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September/October 2008
PerSpective

New Fuels for the Machine

Engineering Energy Efficient Buildings

In this essay, William J. Coad explores the historical connection between energy conversion, human productivity and economic success, and shows how initiatives like the High Performance Building Council hold the key to fueling the “mechanical slave” sustainably in the 21st century.

It’s almost a certainty that every person reading this publication studied economics somewhere along the line in their formal education. But it’s also quite likely that in most of those courses, neither their professor nor their textbook emphasized the intrinsic links among energy conversion, human productivity and the economy. It is these links that have made the world economy as robust as it is today. And, if some of the current challenges are properly addressed, the economy will continue to grow throughout the 21st century.

Since history is more fascinating to most of us than economics, let’s explore the situation through a historical perspective. And as we think of time, let’s think of time in terms of human lifetimes as well as years, with a human lifetime being approximately 75 years.

Steven Ambrose, writing in his book Undaunted Courage about Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration in 1801 as the third president of the United States, made the following statement:

“A critical fact of the world of 1801 was that nothing moved faster than the speed of a horse. No human being, no manufactured item, no bushel of wheat, no side of beef… no letter, no information, no idea, order or instruction of any kind moved faster. Nothing ever had moved any faster, and, as far as Jefferson’s contemporaries were able to tell, nothing ever would.”

That was in 1801, which was only about three human lifetimes ago!

At that time, the economy of the world had been essentially flat for centuries. At best, humans had been improving their lot by using animal power, river currents and wind power to provide energy conversion for driving boats and ships, and machines such as mills, plows and well pumps to increase human productivity. But just about that time, James Watt’s steam engine, which converted heat to mechanical energy, was coming into its own, and within 50 years of 1801, railroad trains were crossing the three major continents of the northern hemisphere, carrying humans, wheat, beef and all manner of manufactured items — pulled by engines that burned wood to make steam. Alongside the rails were telegraph wires that carried coded messages (developed by Samuel Morse in about 1835) at almost the speed of light.

Over the next 50 years, by the end of the 19th century, the steam engine had been applied in factories, connected to line shafts to operate all manner of machines, further increasing human productivity. Also by this time, most steam engines were being fueled with coal rather than wood. Because of the increased productivity brought about by the steam engine, the demand for wood for construction had increased, and the coal had no other use except as a fuel.

Oil had been known for centuries as having some medicinal value and as fuel that burned with much particulate and soot. The process of distilling it had not been developed until 1874, which enabled oil to burn cleanly and thus replace whale oil as an illuminant. Approaching the end of the 19th century, oil was still used primarily for lamps and lubrication.

The Mechanical Slave

Toward the end of the 19th century, in the year 1891, an author and playwright in London named Oscar Wilde wrote an article titled “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” in which he made probably the most prophetic statement in 19th century literature. He wrote, “On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends!”

I’m certain that Oscar Wilde had no idea how significant that statement was. But Wilde was an esthete and not an economist, so he couldn’t envision the impact that the mechanical slave would have on human productivity, and thus, on the world economy.

Right around that time, as we were moving into the 20th century, Marconi was perfecting his wireless transmission, Henry Ford and his contemporaries were working on the automobile, Thomas Edison and Nicola Tesla were harnessing electricity, the Wright Brothers were dreaming of their airplane, Alexander Bell was developing the telephone, and numerous engineers and inventors were working on various forms of the internal combustion engine.

Just consider, that was only about 100 years ago — less than one and a half human lifetimes. We spent the next 100 years virtually perfecting Wilde’s mechanical slave. By 1991, approaching the launching pad of the 21st century, we had the mechanical slave to cook our food, wash our dishes, preserve our food, launder our clothes, stoke our fires, provide for our thermal environment, transport us about wherever and whenever we wanted to go at speeds up to and exceeding the speed of sound, provide for our leisure pastime and entertainment, operate our factories, build our buildings, send our messages in audio, visual or graphic format throughout the world at nearly the speed of light, keep our records, perform our calculations, open our doors and on and on.

All of this made humans more productive — and with productivity came a strong economy and affluence, and a quality of life that couldn’t have been envisioned 100 years earlier. As a matter of fact, it’s safe to say that everyone reading this article lives a better quality of life than the wealthiest, most powerful person on earth could have lived in 1908!

Fueling the Mechanical Slave Sustainably

There is a problem, however, and it is one that we’ve seen coming for some time but have been loath to address. We’ve built this marvelous mechanical slave of ours to live on a diet of fossil energy resources, of which there is a fixed amount in the earth that required millions of years of chemical activity to form. And we have been consuming these resources for a short 150 years at an exponentially increasing rate. Furthermore, the effluents generated in the process are contaminating the fragile environment necessary for the very survival of life on earth.

If we have a fixed amount of a resource and we’re consuming it at an exponentially increasing rate (as we have been), simple mathematics tells us that it will run out. It is not a matter of if but when. Many experts have predicted that at the current rate of consumption, world oil production will peak prior to the year 2010.

