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Factory in a Cloud; Part 2

Fablamp combines 3D printing with 2D laser cut acrylicIn the previous post I outlined the prospect for cloud based do it yourself (DIY) digital manufacturing. I described a test of this capability using the fabrication (fabbing) service, Ponoko, to make the parts for a lamp of my design, using laser cut acrylic sheet and 3D printed polymer. My goal for the project was not to create a production ready consumer product. Instead it was to test a process of prototyping and potential manufacturing, using remote resources. This post picks up on the fabbing process, once my design files had been submitted and accepted by Ponoko.

Delivered Goods:

I received the flat laser cut pieces (purple plastic in the photos) just a week after my order. They met my expectations, with accurate shapes and nearly smooth, polished edges. However, it took almost 3 weeks to receive the 3D printed polymer housing for the LED lamp (the white finned piece in photos). When this part arrived I was reminded that my knowledge of file preparation for fabbing leaves something to be desired. In translating the computer model’s smooth twisted surfaces of the housing “blades” for printing I had over – simplified the file, resulting in faceted rather than smooth curves. This was not my original design intent but on second consideration the faceting creates an interesting texture. The durable polymer material I had chosen has a slightly rough, but not unpleasant, texture. Since I wasn’t certain of the exact attachment point of the flat lamp leaves onto the lamp housing housing I had left the attachment holes off the laser cut pieces; opting instead to measure and drill these holes in my shop. Once drilled, the 1/4 inch holes in the leaves press – fit perfectly over the “buttons” I had cast into the lamp housing. From there, the lamp was easy to assemble and wire.


I now have a lamp prototype that cost about $250 and took 3 weeks to complete, not counting computer modeling. I could not have easily created this object using conventional methods or materials. In theory I could have hand cut and finished the leaves of the lamp on a jigsaw and drill press but this would have taken hours and the accuracy would have been nowhere near perfect. Perhaps I could have carved or molded the central lamp housing out of plaster or polymer clay but this would also have been time consuming and again, the accuracy would not have been good. So, $250 for an accurate, attractive, working prototype is pretty cheap.

Had I been more knowledgeable about computer modeling and file preparation for printing I could have achieved a more finished piece for the lamp housing. Moreover, there is a range of materials available; Ponoko offers smooth, shiny finishes in a variety of colors and materials including ceramic. So, in theory, achieving a consumer ready product is not beyond reach. I should also mention that Ponoko is not the only option for outsourced fabbing; Shapeways offers similar service.


What’s to be learned from this experience, over and above surmounting the technical requirements for making finished parts that exactly match your expectations.

Not Exactly Rapid Prototyping; A three week wait for a prototype is too long. Prototyping usually depends on fast iteration. I may have been able to shop around and find a quicker service but I doubt I could have found one that could have delivered a part in less than a week under $250. By comparison, Makerbot Industry’s new Replicator promises an out of the box 3D Printer for about $2000. If the print quality is near the quality of the part I ordered then about 8 more prints from a fabbing service would be the equivalent of a purchase.

Manufacturing Is a Possibility; Even with a long delivery time certain types of custom goods could be outsourced to a manufacturing platform like Ponoko. Nike’s custom shoe program promises delivery in 3 – 4weeks. A quick scan of Ponoko’s inventory of design offerings by various makers suggests that jewelry, small housewares and home furnishings are popular areas. Can one compete with IKEA or Target on housewares and furnishings; no. However, perhaps more fair comparisons are Design Within Reach and other high end purveyors of artisanal modern home furnishings sold in fairly small quantities.

Additive Manufacturing; Unlike laser cutting or CNC routing which is basically just a faster and more accurate means of cutting or carving away something that can already be done by hand or less automated machines- and these are no small feats – 3D printing allows the making of shapes and assemblies that might be otherwise difficult if not impossible to create. Complex nested geometries that mimic biological structures are possible. Now, people offer elaborate, biomorphic jewelry pieces, printed in materials including precious metals. However, before long printing of human body parts and organs is likely. For now, beyond prototyping, jewelry and luxury furnishings, additive manufacturing favors small quantity, high value parts and assemblies in the medical and aerospace industries. What other niches cry to be filled?

the retail end of the smart grid; consumers first!

EnViz Residential Demand Response

The smart grid has been promoted as key to this country’s energy future; an intelligent network tying together power production, transmission, distribution and consumption; reacting in real time, matching supply and demand. At the residential, “retail” end of the smart grid, conventional marketing wisdom has it that a utility installed smart meter will facilitate home energy management as well as responding to system wide peaks through voluntary curtailments, known as Demand Response DR).

Under this rubric, using the smart meter, the utility, with the consumer’s permission, will be able to curtail non essential electrical loads as needed, benefitting the customer with less electric consumption and a smaller electric bill while helping the utility by reducing the need to construct expensive new peak generating capacity or to purchase power off the grid at costly peak rates. Despite considerable corporate marketing efforts and some positive publicity, smart meters have nevertheless experienced consumer resistance, due in part to skepticism of utility motives, ratepayer equity issues, privacy concerns and also what may be a libertarian streak among homeowners who don’t like the idea of a utility telling them when they can do their laundry. Furthermore, the build out of smart meter enabled service areas will at best, take as much as a decade, and even then likely leave out sizeable sectors of residential consumers.

