Efficiency seems to be a term that comes up quite a bit when discussing energy. What do you get out for what you put in? This seems to be the bottom line most always. But why is efficiency so important to us? Obviously to get as much energy out of our resources would be ideal, but maybe are we being too aggressive in our expectations? This notion affects the way we approach design of the green movement. In a 2009 chart from the Lawrence Livermore National Library, we can clearly see that the U.S.’s wasted energy, or ‘rejected’ energy, is over half of the energy put in (http://cdn.physorg.com/newman/gfx/news/hires/2011/usenergyuse.jpg). To get off of the ‘grid’ and use only renewable sources, is what designers may push to do after looking at a chart like this.
But is this realistic? When looking at energy transfers a certain amount of it will always be lost through friction turning into heat, or loss through wiring. This chart doesn’t even take into account energy that gets misused. Let’s say someone leaves the lights on in their house while going on vacation, which seems to be wasted energy as well. Maybe we are too reliant on efficiency as a measuring tool. Bill Sherman said that a system that is too efficient could become rigid.
Waste is part of the system. There is no system that does not have a byproduct of some kind. The human body is a great example of a system that takes in food, metabolizes it, expends much of it, and then gets rid of the excess in the form of bowel waste, urine, and heat. What we then can do is try to conserve some of those wastes in the form of compost, to then grow food to put back into the system.
What we need to be doing as designers is not looking at how you can break down the system that exists (i.e. the grid), but how you an use what is happening to transform waste of a system into something purposeful. A great example of this is the Genzyme Corporate Headquarters in Cambridge, MA that uses the excess steam given off by a nearby factory to heat the building. Without the waste from the factory, this building would not be able to do this function. By taking that excess heat, the building makes a resource out of waste. Maybe we should not be so focused on getting rid of waste, but more focused on how do we use it.