This brief historical review was intended to demonstrate the links between energy, human productivity and the economy. And understanding these links gives us the key to the solution.

  • If we’re to protect the strength of the world economy, we cannot (no choice) reduce human productivity. To improve the strength of the economy we must continue on the path of increasing human productivity.
  • The answer lies in engineering. Engineers understand all of the principles of energy conversion. We know that in our present society we are wasting about 80 percent of the energy we consume, we can reduce at least 80 percent of the waste without reducing human productivity, and we cannot afford to depend upon alternative or, preferably, sustainable energy sources unless we first reduce the waste. Because sustainable or renewable energy is in limited supply, and it will be extremely costly to capture and convert it.

So that provides the road map. The first and most immediate thing we have to do is start reducing the waste in all of our energy systems, without decreasing or reducing, and preferably while increasing, performance. Then we have to change to alternative and renewable energy sources, and all of this must be achieved while maintaining an increasing level of human productivity. And it must be all achieved without a negative impact upon the environment.

Making Buildings Perform Sustainably

Because buildings currently consume approximately 40 percent of the energy used on earth, provide the environment in which the people of the first world, on average, spend 90 percent of their time and produce almost 40 percent of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, they are a major target for implementing this solution. This is what high performance buildings are all about. Quite simply, they are buildings that will reduce energy waste to a bare minimum consistent with good business practices while maintaining a thermal and comfort environment to improve human productivity in a sustainable manner.

The challenges facing humanity in the 21st century will offer untold opportunities. The technological knowledge developed in the past century puts us on an entirely different platform than our forebears occupied in 1908. Our challenge is to utilize that knowledge to our advantage to reconfigure the mechanical slave. We will have very lightweight, high speed cars with low friction power plants operating on renewable fuels on highways separate from massive over-the-road trucks; chemical filtration of air in our buildings; total heat exchange of all ventilation air; distributed electric power generating facilities integrated through an improved network of power distribution and safe nuclear energy to support a hydrogen fuel industry.

This is not a short-range undertaking. We will probably take most of the 21st century working on this conversion, but we must develop a plan and then follow it meticulously, all the while searching for better ways, always keeping in mind that productivity must be maintained and improved or we will fail, and that the ultimate objective is a sustainable world society.

High Performance Building Council

Section 914 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (Public Law 109-058) mandates that the secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy enter into an agreement with the National Institute of Building Sciences to:

  • Conduct an assessment (in cooperation with industry, standards development organizations and other entities, as appropriate) of whether the current voluntary consensus standards and rating systems for high performance buildings are consistent with the current technological state of the art, including relevant results from the research, development and demonstration activities of the department;
  • Determine if additional research is required, based on the findings of the assessment; and
  • Recommend steps for the secretary to accelerate the development of voluntary consensus-based standards for high performance buildings that are based on the findings of the assessment.

NIBS formed an ad hoc council consisting of 74 private sector societies, including ASTM International, associations, organizations and government agencies, all with interest and expertise in building sciences or technology to take the first step in carrying out this mandate.

A briefing was held June 18 at the Rayburn House Office Building between the leadership of the High Performance Buildings Caucus of the U.S. Congress and the NIBS High Performance Building Council, and the results of this ad hoc council’s work were presented to the caucus in a 28-page report.

A summary of the recommendations follows.

1. Identify and establish new cost decision-making parameters for the planning, programming, budgeting, procurement and delivery of high performance buildings.

2. Develop and establish performance metrics and verification methods for high performance buildings, systems and products that provide sustainability.

3. Develop and establish performance metrics and verification methods for high performance building beyond minimal life safety requirements to provide post-catastrophic operational capacity and resilience.

4. Develop and establish performance metrics and verification methods for high performance buildings that provide increased occupant productivity.

5. Develop and establish performance metrics and verification methods for building serviceability, durability and functionality.

6. Develop and establish performance metrics and verification methods for high performance buildings that provide universal accessibility.

7. Develop and establish a new set of self-diagnostic protocols for the prioritization and optimization of high performance building attributes.

8. Establish two independent expert panels for technical and nontechnical areas, respectively, as a necessary filter for advancing viable policies on high performance buildings.

Additionally, NIBS formally established a standing council to carry on the work of assisting the legislature in moving forward with policies and programs to encourage the planning, design, construction and operation of high performance buildings.

Balancing human productivity with sustainability is a challenge for the century, and for the future. But we must, and we can, make the mechanical slave an efficient, high performance, one.

 

William J. Coad, P.E., is president of Coad Engineering Enterprises, principal of Coad Engineering Consulting, principal emeritus of McClure Engineering Associates and board chair of Engineering Software International. A fellow and former president of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, Coad is also a director of the National Institute of Building Sciences and a member of the American Council of Engineering Companies and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.