In the 1970s, an international research team produced one of the most influential reports on the environment, The Limits to Growth. Using a sophisticated computer model, it showed that the world could not sustain current levels of economic and population growth very far into the future without risking disastrous depletion in resources and economic collapse.
The report was instigated by the Club of Rome, an international group comprising scientists, teachers, economists, industrialists and civil servants concerned about the predicament of humankind.
Next week another report to the Club of Rome dramatically unveils, if not a permanent solution, at least the way towards one. Factor Four: Doubling Wealth – Halving Resource Use argues that natural resources can be used four times more effectively than at present.
Big savings, it argues, can be made more cheaply than small savings. The emphasis on labour productivity which has preoccupied industry since the Industrial Revolution needs to be replaced by an emphasis on resource productivity. Using resources more efficiently will automatically reduce pollution and energy use. And it can all be achieved by deploying market forces and without anyone losing out. A four times more efficient car, for example, will have `superior performance in all respects’ to current models – and it could be here by the millennium.
This revolution will be dependent on engineers’ ingenuity. But it will also hinge on their ability to change the way they think and design, to return to fundamentals and to learn to optimise whole systems, not individual components.
Sceptics may find these ideas implausible. But physicist and researcher Amory Lovins, one of the co-authors of the report and founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado, which aims to foster the efficient and sustainable use of resources, puts the case eloquently and backs it up with case studies. Lovins’ enthusiasm and grasp of his subject are infectious.
Factor Four kicks off with 50 examples of quadrupling resource productivity. The idea poses an exciting challenge to engineers.
Resource efficiency can be `highly lucrative,’ says Lovins, `because it typically costs less to save resources than to extract and consume them and less to avoid pollution than to clean it up afterwards.’
The keys to unlocking these savings are the ability to combine existing technologies in the most effective way and to optimise whole systems and their costs. Barriers are engineering education and over-specialisation, fee systems which reward designers for spending money rather than saving it, and financial systems which inhibit considering operating and capital costs together.
Too often, says Lovins, engineers are given the wrong problem to solve. The car is a case in point. In an attempt to minimise fuel costs, engineers sweat away at wringing a few percentage improvements from the engine or transmission. `If you optimise cars to save fuel costs you will not save nearly as much as if you optimise to save car costs,’ he says.
`A lot of our work in the last 20 years or so has been in finding how to combine technologies in the best manner, sequence and proportion. When you get the right recipe it turns out that big savings can often be cheaper than small savings. That’s quite a surprise.’
Indeed it is, especially to economists familiar with the law of diminishing returns.
`We call it tunnelling through the cost barrier. Normally from experience and economic theory you expect that as you save more and more the cost will go up more and more steeply till you hit the limit of cost effectiveness. We have found that very often if you keep going and save even more the cost comes down again. But you don’t need to go through all those steps – you can tunnel through the barrier to the objective of big cheap savings.’
This is how Lovins’ design concept for the `hypercar’ evolved. He and his team were bothered by the question `why does a car convert only 1% of its fuel energy into moving the driver?’ In the early 1990s they discovered the key to improving this was first to make the car light and slippery in air and rolling resistance. In a lighter vehicle all the other parts, including the engine, could be made smaller too, compounding the savings. Combining this with a hybrid internal combustion/electric drive unlocked synergies which gave savings greater than the sum of the parts – typically a four to eight-fold improvement.
Yet this car `could actually be simpler and cheaper than conventional cars’ which have become over-complex, says Lovins.
The question then was how to get such a car to market. Instead of patenting their ideas and hoping to license the technology, Lovins’ team decided to put their work in the public domain `and get everyone fighting over it’.
As a result, he says, firms throughout the world are investing in bringing hypercars to production because the competitive advantage of being the first to market will be decisive.
Little has been heard of this because the work is going under secret `black’ programmes. Towards the end of last year, though, General Motors broke cover with an announcement that it was working on a hybrid with half the weight and half the drag of a conventional car. `That’s a hypercar,’ says Lovins.
But a big factor militating against resource efficiency is engineering specialisation. `Only a handful of engineers in Detroit and a few in Germany could design a whole car. If you optimise components in isolation you typically pessimise the whole system.’
Engineering education is an obstacle: `There are a few gifted teachers who teach whole system thinking but not enough yet.’
Also the design process is seen as linear: require, design, build, repeat. Things that work get repeated with no attempt at measuring how well they work. Lovins says this particularly affects process plant design. The model should be a cyclic one: require, design, build, measure, analyse, repeat. `If you don’t measure you can’t do better next time.’
Lovins’ message carries a warning: `Resource efficiency does not ultimately solve your problem if you continue having unlimited growth in population and per capita consumption. But it probably buys you enough time to deal in a sensible and orderly fashion with the problems we still have to overcome.
`From the beginning of the human experience, engineering has been about doing more and better with less. Now we can do more and much better with much, much less.
`To rise to that challenge we need to bring engineering back to its roots. We almost lost the Victorian art of whole system optimisation. The more we look at the incredible level of waste in today’s way of doing things the more opportunities we find for engineering.’