Designing for sustainability – what we learned from three weeks in a small Guatemalan village


By Valeria Gaitan and Titiaan Palazzi

We spent the last three weeks in a small village on Lake Atitlán, one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. In addition to its natural beauty, the lake is a resource for surrounding villages. Unfortunately, population growth, modern innovations (such as motorized ships), and climate change are threatening the lake’s health.

Families around the lake face many challenges: lack of clean drinking water, high costs of wood and electricity, respiratory disease, and a local economy based almost entirely on tourism. These challenges are interconnected, so addressing them requires a systems perspective. How can we improve quality of life for people in such vulnerable conditions? How do we design for sustainability in such a complex system?

IDDS: summits to design for local development

We were in Guatemala exactly to answer these questions, by participating in an International Design for Development Summit (IDDS). IDDS summits are organized by MIT, IDIN and local professionals. For three weeks, we went through a design process to design and prototype solutions around the theme of sustainable homes. Our group included about 20 facilitators and 50 participants. Importantly, we were not working for the community but with the community; 16 of the 50 participants lived in Santa Catarina Palopó, a picturesque town of about 1,000 families where the summit took place.

The group was split into smaller teams, each addressing one specific subtopic of sustainable homes: energy, cooking methods, organic waste, plastic waste, food, water, sanitation, and construction methods.

Learning about people’s needs: Observe, Ask, and Experiment

Our team focused on energy. Our initial goal was to build relationships with the local community. To identify a specific problem, we had to learn about our users. To do so, we used a framework of Observe, Ask, and Experiment. We went from home to home, guided by our local team members, to interview people. We observed how people prepared their meals and washed their clothes. We spent hours in small kitchens learning to make tortillas and bathing in temazcals (a local form of sauna or sweat lodge used 2-3 times per week for bathing).

Energy influences every aspect of daily life


As we lived with local families, we realized that energy informs almost every element of daily life. The wood burnt in open fires or cook stoves causes respiratory diseases and eye problems. As villagers collect wood from surrounding hillsides, forests are decimated. This in turn can lead to destructive mudslides (a 2010 mudslide destroyed many of Santa Catarina Palopó’s homes). Families spend as much as half their income on energy; as a consequence, many families can’t keep their kids in school or visit a doctor.

This stands in stark contrast to the United States and Europe. Here, a shift to clean energy is critically important to prevent global climate change. But after switching a home in Copenhagen or Texas to solar PV, the people in it don’t perceive a difference in their daily lives.

Prototyping solutions to reduce the use of firewood and electricity

After our first week, we narrowed our focus to two problem areas: high consumption of firewood for heating the temazcals (used 2-3 times per week), and high electricity costs, largely as a consequence of incandescent lighting.

We then developed design requirements for each problem. Based on these design requirements, we brainstormed different types of solutions. During the final week, we focused on two efforts:

1. An effort to redesign burners in temazcals, with the key purpose to reduce wood consumption while improving the user experience (e.g., by reducing smoke inside the temazcal).

2. An effort to reduce electricity bills by changing incandescent bulbs to LEDs.


Most villagers heated their temazcal by building an open fire inside, on which they rested tiles and a pot of water. We built two wood burner prototypes applying the rocket stove design. We tested these prototypes with the families in Santa Catarina Palopó. Their feedback was positive: the prototypes reduced wood consumption from 10-15 logs to just 3-4 logs of firewood, while reducing smoke in the temazcal via a chimney. The prototypes are still in pilot phase at the homes, to analyze burner performance and user adoption.

To show the quality of LEDs, we developed a wooden box that fit an incandescent bulb, a fluorescent bulb, and two LEDs: one white, one yellow. We also developed marketing materials to explain the economic benefit of LEDs.

Reflecting on our experience, here are three key lessons about design for sustainability:

1. Design with the community, not for the community


At times, we were tempted to move ahead with a design without extensively consulting the local community. The organizers constantly reminded us to listen to the community and to engage them in the design process.

Although sometimes frustrating, we listened. The effort paid off.

First, by engaging local women in problem selection, we worked on problems that mattered to them. During a local workshop, we asked women what they found most frustrating in the experience of using the temazcal. We learned that the large volume of smoke was particularly challenging, especially for the women who were asked to start the fire inside the temazcal.

Second, by engaging our two team members from the community in every step of the process, we created advocates for our solutions. Days after we installed the first LEDs, Jessica and Lidia told many others about the opportunity to save electricity by switching lightbulbs. A message from them has an impact far greater than any message coming from people outside the community.

2. Local entrepreneurship can keep small communities alive


We asked several community members—most of whom were in their late twenties or early thirties—about their dreams. Many did not have full-time work. Most expressed a strong desire to find a well-paying job so they could support their families and create a better life.

Typically, jobs can only be found in larger towns and cities. If much of the younger generation leaves to find work elsewhere, this could mean the loss of many small towns and communities.

We learned that one path to create professional opportunities is through local entrepreneurship. What if young people can stay in their communities by creating new businesses?

This is exactly what both our initiatives are set up to do. Tech-savvy community members could manufacture the temazcal burners out of local materials and sell them to families in and around Santa Catarina Palopó. Well-connected local women can go door to door to inform people about the potential savings from LEDs, and then sell LEDs to families.

