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Fine Design Takes Chutzpah: RMI’s Industry Practice Expands Boundaries

By Molly Miller


What makes a manufacturer sign on to a seemingly audacious idea about energy savings?

“You have to get them to suspend their disbelief,” says Dr. Malcolm Lewis, whose firm has been running energy models and providing engineering consulting services for RMI’s buildings and industrial design projects since 1986. “And it is then up to us to prove it, working with detailed energy data.”

Detailed energy data is the clincher: running the numbers and showing that deep savings can cost less than the standard design. “In God we trust,” says RMI’s in-house mantra—“all others bring data.”

“Amory [Lovins] has always been able to take these outlandish positions about the potential for energy savings,” says Lewis. “It has been fun to be on the team that gets to work through these things and show that it’s not pie in the sky and that it is possible to have deep savings.”

This was the case when Texas Instruments (TI) built a new million-square-foot LEED Gold semiconductor fabrication plant in Richardson, Texas. RMI consulted on the design of the facility, which opened in 2009 and saved $4 million in annual energy operating cost and 35 percent of its water use compared with TI’s previous chip fab built just four miles away, according to RMI Consultant Ryan Matley. RMI and the design team, including Lewis, ran the numbers and found the buildings could achieve these savings with 30 percent less capital costs than the baseline design. (Even greater savings were achieved in the next chip fab—the two biggest energy-saving steps couldn’t be completely tested in time for the Richardson plant.)

RMI had worked with chipmakers before—notably on eight STMicroelectronics fabs during 1998–2000—on facility retrofits and efficiency of processes, but TI had special potential because RMI got to consult on design of the new manufacturing facility from the ground up.

Lovins reflects in a September 2010 essay: “Our chance to shift chip fabs’ efficiency followed more than a decade of failures to slip through the invisible crack between industry upturns (when everyone is too busy to think about novel design) and downturns (when such rethinking is deferred until it’ll be needed). Texas Instruments’ Paul Westbrook finally achieved that feat. Our 2003 collaboration saved $230 million of capital cost as well as much energy, water, and up to a thousand high-tech American jobs.”

The data made the case for energy-saving measures, but the project goals started with chutzpah and a brave client willing to be a leader and a champion of bold targets. Westbrook, TI’s sustainable design manager, had brought three vice presidents from TI to visit Lovins’s superefficient house in Snowmass in 2003 to help push the design goals for the new plant. Affectionately known around RMI as the “Banana Farm” for its prolific indoor passive-solar fed banana trees, the Lovins GreenHome at 7,100 feet is so efficient that it needs no conventional heating system, yet cost slightly less to build that way.

The home tour “helped demonstrate that applying good design could allow a much more efficient system with minimal capital investment,” Westbrook told Solutions Journal in the spring of 2005.

RMI’s historical clients for industrial design also include international mining and oil companies. In mid-2001, for example, RMI held a Natural Capitalism Innovation Lab for Shell International, Inc. in Copenhagen. A small team of RMItes spent four days with a dozen Shell officials and a group of experts from around the globe. The innovation lab focused on ways to improve efficiency of Shell’s Fredericia Refinery in West Denmark, which produces 3 million ton of product annually. Ultimately, the lab identified approximately two dozen projects and initiatives that could potentially yield more than $10 million in annual benefits (savings and increased revenue). Other Shell redesigns in that period included an offshore oil platform, a petrochemicals complex, a gas-to-liquids plant, and an LNG liquefaction plant. Several new projects are now underway. Similarly, RMI’s redesigns with Rio Tinto and Anglo-American have helped lead much new thinking in the global mining industry.

In some cases, RMI makes recommendations that end up not being implemented, yet influencing future innovations.

One such historic industrial design consultation was for H.P. Bulmer, Ltd.—the world’s leading hard-cider maker and apple grower and user. Although Bulmer’s was sold before it could implement RMI’s recommendations, the collaboration remains one of the best examples of RMI’s whole-systems thinking, and still influences RMI’s approach to other design challenges.

In 2001, Bulmer decided to pursue sustainability comprehensively, both to save money and to be a good steward. RMI organized a four-day intensive design workshop—or charrette, as RMI and the world of architecture likes to call such gatherings—that became one of the more classic and important that the Institute has conducted.

Bulmer, founded in 1887, makes two brands of hard apple cider, Bulmer’s and Strongbow, and has been the official cider supplier of Britain’s royal family since 1911. The charrette took place at its home in Hereford, England, with more than 100 participants from Bulmer, RMI, and the local and national agricultural communities.

Lovins wandered around the factory looking at pipes, as he’s known to do. (His prize find: rotating one tank 30 degrees before piping it could have saved 11 energy-wasting elbows.) But the charrette went far beyond the usual recommendations for new products or equipment, new processes, reducing resource use, and promoting efficiency. RMI did make many of its standard recommendations for industrial energy savings—replace bent pipes with straight ones and skinny pipes with fat ones; install smaller, more efficient pumps and motors—but because the charrette looked at many aspects of Bulmer’s business and included agriculture specialists as well as biologists, some unusual opportunities emerged.

Among them was the idea that instead of burning some 10,000 tons of apple-tree prunings each year, the company could use them as a medium to grow shiitake and ganoderma mushrooms, producing additional revenue that could have surpassed that from cider sales. Another option: the powerful antioxidants in the apple seeds (thrown away with the cores) may have been worth more than the rest of the apple.

Most spectacular was a Bulmer participant’s insight that the whole business was being distorted by using the wrong metric—buying apples by the ton (of water, apple, mud, mush from bruised fruit, or any other detritus) rather than for the desired ingredients for cider-making (sugar, pectin, and flavorings). This led to apple-growing practices that greatly increased production costs. The insight provided a powerful way to influence future apple-growing contracts.

“Bulmer’s is a great example of really thinking outside the box,” says participant and RMI Principal Alexis Karolides. “We used biology as a lever for change. Growing mushrooms is not what most energy-efficiency consultants would recommend—they’d look at boilers and equipment.

“We looked at the whole system and turned waste into profit,” says Karolides. “We thought about incentives and asked, ‘Do you have the right business incentives in place to maximize your end product?’”

The project demonstrates RMI’s 10xE principles, says Karolides. The idea behind 10xE, or Factor Ten Engineering, is that good design principles can increase efficiency up to 10-fold, often making big savings cheaper than small ones to get expanding returns. RMI is rolling out 10xE principles as a curriculum to change the way engineering students and practitioners approach design. (Read more about RMI’s 10xE principles here.)

As it ramps up 10xE in 2012–13 and beyond, RMI will re-emphasize the concept of integrated design—that is, factoring inputs, outputs, costs, constraints, and revenue opportunities into the dialogue, using a cross-functional team. This may sound like RMI’s usual stuff, but as Jon Creyts says, “It’s just not practiced very frequently out there in industry. That’s the niche we are trying to advance.”

Dr. Creyts is a recently hired program director who joined RMI after helping to found and lead the sustainability practice as a partner in McKinsey & Company’s Chicago office. “Saving money by incrementally reducing waste makes economic sense and has long been a focus of industry leaders,” he says.

“More and more, our industrial partners appreciate how, at RMI, we specialize in collaborating with them to expand the boundaries of possibility through creative problem solving and through whole-systems thinking and integrated design,” adds Creyts. “RMI’s experience over the past 30 years has made us more capable of identifying ways to better satisfy these customers while dramatically reducing environmental impacts.”

Looking ahead, Karolides says, “It will be interesting to work with industries we really want to succeed, such as the solar industry, to see if our integrative design approach can help bolster their success.”