three steps towards sustainable technology evolution

We have listed three steps below that constitute a prototype for the overarching framework of the methodology, that we believe capable of judging the efficiency of green technologies by a relevant conception of efficiency. The first step is to identify the potential for synergy that a technology inhabits:

1. Identify Potential Synergy effects (evaluation of the technology)

  1. Analyze the properties of the technology, relative to a consciously chosen relative base (we consider ecological science a suitable such basis.)
  2. Count all possible synergy effects that can be realized between the technology and the reference base.  

This will result in sets of positive and negative synergies that have not yet been manifested. Consider it a ‘blind’ sustainability indicator, providing a crude assessment of the potential of a technology in itself to be implemented sustainablydisregarding context. Any such potential must be paired with suitable conditions in the implementation context, before the real and physical synergy effects emerge. The second step thereby becomes to identify synergy partners in the implementation context:

2. Identifying synergy partners (evaluation of the implementation context)

  1. Consider a specific implementation site, or a general type of area relevant to where the technology will be used
  2. Correlate the potential synergy effects identified in step 1 with synergy partners in the given context
  3. Count the number of actual synergy effects that are possible to manifest.

This provides a crude assessment of actual systemic impact. Note that this evaluation is still discrete, without the weights needed for a graded result

These two first steps together produce a philosophical solution for the fundamental problem of technologies, which we have considered to be the most important requirement for a methodology of sustainability. The third step is to assign weights to the realized synergy effects, where a graded sustainability score eventually can be established:

EXAMPLE 1: Smaller vs bigger wind turbines

3. Weighting realized synergy effects

  1. The realized effect from a synergy/partner-pair needs to be scored
  2. Neutral synergy effects have zero as their coefficient and are removed from the equation
  3. Negative synergies get a score <0
  4. Positive synergies get a score >1

When these weights are assigned to the impact-equation of the methodology they produce a graded score for the sustainability of different technologies (when implemented in the same or similar context(s))

Further research is required to establish whether a certain score can be labeled “green” or “sustainable”, or if the methodology to a larger extent is a guide for arriving at an expert opinion through a systematic process. We are going to walk through one step-by-step application of the sustainability assessment algorithm and then provide two examples that illuminate different conceptual aspects of the approach:

EXAMPLE 2: Smaller vs bigger wind turbines

Implementing small wind turbines on- or near existing infrastructure produces the following synergies:

  1. Eliminates loss of ecological space (+1)
  2. No need for high-voltage lines from the production site to end-users (+1)
  3. This, in turn, eliminates the need for transformer stations (+1)
  4. However, many low voltage inverters are needed instead (-1)    
  5. Lower voltages eliminate the need for SR-6 gas for insulation of high-voltage equipment (the most climate-sensitive gas known, with 23 500 times more heating potential than CO 2) (+1)
  6. Greater geographical dispersal of generators evens out peaks and valleys of energy production, if implemented on a large scale, since local weather conditions will differ, compensating for one of the main challenges of renewable energy systems (+1)
  7. Local businesses and personnel can maintain and repair turbines due to the low voltage and less demanding equipment (+1)
  8. However, less energy is produced per turbine due to the exponential relationship between tip length and energy production (-1)     
  9. Requires metals that are currently mined in unsustainable ways (-1)
  10. Parts are made of composite materials that are not easily recycled (-1)

   Synergy indication = [6,-3]

Large parks of large wind turbines produce the following synergies:

  1. Produces energy more efficiently per turbine (+1)
  2. But needs ecological space for implementing the turbines (-1)
  3. Needs ecological space for roads (-1)
  4. Needs heavy equipment for repairs (-1)
  5. Needs specially trained personnel to maintain or repair (-1)
  6. Requires SR-6 gas for switching gear (-1)
  7. Requires substations for stepping up and down voltages (-1)
  8. Does not require low voltage inverters (+1)
  9. Requires dedicated transmission lines (-1)
  10. Requires metals that are unsustainably mined (-1)
  11. Parts are composite materials that are hard to recycle (-1)

   Synergy indication: [1,-8]

Now remember: this ‘blind’ evaluation of synergy potential does not provide any answer as to which technology is ‘right’. The only information that can be derived directly from this evaluation is that the technology with the higher synergy score is more flexible and easier to implement in synergic ways. However, the actual sustainability score is dependent upon the implementation site, so before a judgment can be made, we must apply step 2 and analyse the implementation site:

Let us in this case assume that the implementation site is a rocky desert with very low biodiversity, located relatively close to a large city. In this case, all the negative synergies of large turbines might very well be outweighed by the one positive synergy effect of increased power output per device.