One of the most exciting moments was when Jessica, one of the two community members on our team, took us to several homes to inform people about LEDs. Typically shy, Jessica blew us away by giving a passionate, clear pitch at every home. Jessica showed herself to be a true advocate. She expressed a strong interest to build a local business to sell LEDs.

3. Business is a double-edged sword

New businesses can greatly improve quality of life. Cell phones allow people to be in touch with their families, avoiding many unnecessary trips. Better cookstoves reduce smoke, related health problems, wood burn, related energy costs and deforestation.

At the same time, big businesses have negative consequences. A national fried chicken chain, Pollo Campero, drives out many original, local restaurants. A national chicken vendor reduces the business opportunities for local villagers to grow and sell chickens. Toritos bags and Coca-Cola is sold in every small store and clearly leads to unhealthy diets.

The types of businesses that seem to add most value are those that provide high-quality products sold by local people.

Sustainability = Continuity

Of course, the work to date is just the beginning. Impact in the community requires sustained efforts. Fortunately, three of our team members live in Guatemala. They are already planning a next visit to the community, to ask about the two prototypes, and to organize a workshop for local people to build temazcal burners using locally available, reused, and low-cost materials.

We also seek to partner with a top-tier LED manufacturer to bring high-quality bulbs to the community, and to continue to train the local community members to become a door-to-door information and sales force.

Thank you to the Energy team who made all this possible: Maya Pérez, Lidia Cúmes, Jessica Pérez, Andrés Viau, Daniel Connell, and Amit Gandhi.

Thank you to the IDDS organizers María José Saenz, Sher Vogel, Omar Crespo, Oscar Quan, and Paul Crespo.

Three things I learned from being a volunteer solar installer


Last Friday, I helped to install a solar photovoltaic array of more than 500 solar panels. The array will provide 35-40 low-income households with clean, affordable electricity—enabling savings of up to $500 per household per year. The installation was organized by GRID Alternatives, a non-profit that brings together community partners, volunteers, and job trainees to implement solar power and energy efficiency for low-income families.

On a crisp Friday morning, under a cloudless Colorado sky, approximately 40 of us gathered for a short safety instruction. The solar array was to be installed in the back yard of Yampa Valley Electric Association (YVEA), a small electricity company that serves about 25,000 customers in Northwest Colorado, employing more than 60 people to do so. Many of the volunteers were Yampa Valley employees: my team of six included two linemen, a woman from Yampa Valley’s HR department and a woman from the finance department.

Volunteering reminds you that to give is to receive. Since Friday, I have had multiple moments in which I realized how much I got out of a day of volunteering. Upon reflection, here are three reasons why volunteering can be so fulfilling.

First, volunteering can give you a peek into other peoples’ lives. Someone in my installation crew had been fixing distribution wires for 16 years. Sixteen years! Others had lived in Steamboat Springs their entire lives. Many of us—whether you work as a software engineer, a consultant, or lawyer—live in a tiny bubble. By volunteering, you are exposed to different views of reality. This is further amplified when you volunteer in a developing country, yet even when you volunteer in your municipality, you will likely encounter foreign views.

Second, you can learn new things by volunteering. Related to the previous point, the exposure to people you wouldn’t otherwise meet can teach you something. It can expand your “unknown unknown”: the things you didn’t even know you didn’t know. Steve, a lineman at YVEA, told me how his crew inserts a liquid into underground distribution-grid lines that will solidify, protecting underground wires from corrosion and improving their insulation. This can extend lifetime by as much as 10 years. Similarly, I learned that solar PV modules need a “WEEB” that penetrates the structure, to ground the panel in case of a short-circuit or lightning strike.

A colleague put it beautifully: “I always learn more from volunteering in other parts of the world than I can ever teach.”

Third, it’s truly fulfilling to build things by hand. At the end of the day, my crew and I had installed about 100 solar PV modules. To see a structure materialize over the course of a day, to spend a day working in the sun, to feel your muscles when you lay down at night—these are blessings for someone who spends most working days in an office.

If you want to try installing solar yourself, GRID Alternatives has opportunities around the United States. Visit GRID’s website to find specific opportunities. GRID will have a big “solarthon” in Fort Collins, Colorado October 20-22nd. Contact Allison Moe amoe [at] gridalternatives [dot] org for more info or to sign up!


When was the last time you volunteered? In what capacity? Do you have, or did you ever have, a regular volunteering practice? How does it feed you? What is difficult? 

Thanks to Tom Figel and Allison Moe for creating this opportunity, and for all GRID Alternative staff for committing to do good work. Thanks to Laurie Guevara-Stone for reading an earlier version of this post and providing a quote. 

4 Dutch projects you should know about

Now in Beijing, I spent the last two weeks in the Netherlands. Here are four Dutch projects that inspired me.

1. Ocean Cleanup
Boyan Slat’s ocean cleanup addresses a truly super-national problem (floating waste in oceans), with no direct commercial benefit to the founders. Supported by a young founder who combines a hacker-ethic with deep skill in involving the public (the team raised $2.1M through crowdfunding) , you see why it’s easy to be a fan. Boyan would fit well between the Thiel fellows.

2. Vandebron
Vandebron is a platform for Dutch citizens to buy renewable power from local farmers with excess electricity production. The idea of decentralized electricity sharing is promoted by many, but Vandebron is the first company I know that has successfully created a platform through which individual citizens can sell and buy power, becoming an “airbnb for electricity” as Matthew and I wrote on RMI’s blog.

