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“Firing an email instead of a rocket …”

June 1st, 2017 · 2 Comments

Debates are often presented as either/or, black/white, all/nothing when the complexity of reality is that most situations are not zero-sum, one-or-the-other.  And, that is especially true in complex environments and situations like energy systems and climate change (science, mitigation, adaptation).  In this overlapping space, some of the either/or, all/nothing type assertions:

  • Consumption reduction vs clean energy growth
  • Government regulation or market driven
  • Nuclear power vs renewables
  • Top-down vs bottom-up
  • Human behavior vs technology
  • Research vs deployment
  • Etc … etc … etc …

Simple reality of energy is that it is ‘all-of-the-above’ (not the Obama (or a worse GOP version of) ‘All of the Above’ with full throttle pursuit of fossil fuels along with renewables) —

  • Expanding renewable energy to displace fossil fuel polluting energy efficiency
  • Changing consumption patterns — whether via boosting energy efficiency or shifting ‘how’ we understand/measure our success in life
  • Changing business models
  • Government regulations along with individual actions …
  • Etc … etc …

The path toward a prosperous, secure, climate-friendly society involves a multitude of silver BBs (there is no single-point Silver Bullet), many rounds of silver buckshot. Anyone reading this space more or less ‘knows’ this, even if there will be lots of disagreement on details.  Some silver BBs (sometimes mistakenly seem by people as Silver Bullets, even as they are significant), like solar on the rooftop, are highly visible. Others — like how much insulation there is in a home — are remote from daily thinking, seemingly out-of-sight/out-of-mind and even obscure from most people’s conception of ‘energy solutions’.

For example, as to obscure for connectivity to climate change, reducing work weeks fosters higher productivity, increases happiness, and leads to improved societal functionality … and leads to lower consumption life-styles with, therefore, lessened climate impacts.

One of those arenas of ‘either/or’ relates to ‘techno-optimism’, both to those who seem to look to technology for ‘the’ solution and, conversely, those who decry technological ‘solutions’ in a perverse Luddite obsession.  Technology, obviously, has enabled humanity to dig (literally, when one considers mining machines that are some of the largest pieces of equipment in the world) the ‘climate hole’ while technology also offers multiples of paths toward both ‘stop digging the hole’ and starting to fill it up.

And, many of these ‘technology silver BBs’ re climate change aren’t really perceived nor were they developed with ‘climate’ as a central focus.  Take additive manufacturing (think 3D printing) and digitization of the economy. Both of these have a myriad of business-model reasons for development, have been significantly changing the world economy, and have the (very real) potential of massively shifting the global economy — perhaps quite rapidly.

Brian Motherway, who heads the International Energy Agency (IEA) Energy Efficiency Division, has a piece on ‘brightness as a service‘ that points to how 3D + digitization could drive major efficiency through the global economy.  The title of the post (liking those words sparked writing this post) comes from what might be the extreme example of that payoff:

Floating Barry Wilmore

When astronaut Barry Wilmore needed to carry out repairs on the International Space Station in December 2014, he lacked a socket wrench needed for the job. Previously, this would have meant waiting months for the next supply rocket, or sending a specific flight at great cost. Not anymore. Back on Earth, engineers designed the specific tool on their computer, emailed the file back to the space station where it was manufactured on a 3-D printer and used successfully.

This story probably holds a world record for the single-most impressive energy efficiency action: firing an email instead of a rocket to deliver a tool.

What is the value stream here for ‘firing an email instead of a rocket’?

Reality is, there wasn’t going to be a rocket launched solely for a ‘socket wrench’ (perhaps dependent on how critical/urgent the repair was) and thus ‘fully-burdened cost of fuel (FBCF) (okay, here, FBCSW: full-burdened cost of a socket wrench) analysis really isn’t at play, but here were months saved by sending perhaps gigabytes of data for a few hours of printing rather than having a piece in the logistics chain.  This is not some isolated and unique case separated from every day lives, but an emblematic example of something that is occurring increasingly throughout the economy.


    Department of Navy “Print-A-Thon’ wit at Sea-Air-Space, March 2016

    The US Navy is prototyping printing spare parts for repairs at sea with initial cases (such as walkie-talkie antenna clip or sink disposal cover) showing very high-payoff in terms of reduced time to repairs and cost savings (‘firing an email rather than a helicopter taking off to deliver parts at sea’)

  • Firm after firm are turning to additive manufacturing (3D printing) for spare parts of all sorts, often reducing the logistics chain for moving parts around.
  • Etc …

And, this isn’t just about ‘parts’ and socket wrenches. There are mini-UAVs getting printed, automobiles, built structures, and …

The AM/3D revolution has the potential to truly remake the global landscape — why important manufactured goods when you can import the electrons to print out and assembly locally at a fraction of the time of response, nearly eliminating the need to maintain inventories of goods and parts while cannibalizing the need for shipping manufactured products.  With a printer and a screw-driver in your utility room or at a near-by facility, what need is there for a factory on the other side of the world?

AM/3D printing offers the potential for a radical reduction in the energy used for shipping goods. It could free up space on, for example, railroads such that they will be more competitive against trucks.  Just as the energy system, around the world, is navigating a path toward a more complicated yet more efficient and more reliable mixed centralized/distributed generation system, the global supply chain and globalized economy might be on the cusp of radical change. Radical change that could mean boosted economic performance with reduced waste and reduced energy use … and reduced pollution for a higher standard of living.

The world economy is, increasing,

firing emails rather than launching rockets.

While this will be disruptive, humanity could well be far better off due to it … including due to the reduced pollution that this blast of silver buckshot should deliver.

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Tags: Energy

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Your commute costs me how much? Really? // Jun 19, 2017 at 10:21 am

    […] on the commodity cost of fuel (what the gallon cost to buy) versus the fully-burdened cost of fuel (FBCF — what it cost to buy and deliver the fuel to the end user) will lead to under-valuing […]

  • 2 Your commute costs me how much? Really? | Sense & Sustainability // Jun 26, 2017 at 6:01 am

    […] on the commodity cost of fuel (what the gallon cost to buy) versus the fully-burdened cost of fuel (FBCF — what it cost to buy and deliver the fuel to the end user) will lead to under-valuing end-use […]