for radical resource productivity will yield enormous environmental and economic benefits, such as rapid and profitable climate protection. Competitive pressure—among engineering schools, firms, and buyers—will be the key catalyst for widespread adoption. We are encouraged in this challenging task by how quickly the $4-million “institutional acupuncture” effort RMI launched in 2005 is making irreversible the journey beyond oil. Today, aggressive firms like Boeing and Wal-Mart are turning off-oil investments into stunning competitive advantage. Initial reactions to 10xE and its placeholder website (www.10xE.org) reinforce our suspicion that 10xE too may provide the right catalyst at just the right time to cause remarkable change at this ripe moment.
The 10xE project is conceived and led by RMI’s cofounder, Chairman, and Chief Scientist, physicist Amory Lovins. Published in 29 books (including Soft Energy Paths and Natural Capitalism) and hundreds of papers, his work has been recognized by the “Alternative Nobel,” Blue Planet, Volvo, Onassis, Nissan, Shingo, and Mitchell Prizes, a MacArthur Fellowship, the Benjamin Franklin and Happold Medals, nine honorary doctorates, honorary membership of the American Institute of Architects, and the Heinz, Lindbergh, Jean Meyer, World Technology, and Time “Hero for the Planet” Awards. He advises governments and major firms worldwide on design and practical implementation of advanced resource efficiency.
RMI’s main 10xE researcher, Imran Sheikh, earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin in biomedical engineering and an Environmental Studies Certificate from the Nelson Institute. Since joining RMI in 2005, Mr. Sheikh has helped industrial clients achieve major increases in resource efficiency and has published and presented on 10xE.
The project will draw on RMI’s entire technical staff (www.rmi.org/sitepages/pid56.php), which includes many distinguished practitioners from a wide range of disciplines, and on their global expert networks, chiefly in industry. We hope to augment our in-house staff with one or two senior practitioners seconded pro bono from industrial partners to help prepare the Summer Study’s cases.
We are confident from training engagements with private-sector engineering teams that we have the tools to teach 10xE practice effectively. In March 2007 Amory Lovins organized 10xE design principles and examples into a successful course as MAP/Ming Professor in Stanford’s School of Engineering. Five lectures (at www.rmi.org/stanford) condensed decades of field experience into seven hours. Yale has requested a similar course.
10xE cannot be a success without meaningful partnerships. We will be looking to our partners to help us identify the needs of engineering firms, perfect our offering, and provide financial support and/or technical expertise in a number of disciplines. We imagine the 10xE project will be largely funded by engineering services firms and partly through foundation grants. We believe that partner firms stand to gain significant competitive advantage by adopting 10xE sooner than their competitors, and therefore will see the value in supporting this work. RMI has strong relationships with a number of progressive engineering firms, and several have already expressed interest in supporting this important project.