3. Smart Highways
During the Singularity Summit in Amsterdam last week, Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde showed the audience two of his latest pilot projects: a bicycle-path inspired by Van Gogh’s “Starry Nights” and a glow-in-the-dark paint that can illuminate highways without overhead lighting. Roosegaarde’s ability to apply natural inspiration to objects in our physical world like roads, churches, and public parks in an artistic way fascinates me. Watch his excellent Zomergasten video here. Highly recommended!

4. Stroomversnelling
During a visit to Shell with Amory, Maaike Witteveen told me about this project to reduce energy consumption of Dutch residential buildings, called “rijtjeshuizen”, by 80 percent, by adding insulating wall panels, superwindows, solar PV, an air source heat pump. Led by BAM, a Dutch developer, and financed by housing cooperatives, incentives between tenants and the housing cooperative align: tenants reduce rent when using less energy; housing cooperatives reduce costs. Maaike and I will soon post a blog describing the potential of the concept on RMI’s blog. For now, here’s a description from the Guardian.

How Apple’s Watch Could Save Energy

On September 9, Tim Cook unveiled the Apple Watch, “the most personal product” Apple has ever made, says the company, “because it’s the first one designed to be worn.” The watch joins other products like bracelets from Fitbit and Jawbone in a category called “wearable technologies,” or wearables.

Beyond decorating your wrist, these products are primarily worn to send, receive, and process information, through cellular networks, WiFi, Bluetooth, or—unique to Apple’s Watch—near-field communications (NFC). The Apple Watch can monitor your heart rate, track your location (through an accelerometer, gyroscope, and GPS), and recognize your voice.


Smartphones and their apps have already been doing great things for users managing their energy (and much more, including fitness), for example through connected thermostats, electric vehicle charging, solar panel output monitoring, sharing-economy services, and much more. So why would you wear Apple’s Watch when you have an iPhone? What extra value do wearables unlock that already isn’t accessible through other technologies?

First, wearable technologies can collect biological data, such as your heart rate and body temperature—that a phone in your pocket cannot. These data sources can tell a more complete story about your physical state than data from your phone. Second, wearable technologies are less likely to be separated from the user. Unlike phones, most users will wear their Apple Watch in the shower or in bed. In other words, it’s always with you.

This connectedness between wearable tech and the wearer opens up at least three categories of energy management opportunities: at home, at the office, and personal.


Wearable tech can help better match our homes’ energy use—especially heating and cooling—to our needs. For example, Nest’s Learning Thermostat has a built-in motion sensor. It’ll put your home’s HVAC system into an energy-saving “away” mode after a period of inactivity. But imagine how much energy could be saved if a device on your wrist signals your thermostat to go into “away” mode the moment you leave your home or neighborhood.

Similarly, programmable thermostats can be set to pre-condition your house so that it’s a comfortable temperature when you wake up and roll out of bed in the morning. Some smart thermostats even detect when you typically wake up during the week and create a fixed start-up time for your thermostat based on that. But wearing a device on your wrist—which is either connected to an alarm to wake you up, or which detects your sleep cycles and learns when you’re likely to wake—can more accurately tailor your home’s pre-conditioning to match your actual wake-up time, rather than a weekday thermostat program set to the same time, on average, you’re likely to get up.


Have you experienced working in a ridiculously frigid office in summer, because the building control system does not know how people feel? Or an overly hot office in the winter? Even an office that’s conditioned well to a target temperature could feel too hot and/or too cold (even at the same time!) given one person’s preferences vs. another.

Wearable technology can provide information like body temperature, heart rate, and respiration, giving a more complete picture of physical comfort. Voice recognition software could even detect when people are complaining about feeling too hot or cold.

Even more, wearable tech and other more personalized devices can help to condition the person, rather than the entire space—in fact, that’s the very principle behind heated seats and a heated steering wheel in the Nissan LEAF; it’s more efficient to make the person feel comfortable, rather than heat or cool the entire cabin. In an office setting, think of office chairs with heating elements, wristbands that cool your wrist like that from Wristify, or vents that determine personal air flow like those from Ecovent.

Beyond the office, wearable tech can have other applications when out and about, too. At the product launch, Cook described how the Apple Watch can replace a hotel keycard to unlock your room as you approach the door. Similarly, your watch can connect to your hotel room’s thermostat, to delay room cooling until you have checked in. No energy is wasted cooling an empty room, while ensuring a guest’s room is comfortable as they enter.


In a coming era when energy use becomes not just highly personalized, but attached in fact to individual people, it’s not hard to imagine developing personal energy profiles of our individual demand and consumption. And that could open the door to personal energy bills. Usually we bill our energy use to our energy-consuming assets—electricity and natural gas billed monthly for our home, for example. But imagine if instead of assigning energy consumption to our assets we re-assigned that energy consumption to ourselves? Gone could be the arguments between roommates about how to equitably split the utility bill (one of the top sources of friction among roommates in places such as New York City).