To evaluate this and arrive at a conclusion, step 3 needs to be actuated. Here, each synergy effect is assigned a graded weight, so that the overall systemic efficiency can be compared to the case of maximizing individual efficiency. A complete answer would require a much more comprehensive analysis and a well-developed system for which synergies to include, as well as how to assign weights (tasks for a main project). However, we will provide a simplified example to demonstrate the conceptual way of thinking:

Technology: Small HAWT’s

Context: low biodiversity, close to consumers

+ (1.16 x habitat loss)

+ (1.13 x biodiversity loss)     

+ (1.11 x transformer stations)

 – (1.09 x many low voltage inverters)

+ (1.23 x transport grid)

– (6.0 x individual efficiency)


= 3.55 – 6 = – 2.44                   

Technology: Large HAWT’s

Context: low biodiversity, close to consumers

– (1.15 x habitat loss)

– (1.12 x biodiversity loss)

– (1.11 x transformer stations)

+(1.09 x no low voltage inverters)  

– (1.20 x transport grid)

+(6.0 x individual efficiency)    


= 3.50 + 6 = + 2.51

For this specific case, we see that large horizontal axis wind turbines would be best for the implementation site in question. The gain from the one synergy effect of more output per turbine outweighs the systemic optimizations in this context. If the implementation area had been biodiversity rich and/or if the generation site was very far from where the energy was to be used, or the winds were rapidly changing, the outcome could change.

A defining trait for conventional technologies is that they maximize one or a few synergy effects through comprehensive support systems. The efficiency of complex technologies tends to be manifested by systemic optimizations, utilizing a plethora of synergies. We are accustomed to thinking that individual efficiency always outcompetes systemic advantages. However, the following example demonstrates that less efficient generators can outperform radically more efficient devices—if the amount of synergy effects is high and the ecological footprint very small—or perhaps even capable of bettering ecological functioning.

Example 2: Photovoltaics vs. Photosynthesis
  1. Industrial solar cells are ~23% effective at transforming sunlight into energy
  2. Plants are on average around 1% efficient for the same task
  3. Solar cells are thereby 23 times «more efficient» than plants
  4. Does this make solar cells «better» than plants…?
  5. However, even at their modest 1% efficiency, plants produce most of the resources for living, for economic trade and for human well-being.

      How is that possible?

Plants exploit a plethora of systemic advantages to help increase their overall efficiency by synergically interacting with their surrounding ecosystems. They extract CO 2 from the air while converting sunlight into biomass, which again provides feed and shelter for animals, and nutrition for microorganisms. These interact symbiotically with mycelium and fungi in the soil to generate further nutrients, especially adapted to the needs of the interconnected fauna. The process generates chemical energy, habitat and resources for every complex land species on the planet—as well as most of the raw materials involved in generating the revenue of the global market. All while maintaining a fertile soil! The byproduct of the process is the oxygen we breathe. A truly green and sustainable process, which also has been sustained for hundreds of millions of years.

This is value creation is sustainable in every link of the chain. Even economically. The value creation of nature is estimated somewhere around $125 trillion/year–or almost three times the global gross domestic product (Costanza et al., 2014, p. 156). This estimate comes with its share of uncertainties but establishes a methodological baseline from which it is possible to indicate the monetary costs of nature loss, which seems to lie somewhere between $4.3-20.2 trillion/year over the period of 1997 to 2011. Equating to a mean loss of 10,6% of the 2011 global GDP (Ibid.).

It is hard to assess the accuracy of these figures (hence the large prediction interval) but it demonstrates the vast potential for value creation from implementing technological solutions in synergic ways. Since vegetation is generally positive for ecosystems and not a burden, there are no restrictions for the area that can be involved in vegetative value generation. Consequently, plants do not need to be more than 1% energy efficient to create the majority of value, well-being and wealth on the planet. In the same way, technologies do not need to function at maximized efficiencies—if they have low environmental impact and function synergically with ecological systems.

We see here how vegetation regains “lost” efficiency, due to the exceptional degree of synergetic efficiency. And this is how we need to think when developing the next paradigm of green technologies!

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