Given this situation, should consumers and other stakeholders with an interest in DR simply bide their time until the smart meter and its associated home management system arrive? Not necessarily. There are other promising routes to residential energy efficiency and demand management. Electric utilities might wish otherwise, but today with multiple communication and control techniques now available, residential electric energy management systems aren’t restricted to pathways running exclusively through the electric meter, such as the smart meter systems described.

We believe DR makes sense, but it also has to put consumers, not the utility, foremost. As an alternative to utility directed demand response, we envision a consumer driven home energy management system. Based on increasingly popular and proven wireless communication protocols, cheap sensors and microcontrollers, such a system could connect and control key residential loads without resort to communications via the electric meter and the utility. Every residential electric consumer in the country can benefit. E2C2 LLC is developing such a solution, known as EnViz. The diagram explains it.

the priority for sustainable cities

I was recently asked what could be done to advance the concept of a sustanable city. I replied that as much as I like cars as interesting mechanical devices, ultimately, and at almost every scale, demography and  geography a city that can reduce its reliance on private automobiles will be a more livable place – with a better chance at sustainability.  Short of concerted measures to the contrary, in the future most cities of any size will ultimately face grid lock due to private automobile use if they have not arrived at that troublesome destination already.

It’s an unavoidable fact that cars facilitate personal mobility up to a point, and are an aspiration for millions – now billions of the world’s inhabitants. This said, over and above their energy and climate ramifications, the infrastructure to accommodate cars simply takes up too much space, money and ultimately results in too much valuable time lost in traffic congestion.  

Therefore, if I had a few billion dollars to distribute to cities around the world for sustainability I would put them into schemes to reduce reliance on cars. I would distribute funds to commuter rail and trolley systems, better transit plans and bicycle infrastructure. I would also encourage land use schemes that integrate working and housing and promote congestion pricing and subsidies for public transportation.  Fewer cars would also deliver ancillary benefits, including cleaner air, safer streets, not to mention a quieter environment.

weatherviz video now showing


The old line goes “Everybody complains about the weather but no one does anything about it.” We’re doing something about this state of affairs. Our art and technology project, called weatherviz, captures and makes visible a small slice of the river of meteorological data that surrounds us.  It is an automated system that downloads weather information from the Internet and uses robotics to drive a large kinetic sculpture. It also animates a constantly – changing computer visualization. The whole production will ultimately be viewable over the Internet.

weatherviz montage

using weather imagery to drive sculpture and computer animation

Weatherviz extends meteorilogical imagery seen on TV and the Internet. It takes weather data and expresses it as movement in a kinetic sculpture.  Weatherviz sculpture and media animations play back interpretations of very recent weather events from a selection of 150 locations monitored by NOAA’s National Weather Service in the territorial United States.

Weatheviz captures and animates four regularly sampled meteorological factors for each geographic locale;  temperature, wind, precipitation and total weather energy. NOAA weather stations span nearly half the globe: west to east, from Guam, in the Pacific, to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands; north to south, from Barrow, Alaska  to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Demonstrations are slated for later this Summer in Seattle and during the Fall in Washington, DC. When visitors view the outdoor weatherviz sculpture, an electronic crawl accompanying it will identify the weather station and sampling date. Figuring out which components of the sculpture and data visualization match each other for a weather event will be part of the fun and mystery of the installation.

Stay tuned for more weatherviz info as the project reaches the demonstration stage.

solar: the novel

How often do novels portray middle aged scientists and technologists? Moreover, those in the thrall of  solar energy? Just finished Ian McEwan’s novel, Solar. Michael Beard, the protagonist, is a Nobel winning physicist with a messy personal life and is on the downside of his career.  McEwan paints a comic portrait of a formerly brilliant, still self absorbed, immature and not very honest man, facing old age. The story delivers pot shots at political correctness in academe and  the bureaucratic finagling endemic in the government grants game. In what other work of fiction would NREL (the National Renewable Energy Lab) be featured? Not a great novel, but entertaining for its insights on the climate/renewables issue and the compulsions of middle age.

size matters

A trip yesterday to the Washington International Auto Show got me to thinking about size. In the case of cars, as with housing, green doesn’t only mean new technologies, it also means smaller. From yesterday’s product scan at the show, Ford appears to be the only American manufacturer with an exciting small car in its portfolio. The Fiesta, due on showroom floors this spring, is stylish, well put together, good handling and peppy. It promises about 40 mpg with a high efficiency gas engine – no hybrid technology required. A turbocharged version, due a bit later, will offer even better performance with little or no mileage penalty. General Motors doesn’t have much to counter the Fiesta; its Chevy Aveo looks down market and the Fiat/Chrysler 500, which is very cute but tiny, won’t be on sale for a couple of years. Ford’s main competition in the small, quality – but – not – luxury car segment will be Japan and VW.