Or what if wearable tech, in addition to sending personal information out to the systems around us, could also receive signals back to us, such as from your utility. Could wearable tech further open the door to a personal version of demand response? For example, similar to how utilities use demand response to cycle off air conditioners during times of exceptionally high peak demand in summer, could they instead signal a Wristify bracelet to cool a person instead of an AC unit cooling a whole house, or could your Apple Watch receive a signal from the utility asking you to have an ice-cold tea instead of turning up the AC at 4:00 p.m.?


Many of the comfort-improving, energy-saving features above are enabled by more information about you being shared with computers. This of course opens up another set of issues around Big Brother watching and the privacy of potentially very personal information, who can “see” that information, and how will they be allowed to use that info. Whether having the option to turn such data sharing on or off, or another solution such as anonymizing the data, the face remains that wearable tech could be another front line in the grid’s evolution toward more distributed energy resources. Those DERs could now include not just things like rooftop solar panels and batteries in your garage, but also wearable technologies and the people who wear them.

This blog was originally posted on RMI’s blog. 

Reviving Buckminster Fuller’s last-designed Dome

Biodome picture

Paul, Eden, Michael, Robbie, Dan, and Titiaan inside the Windstar dome

In 1982, Buckminster Fuller led a workshop exploring geodesics and other topics. From that workshop, the idea arose to build a biodome on John Denver’s Windstar estate in Old Snowmass, Colorado. In the summer of 1983, weeks before construction was scheduled to start, Bucky died of a heart-attack. In his spirit, a group of young architects and engineers including Bill Browning and John Katzenberger built the Windstar biodome.

Biodome Windstar

The original 1983-built 5m-diameter biodome

The goal of the biodome project was to produce food locally year-round in a cold climate with solar energy. The dome was glazed with two layers of plastic film separated by an air space. Until the late eighties, the biodome was used to grow a variety of vegetables and fruit. The dome was separated into two levels, the lower level including a pond in which fish were raised, which doubled as a heat storage medium. An army of volunteers was involved to maintain the indoor (and outdoor) gardens. Today, only a structure and many stories are left.


Inside of the biodome: showing multiple floors and hanging gardens

When I arrived at Windstar three months ago and saw the dome, I knew immediately that I wanted to restore this legendary structure. Imagine re-building the last dome Buckminster Fuller designed! I soon learnt that I was not the only person excited about this prospect. Eden Vardy, founder of Aspen Tree, an NGO that aims to connect people to nature through agricultural training, had a similar idea. In fact, Eden and Aspen Tree’s co-director Paul, had erected another biodome close to Aspen in the fall of 2013. After Amory introduced us, it was evident we had to team up.

How to make this idea work? The first step was to develop design alternatives. Eden and I convened eight people—Greg Rucks, Dan Wetzel, Robert McIntosh, Garrett Fitzgerald and myself (all from Rocky Mountain Institute), Eden Vardy and Paul Huttenhower (both from Aspen Tree), and Michael Thompson, an architect with experience in designing grow houses—to participate a design charrette, a process to develop design alternatives.

The first goal of the charrette was to brainstorm design alternatives to glaze or skin the dome. We started the process outside, gathering all participants under the 5m-diameter dome (picture at top of this post), to be inspired by the dome’s history and understand the technical details of the current structure. After sharing stories about the biodome’s original state, we moved inside to start the charrette.

In the next hour, we generated many interesting ideas—building an opaque dome to use for mushroom-growth; using old parachutes as inside insulation; and building a fly-eye dome—and consequently selected four ideas to further develop. The group split into four pairs, each pair given the task to develop a list of materials and next steps per design alternative.

Overview of generated ideas

Eden guiding the selection of four ideas from the charrette to further develop

Four design alternatives were further developed:

1. Hard polycarbonate dome. The current structure is a “basket weave”-dome. As in a woven basket, the ribs alternatively pass concentric or eccentric of one another.  This means there is no flat plane to which to adjust all three sides of a triangle or five sides of a pentagon. Paul suggested a way to fix this by adding plywood to the joints, but the group questioned whether that was in line with Buckminster Fuller’s idea of ephemerilization—doing ever more with fewer pounds of material. Michael estimated that the material costs for the polycarbonate were ~$4,200 for a ~1200 square feet surface area (at $3.50/square foot), or double that if the parts were to be ordered pre-cut.

2. Double-inflated polyfilm dome. This was the design of the original dome (second picture in this post). In 1983, the intention was to perfectly seal the space between the plastic films and fill the space with a gas with a low heat transfer coefficient. The inserted gas between the films quickly leaked out, so an airpump was installed to inflate the “pillows”.  The benefit of this idea would be that few to no more material needs to be added to the structure of the dome. Michael estimated that the material cost for the double-inflated polyfilm would be $1,000 for the dome (at $0.75/square foot).

3. Extra external or internal structure. Greg and Robbie worked on the idea of adding an additional light structure around the outside of the dome, inspired by aluminum tent-poles, over which a permanent or temporary insulating material could be draped. The idea arose of a slinky-type external cover, made of aluminum or carbon fibre ribs and an insulating fabric, that can be pulled across the dome during the night. Michael suggested that an internal additional structure could be a better idea, given high snow loads in Aspen.

4. Fly-eye dome. Dan and Paul explored the idea of creating a fly-eye dome. This type of design would need much material compared to the three designs discussed above. Garrett accordingly asked what the primary goal of the fly-eye dome would be, to which the group agreed that the function was mostly aesthetical.

Whiteboard voting

Michael, Greg, and Robbie voting for ideas.

