Whole Systems

whole-systemsThe simplest method to ensure the efficient use of energy resources is to apply Whole Systems thinking to every energy use situation. This alone could reduce energy consumption Nationwide by 50%, with no negative impact at all. Here’s how it works. Whole Systems thinking looks at every aspect of a situation and determines how each part of a whole system interacts with all of the other parts. Then decisions are made that choose the parts that work together best to form an efficient Whole System.

Let’s say the situation is “lighting my house.” Everyone has this situation and everyone solves it slightly differently. Currently, houses are designed for their external appearance and structure. Windows are placed so they look good from the outside in the overall appearance of the home. Light fixtures are placed in rooms to adequately light them after the fact. Internal halls, closets and bathrooms need artificial light sources whenever they are used. Due to these design features, lighting the average home costs much more than it needs to.

A home is a Whole System that has to be thought through, beginning at the design stage. We know that the rooms will need to be lit to be useful, and that light will be required both day and night. If we choose to implement our “Conserve and use Natural Energy First” philosophy, then lighting will be one of the integrated ideas of the Whole Home System.

Free light, of course, is available during daylight hours. So, Whole Systems thinking designs the house to take best advantage of this free light whenever it is available. Proper use of windows and glass for exterior rooms, with the installation of sky lights and light pipes for interior halls and rooms, allows the home to be totally lit for free during daylight hours. During evening and nighttime hours, artificial light sources must be used. Rooms with dark green, blue or brown walls, ceilings and floors are much more difficult to light than rooms with white, beige, or pastel yellow surfaces. Lighting work surfaces takes less energy than lighting whole rooms. Using the new LED light bulbs uses less electricity than using incandescent light bulbs for the same amount of light. Each of these one-time decisions about how the house is designed determines the fixed pattern for on-going energy usage with relationship to lighting. After all, the purpose is to light my house, not to use as much electricity as a bad design requires for the rest of my life! So, even if you live in a home that doesn’t currently take advantage of these ideas, installing a skylight, repainting a room a lighter color, installing a lighter colored carpet, or changing out some light bulbs to a more efficient type, are always available options to consider now.

Most people say they don’t want to spend the money to make these kinds of changes, and that the cost of “wasting” a little electricity costs less. But Whole Systems thinking says that if everyone conserved the amount of electricity that these lighting changes provide, the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere from electric power plants could drop by 10%. (This number assumes that electric lighting accounts for 25% of home electric use and these conservation methods can average a 40% reduction and savings.) So, this is one example.

Let’s look at another situation, like “heating and cooling my house.” No matter where you live, insulation is the key. The more you can restrict the passage of heat in and out of your house, the better you can control the indoor temperature. But heat is different than light in one very important way. The heat you have today can keep you warm for weeks, IF you don’t let it escape.

Have you ever wondered why a thermos bottle can keep your coffee hot all day? The answer is that the thermos bottle has an insulation jacket above R-100. Heat just can’t get out, so the coffee stays hot for a very long time. If your kitchen refrigerator had an R-100 insulation jacket you could keep your food cool for an average power consumption of about 10 watt-hours a day! The same is true of your whole house.

For the last 30 years, R-19 insulation has been the building standard for home construction. Some of the more progressive builders are now starting to install walls with R-40 insulation. This is better, but still not high enough. R-60 should be the minimum for new construction, with R-70 and higher even better. A building with R-60 insulation costs 1/3rd as much to heat and cool as a building with R-20 insulation. It’s as simple as that.

Add to this, heat reflective roof coatings to keep the attic cool, heat reflective paints on interior surfaces to keep heat in in the winter and heat reflective paints on exterior surfaces to keep heat out in the summer. In hot climates, the new second generation evaporative chillers or solar powered air-conditioners can further cut cooling costs dramatically. In moderate and colder climates, geothermal heat pump systems can cost as little as 1/3rd as much as other heating systems are to run. The bottom line is, with more insulation and modern heating and cooling technologies installed, the cost of heating and cooling your home can drop 88% from what you pay today!

It is estimated that 40% of home energy costs are associated with heating and cooling. If this figure can be reduced by 88%, that is a real 35% reduction in total energy costs for the average home. Add this to the 10% real savings from better lighting methods and you have just reduced your home energy usage by 45% in real terms. You still have light whenever you need it and your home is always the temperature you want, but it costs you 45% less, month after month to enjoy these benefits. Energy you can use, day after day at no cost. That’s what I call Free Energy!

These are just two examples of what a “Conserve and use Natural Energy First” plan can do to lower your energy costs while providing all of your energy needs. But this is just the beginning. Whole Systems thinking can be applied to transportation, industrial processes, power generation, food production, materials recycling, and just about everything else. The next generation of eco-friendly engineers will develop systems that minimize energy waste and maximize energy benefits in all of these fields.

But you can start thinking this way right now. You can look for products that are already available that let you implement this energy philosophy in your daily purchases. Government is dithering, but industry is quietly responding to this changing climate of ideas. The propaganda that changing to a low-carbon future is too expensive and will take decades to implement is non-sense. Many of the new low energy use alternatives actually cost less to implement in the first place, and are available right now!

When Whole Systems thinking is taken to its maximum extension, each and every product is evaluated for its cost and benefit from the beginning of its useful life to its ultimate recycling back to the raw materials it was made from. This is the new paradigm for engineering products, not from “cradle to grave” but from “cradle to cradle”. To learn more about this, read the new book Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough.

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