This brings up the absurd situation in the American auto market with respect to vehicle size and efficiency. Conventional marketing wisdom asserts that Americans need big cars because it’s a big country. And, because big cars weigh more, they need bigger and more fuel thirsty engines. There’s also the mythical, aspirational aspect of this argument: that Americans demand big, powerful, cars; because – well, they can. However, it’s long been known that the average vehicle trip in America is about 7 miles and that vehicle occupancy is generally not much more than one; the driver. This suggests a car something less massive than a crew cab pickup or a 8 passenger SUV.

In round numbers, the large truck/SUV gets about 20 mpg or less while the aforementioned Fiesta gets about 40 mpg, or twice the mileage without resorting to any hybrid or electric technology. The automakers, American ones especially, have asserted that the public wants big cars and they are simply meeting that demand. However, large vehicles are also more profitable than small ones, providing the manufacturers incentives to sell them. Speaking of large vehicles the truck and large SUV areas at the auto show were dead zones – opposed to 2 or 3 years ago.

In the “have your cake and eat it too” vein, manufacturers have countered the large vehicle efficiency downside by producing high performance cars with somewhat better fuel economy achieved by advanced technology. Examples are Lexus hybrids and Mercedes Blue Tec diesel models. But, as impressive as the performance and technology of these vehicles are they still beg the question about going to all this trouble when smaller, simpler vehicles will deliver approximately the same performance, get better mileage and cost a lot less? The motivation is manufacturers believe there is still a strong market for big luxury vehicles which improve the bottom line.

However, recent marketing research by McKinsey has suggested that Americans have not only changed their behavior with respect to expensive goods out of economic necessity; they are actually satisfied with lower priced, less premium offerings and unlikely to revert to previous behavior. In the case of automobiles, I hope this means a lot more cars like the Fiesta. Having said this, hybrid and electric vehicle technologies are necessary and inevitable, but in the meantime large energy savings are available by simply going a little smaller.

having our coke & drinking it too; carbon capture & sequestration

Virtually everybody reading this knows that coal is bad environmentally. It’s the dirtiest of the fossil fuels in terms of carbon emissions and historically the primary cause of acid rain, not to mention negative land and water impacts where it’s mined. But coal is also plentiful, domestically produced, and as a result, cheap. We rely on it to generate more than half of the electric power in the US, including the energy operating the computer on which I’m writing this blog. However, the sad but increasingly unavoidable fact is that as a power source, coal is probably here to stay for some time.

Coal will remain with us because there is simply too much global demand for electrical power to fill the gap with renewable sources such as wind, solar, hydro, and nuclear options, even assuming massive scale ups in all of these technologies. Not only the US, but China and India and other countries also rely on coal for power, with the expectation of even more use of it. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), globally, coal fired plants now under construction or planned during the next 20 year will, during their operational lifetimes, emit more atmospheric carbon than all the coal combusted to date.

Intriguing as coal free – alternative energy scenarios, like Ed Mazria’s solar and conservation based, 2030 Challenge are, we simply have to find a way to burn coal more cleanly to make a dent in global warming. Such clean coal processes generally fall under the rubric of Carbon Capture and Sequestration, or CSS. In one form or another, this is a multi step process requiring: a) removal of CO2 before – or – after coal combustion, b) compression of it into a liquid, c) piping it to a safe place, where d) it can be injected/sequestered permanently, generally underground. This storage place might be an oil field, a deep saline aquifer, or in some scenarios, in the ocean depths.

CSS is not a simple process, but neither are the alternatives. Society ran out of simple, cheap energy solutions some time ago. Rather, we exploited seemingly cheap energy solutions without regard to their actual environmental costs. Respected environmental organizations such as the NRDC support the role of CCS in mitigating the worst impacts of climate change. Stanford’s Global Climate and Energy Project among other educational institutions, is actively developing CCS technologies.

In the past, there have been arguments that CCS is some sort of smoke and mirrors scheme invented by the power industry to maintain business as usual. While there may be truth to such wishful thinking by some in the power industry hoping for a silver bullet, others are moving ahead with sizeable CCS utility pilot projects; among them Southern Company.

One thing that CCS won’t be is cheap. In all likelihood it will drive up the cost of coal fired power considerably. The good news is that this makes other renewable sources such and solar and wind technologies more price competitive. But if past experience with scrubbers on power plants is any indicator, costs should come down as R & D drives innovation and scale up creates efficiencies. However, any way you look at it, renewable, fossil, or nuclear, power is going to cost a lot more more in the future, making energy efficiency and conservation all the more important.

A final note on terminology. Excuse the somewhat inaccurate reference to “coke” in the title above. The coal coking process and coal combustion to produce power are not the same, but I couldn’t resist the pun.


We develop and market energy efficiency strategies and technologies. We focus on the building and transportation sectors, which account for more than two thirds of the energy budget.