Reflecting on the charrette, it is most likely we will implement the double-inflated polyfilm dome, possibly with an additional internal structure as developed by Robbie and Greg. The benefits of this design are low material costs, identical appearance as the original, and quick installation.

The next critical steps for the projects are to raise funding for construction materials and to apply for a building permit. If you are interested to help during construction of the dome, please comment on this post.

Dome pattern

Structure of the dome. Note the “basket weave” of the ribs—each rib alternates between passing concentrically or eccentrically by other ribs.

Leverage Points for a Better World

RMI's office in Snowmass, close to Aspen—the former estate of John Denver.

RMI’s office in Snowmass, close to Aspen: the former estate of John Denver.

I moved to Snowmass, Colorado two weeks ago to work directly with Amory Lovins, cofounder, Chairman and Chief-Scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI). RMI is a think-and-do-tank that aims to drive a world verdant, safe, and secure by developing  solutions in collaboration with for-profit enterprise in the areas of more comfortable and  efficient buildings; more productive and reliable industrial processes; and safer, better transportation systems.

A tool we aim to exercise at RMI is “Institutional Acupuncture”—sticking metaphorical needles into carefully chosen points in complex organizations and relationships to get the business logic flowing properly in the channels and directions it already naturally flows.

What does “Institutional Acupuncture” mean in practice? What blockages do we try to eliminate today? In the last two weeks I have spent much of my time asking questions and listening to my new colleagues. Below is a list of topics that represent we engage in today.

#1. New utility business models

The availability of ever-cheaper distributed generation technologies—such as the solar panels on your roof—begs the question: “Do I require a utility-contract for my power? Is it not cheaper, more reliable, and cleaner to privately power my home?”

This query is addressed in two publications by eLab: a program to unite decision makers and thought leaders to identify, test, and spread practical innovations to key barriers slowing the transformation of the U.S. electricity system. The first analysis, “Grid Optional“, is written for private citizens. The publication shows by which year investing in solar-and-batteries and defecting from the grid is cheaper than maintaining an agreement with a utility.   

The second analysis from eLab provides utilities with future scenarios. The publication is appropriately titled “New Business Models for the Distribution Edge”. David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy recently wrote an article about the death of utilities as we know them today, as did Amory on RMI’s blog.

 #2. Lowering the costs of solar PV

Lowering the cost of electricity from solar panels below the cost of electricity from other sources is a major driver for a high penetration of renewable energy. Although the cost of a solar panel is now five times cheaper than in 2000 , installation costs of a solar panel system are twice as high in the U.S. as in Germany or Australia. In collaboration with NREL, RMI’s Dan Seif and Jesse Morris have published a report to show how these soft costs—installation labor, financing and marketing costs for instance—can be lowered, introduced in this article.

When you  consider installing solar panels—or have done so already—it is valuable to understand the benefits and costs other than electricity savings from your system, qualified in this article by Lena Hansen and Virginia Lacy. 

#3. Reducing energy consumption in (groups of) buildings

RMI saved 30% of energy consumption in the Empire State Building by replacing 6,154 windows onsite on the 5th floor. This  is one of RMI’s most celebrated stories, and a good example of the value from deep energy retrofits beyond cost savings. Our physical environment is a critical place to invest in: buildings use three-fourths of U.S. electricity. If America’s 120 million buildings were a country, it would rank third in absolute energy use, only eclipsed by the energy consumption of China and the entire United States.

The Retrofit Challenge, part of RMI’s buildings sector, aims to implement deep energy efficiency solutions across a large volume of buildings. To reduce the costs of energy modeling of each individual building, we define building archetypes:  groups of buildings with similar energy use. AT&T is our first client in the Retrofit Challenge.

#4. Helping China get off oil, coal and natural gas profitably by 2050

After Reinventing Fire was published in 2011 a collaboration with the Chinese NDRC was initiated to translate the quantitative analysis of Reinventing Fire for the Chinese context. In collaboration with Lawrence Berkeley National Labs and China’s Energy Research Institute, the implementation of the strategies and policies outlined in Reinventing Fire is one of our key priorities. Since China is now the world’s largest market for private cars and has the highest volume of electricity generated from coal, our work with the NDRC is a key leverage point in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

#5. Uniting U.S. and Chinese automakers to lightweight and electrify vehicles. 

Project Get Ready was a big RMI initiative to push the adoption of electric vehicles by helping local U.S. communities learn from best practices outside America and install charging stations. Combined with RMI’s earlier work on light weighting—which led to the Hypercar design, the design philosophy on which BMW’s i3 is based—RMI is organizing a forum to bring American and Chinese automakers together.

Which other leverage points can we solve?

The list above does not exhaust RMI’s work. We started an initiative for sustainable islands with the Carbon War Room on Richard Branson’s Necker Island last month; we are planning an initiative to work with manufacturers to create more energy-efficient products.

Which leverage points do you see to work with business to get to a world in which people feel productive, happy, and safe, powered without the need of burning historic bank accounts of fossil-fuel cash?


The idea of Institutional Acupuncture is closely related to systems change. A beautiful example revealing the complexities of systems change in a natural ecosystem is the introduction of wolves in Yellowstone Park. Watch it—you will be amazed and delighted.

Why are electric grids different than the internet?

Observation #1: Information is automatically stored; electricity is not

Digital information creation commonly includes storage. When you write an email or take a picture, the information you create is automatically stored in the recording device, in the cloud, or in a combination thereof. Because creation is paired to storage, information can be consumed at another time than it was produced. You don’t need to read a book as the author writes it.

For electricity, the story is different. When a flow of electrons is created it must be transported and consumed instantaneously. Today’s gas power plants or wind turbines – electricity generation devices – do not offer the possibility to store electricity for later use. Neither do fridges or microwaves – electricity consumption devices.

N.B. The notable exception to integration of information creation and storage are spoken conversations. When we chat, our voices are not automatically stored. (This is changing, though.) Non-digital forms of information – a written letter, a painting, a Beatles’ vinyl – are stored, but are not easily replicable (see the next observation).

Observation #2: Information can be copied; electricity can not

When you send me a postcard, I can read it once, ten times or a hundred times, without the quality or quantity of the information changing. The information can be viewed an infinite number of times. When you send me a digital postcard, not only can I read it infinitely, but others can read it an infinite number of times too. Digital information is endlessly replicable – its quality and quantity doesn’t change.

A quantity of energy can only be used once, much like a kg of gold can only be used once. The physical properties change when you use the electricity. But, gold can be reused. I can not conceive of ways to derive the services from electricity without using the electrons. This is a big difference to distribution of information.


Scalability of electricity, versus scalability of information

You can visualize this difference by envisioning a ratio that equals the number of times something is used over the number of times something is created.

For electricity, the consuming versus creating ratio can be no larger than 1. Every kWh of electricity generated can only be used once (or less, if it’s wasted somewhere between generation and consumption).

For information, the consuming versus creating ratio can be much larger than 1. Every line of words typed by you can be viewed by a billion users, who read it hundreds of times.

Observation #3: Digital information can have an enormous variation in value; electricity can not

This may be the most important insight of this entire post. For a given quantity of digital information – say, 10MB of sound – the quality can range from terrible (the sound of a jetplane if your goal is to relax) to outstanding (a symphony orchestra recording for the same goal). The value for that piece of information can range from negative (I’d pay you to remove the sound) to very valuable (worth €10 per iTunes Album). Combined with digital information’s replicability (the previous observation), the large variation in value explains why software can be worth hundreds of dollars (Adobe Suite) or nothing.

In my view, electricity does not have a large distribution of value. For a given quantity of electricity, the quality is more or less equal. There can be a difference in value, depending on whether the electricity is generated close to the location of desired use or far away and whether electricity is generated according to the user’s preferences or not, but this value difference is marginal compared to the value difference of information – in the order of tens of percents.

How to make the most of SET?

Two days ago I had the pleasure to speak to 150 new students of the masters I started 3 years ago (Sustainable Energy Technologies in Delft). This post contains tips & tricks of former SET-students reflecting on their experience. Thanks to Bert van Dorp, Ewoud de Kok, Diego Acevedo, Manuel Vargas Evans and Gaurav Durasamy for their contributions. 

1. Ask yourself: who do you want to become? Do you want to invent a new photovoltaic panel or help your government build a wind turbine park? You have much freedom to choose. Create the experience that lines you up for success after you finish in Delft.

If you do not know who you want to become, ask yourself: Which possible scenarios do I see for myself? Many students wrote this down on their slips of paper. Test different scenarios by joining side-projects or doing research with a professor in your evening hours.

2. Explore courses offered outside SET. Delft has much to offer at different faculties. Are you interested in water desalination? Approach a professor at civil engineering. Do you want to learn about electric vehicles? Speak to researchers at 3ME (Mechanical, Materials and Marine engineering). Look at the curricula of the energy masters in Delft and all masters in Delft.

3. Work with professors who inspire you. Find the professors whose research fascinates you and who you admire as human beings. A good way to start is to print the Energy Initiative’s list of professors and look at all their personal research pages. Make appointments with those professors who you find interesting. Write a reflection after each meeting, and see which meetings make you excited for future collaboration.

4. Sign up for email lists. You want to be at the center of information flows. Start with The (Delft) Energy Club, MIT Energy Club and MIT Energy Initiative. Through these lists you will learn about events, interesting people, books and competitions to take part in. Also take a look at YES!Delft students. You want to set up an environment in which information flows to you.

5. Build friendships with students from different backgrounds. The easy path is to connect with people who speak your language and eat your food. Don’t limit yourself – you will miss out on learning the stories and insights from many of the cool people in this room!

Back Camera

6. Work on side projects. The best way to learn is by doing. Participate in the Solar Decathlon, the Nuon Solar team or one of the many projects The Energy Club offers. Or: start your own team. Diego Acevedo joined the BlueRise team during SET, now a steady source for Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) projects.

7. Look for internships that make you uncomfortable. Just like side-projects, internships are a great way to learn. You will understand what skills you need to build a solar panel or change the heating and cooling controls, in stead of theorizing about these skills in a classroom. Find companies that inspire you; go after them. Resist the temptation to do an internship within the TUDelft.

8. Go abroad. Travel to international energy conferences. Consider the ATHENS program, the Cleantech Forums; ARPA-e and the Renewable Energy World Conference. You can pull the student card: this often means free or cheap access. If that does not work, find a newspaper to write for (start with Delta or a newspaper from your country) and apply for free conference-tickets as press. A third option is to offer your help as a volunteer. If you

Do you want to study in a different country? Hunt for the opportunity! It will take dedication and effort to study abroad. Approach professors at different universities directly (attach your previous research papers) or ask professors in Delft whether they have connections at other universities.

9. For thesis: find a research group that works together closely. Big ideas do not form in a vacuum (this book tells the story of Bell Labs, one of the most innovative research centers of all times). Sitting in a small room for 6 months will unlikely yield novel technology ideas. In successful research groups, PhD’s, post-docs and master students have lunch together and share their findings on a weekly basis. Look for groups where it is normal to walk into the office of your colleagues every day to ask them questions. To learn whether the research group you are interested in works this way, sit in their office for a week!

10. Do you want to prototype a big idea? Ask the university for support. Do not hesitate to approach the dean and other faculty members for (financial) support: they want to help you, and typically do not know what’s going on inside the classrooms. Delft Energy Initiative supports student projects with funding to build a prototype.

11. Participate in challenges and competitions. This is the best way to make your side-project fly. Look at the Cleantech Challenge, the Cleantech Open and  the Sustainability Challenge.

12. Join a startup. YES!Delft has lots of startups. If you feel entrepreneurship is your thing, just go there and join one! The atmosphere is fantastic.

13. Build long-lasting relationships with fellow students, professors and partners. Being a student gives you the opportunity to build relationships with other students, with the people you work with on projects and with the people in your research group. Make sure the relationships are long-lasting: who knows what you will be doing when you graduate?

When you leave Delft – for work abroad or for good – do not hesitate to send updates to your friends from SET. Send an email once every 3 or 6 months with the questions you’ve thought about; the way your life has changed; and  ideas you would like to work on.

Final advice: be proactive. This is so important that we have to repeat it. SET is a broad program, flexible enough to suit your own specific needs. Do not feel comfortable with “just the coursework”. Shape your agenda in your own way. If you need advice, contact fellow students and alumni.

Book Review: Natural Capitalism

Natural Capitalism suggests practical methods to improve the performance of your company or the quality of life in your country by accounting for natural capital. If you want to read success stories of better cities, more profitable businesses and more productive factories that reduce flows of energy, materials and waste, this book is for you. Below are some of my most important take-aways:

“What might be called “industrial capitalism” does not fully conform to its own accounting principles. It liquidates its capital and calls it income. It neglects to assign any value to the largest stocks of capital it employs – the natural resources and living systems, as well as the social and cultural systems that are the basis of human capital.”

The book introduces four strategies that enable countries, companies, and communities to operate by behaving as if all forms of capital were valued.

  1. Radical resource productivity. Using resources more effectively has three significant benefits: it slows resource depletion, it lowers pollution, and it provides a basis to increase employment. Companies and designers are developing ways to make natural resources – energy, metals, water, and forests – work five, ten, even one hundred times harder than they do today.
  2. Biomimicry: redesigning industrial systems on biological lines that change the nature of industrial processes and materials, enabling the constant reuse of materials in continuous closed cycles. Spiders make silk, strong as Kevlar but much tougher, from digested crickets and flies, without needing boiling sulfuric acid and high-temperature extruders.
  3. Service and flow economy: a shift to an economy wherein consumers obtain services by leasing or renting goods rather than buying them outright. This will entail a shift from the acquisition of goods as a measure of affluence to an economy where the continuous receipt of quality, utility, and performance promotes well-being.
  4. Investing in natural capital: reinvestments in sustaining, restoring, and expanding stocks of natural capital.

Resource productivity in industry

According to Natural Capitalism, the methods to increase industry’s energy and material productivity can be classified into (1) design; (2) new technologies; (3) controls; (4) corporate culture; (5) new processes; and (6) saving materials. An example of improved productivity through controls is found in distillation columns:

“Distillation columns use 3 percent of total U.S. energy to separate chemical and oil products, but most operators instead of continuously monitoring the purity of product as it emerges, test only occasionally to make sure samples meet specification. Between tests the operators, flying blind, often feed the same material back through the column more times than necessary to be really sure the products will pass the test – using 30-50 percent excess energy. Better controls that measure the purity actually coming out and keep fine-tuning the process for the desired results could cut waste in about half.”

We only need to look at chickens for improved productivity through new processes:

“There are three ways to turn limestone into a structural material. You can cut in into blocks, grind it up and calcine it at about 1500 Celsius into Portland cement, or feed it to a chicken and get it back hours later as even stronger eggshell. If we were as smart as chickens, we might master this elegant near-ambient-temperature technology and expand its scale and speed.”

The next time you design a manufacturing process or building, limit yourself using this framework:

“If a company knew that nothing that came into its factory could be thrown away, and that everything it produced would eventually return, how would it design its components and products?”


Elimination of Muda

Muda is Japanese for “waste”, “futility” or “purposelessness”.

A central thesis of the book is that large-scale centralized production is not more efficient than localized small-scale production. The benefits of decentralized production – lower capital investment, greater flexibility, higher reliability, lower inventory cost and lower shipping costs – often far outweigh the benefit of centralized production – a lower price per pound of material or cubic foot of machinery. In decentralized production, all the different processing steps can be carried out immediately adjacent to one  another with the product kept in continuous flow.

“From a whole-system perspective, the giant cola-canning machine may well cost more per delivered can than a small, slow, unsophisticated machine that produces the cans of cola locally and immediately on receiving an order from the retailer.”

“The whole system comprises classical central sewage-treatment plants and their farflung collection sewers – each piece optimized in isolation – is far costlier than such local or even on-site solutions as biological treatment. That is the case because even if the smaller plants cost more per unit of capacity (which they generally don’t), they’d need far less investment in pipes and pumps – often 90 percent of system investment – to collect sewage from a greater area to serve the larger plant.”


Water treatment centrally or in your garden?

Business models for a service economy

Together resource productivity and elimination of muda (lean thinking) offer the foundation for a powerful new business logic: Instead of selling the customer a product that you hope she’ll be able to use to derive the service she really wants, provide her that service directly at the rate and in the manner in which she desires it, deliver it as efficiently as possible, share as much of the resulting savings as you must to compete, and pocket the rest. 

An example of this “new business logic” are Energy Service Companies (ESCo’s). ESCo’s privately finance and install energy saving measures (insulation, energy-saving LED lighting, solar panels) in a client’s building, and charge a monthly fee to the client that is typically less than the energy saved. In a not-so-distant past, engineering firms would charge for the product (insulation materials, solar panels and labor costs for installation) upfront, because of which many potential clients did not become clients because they could not afford the capital expense.


Another not-so-earthly example is Elon Musk’s SpaceX. In stead of selling NASA a rocket, SpaceX charges NASA for the service to bring weight into the stratosphere. Through a different design perspective – building reusable in stead of disposable rockets – SpaceX is able to deliver NASA their service for one-tenth of the cost, winning a $1.6B contract.

Other examples are Schindler, a Swiss elevator-manufacturer that makes 70 percent of its earnings by leasing vertical transportation services, and Amazon Web Services. In stead of selling server-racks, AWS provide the service of storing bits. With this new business logic, Amazon created the industry of cloud storage (for which no server-manufacturing-expertise was needed!).

“At first glance it is tempting to regard a company crazy for striving to sell less of its product. If you sell a service, however, you have the opportunity to develop relationships, not just conduct a one-time transaction. The business logic of offering continuous, customized, decreasing-cost solutions to an individual customer’s problems is compelling because the provider and the customer both make money in the same way – by increasing resource productivity. Service providers would have an incentive to keep their assets productive for as long as possible, rather than prematurely scrapping them in order to sell replacements.”

A “service economy” has important macroeconomic implications. In a “goods economy”, purchasing and thereby orders fluctuate vigorously depending on the economy. In a “solutions economy” this volatility is dampened, because access to a solution does not require large investments, only annual service-fees. This would lead to an enormous reduction in the cycle of jobs being created and destroyed.

The shared economy is one incarnation of the service economy. The shared economy – an economy in which people receive service from the unused capital of other individuals – has started to take shape in recent years because technology has enabled fast and efficient distribution of goods and connection between individuals. With smart door-locks and iPhones with internet access, you can reply to a tenant on airbnb, approve her stay and give her digital, 24-hour access to your front door all in a matter of minutes. Before, this was not possible.

Important questions:

  • Why is the idea of “centralized production leads to maximum efficiency” deeply rooted in our minds if it is incorrect?
  • Why has the “service economy” or “solutions economy” – the concept to sell access to a product in stead of the product itself – been adopted by companies only in the last 20 years?
  • Why do product companies – Apple, Philips, Dyson – choose to sell a product in stead of access to a service, if selling a service allows them to build long-term customer relationships?

Data drives efficiency: will more computing power lead to lower energy consumption?

jet engine

Imagine standing next to one of the four massive engines of a Boeing 747. Cruising at 900km/h high above the earth, this 70m-long plane burns approximately 250 liters of kerosene per minute. That number can quickly be reduced by 1-5%. How? By using sensors on the jet’s blade to collect data, a wireless information transmission system, real-time analysis and optimization controls.

For industrial hardware companies, more information on equipment operations is an opportunity to reinvent their business. GE now has 250,000 “intelligent” machines — MR-scanners, gas turbines and jet engines — fitted with sensors, wireless technology, and controls. Some years ago, GE sold only hardware, dealing with a customer once per lifetime (if all went well, that is). Today, GE can build a continuous relationship with customers, informing them how to run their machines more efficiently, or even controlling the equipment for them.

This jump in productivity is enabled by two trends: more data and faster information processing.

First, we can cheaply gather great amounts of data. Sensors are becoming smaller and cheaper every year. In addition, the need to place additional hardware decreases – much information can be picked up from existing devices. You can measure space occupancy of a college dorm by the number of wifi signals; velocity by your smartphone’s gyroscope or air pollution using spectrometers.

Second, we can now process large amounts of data near real-time. This is enabled by the increasing computer power per dollar, aided by computational techniques like machine learning.

But these two trends don’t influence only airline companies. Nest’s smart thermostat uses motion sensors, machine learning and thermostat controls to make your house more comfortable and reduce your energy bill. These little magical devices can reduce your energy bill by up to 40%, using the trends above to their full potential.

Not long ago, the drivers for energy efficiency were material science, mechanical design and behavioral change. I believe another force is becoming a very important driver: data analysis. May energy  consumption drop because of it.