New energy Paradigm Can Help Maintain Low Carbon Footprints Among Non-Industrial Nations

Given the global consensus on climate change, world leadership has looked at growth in India and China with increasing alarm. The prior experience of industrially-developing countries worldwide would suggest that as an economy grows, it consumes more and more energy. Given currently available energy and technology options, this in turn leads to increased carbon emissions into the environment.

New findings from the Emerging Economy Report, released by the Center for Knowledge Societies (CKS), however, have identified several new energy paradigms that can fundamentally alter the ways in which end consumers access and use energy. This new paradigm can therefore dramatically change the adverse environmental effects of increased energy demand in emerging economies.

Dr. Aditya Dev Sood, Founder and CEO of CKS, said that the Emerging Economy Report Team had begun by mapping energy consumption patterns across different industrialized and emerging economies. He used a complex chart from the study to illustrate his point: “We began with the observation that many emerging economies are already highly efficient. This means that they create more economic value per unit of energy consumed. On the other hand, as their GDP per capita grows, their carbon footprint balloons! Energy innovation is the only way out of this logic.”

But rather than taking this phenomenon as a given, Dr. Sood and his team set out to try to understand how those energy management and consumption patterns actually change over time. “We began with the insight that consumers in most emerging economies already employed highly efficient energy management techniques, and that this was at least partially a result of the high cost of energy. We wanted to try to understand how this energy efficiency was brought about through people’s everyday lives and energy management techniques.”

CKS researchers traveled to diverse urban, small town and even rural and remote environments over the course of an eighteen-month research program that spanned India, China, Indonesia, South Africa, Kenya, Egypt and Brazil. In each country, the designers and anthropologists from CKS visited people’s homes, documented their domestic appliances, monitored their consumption of electrical, gas, kerosene, petrol, diesel as well bio-fuel and solar options. They also documented battery usage, including capacitor invertors, which are common in many regions of the world where power supply is erratic.

One of the new energy paradigms described by the Emerging Economy Report is called ‘Osmotic Utilities.’ It offers a new model for the design of certain kinds of domestic appliances and technologies, which would not only consume energy, but also generate it, even feeding it back to the urban grid. Today, electricity, gas, water, and media mostly flow into an office or dwelling, and are therefore metered in only one direction. In the future, however, these resources might be stored or even generated so that they could feed back to the grid as and when necessary. Consider for example a micro wind turbine atop a townhouse or sitting outside an apartment window, feeding a set of eco-neutral storage batteries that power media appliances through the home, and even houses next door. According to CKS, Osmotic Utilities could be key to creating new energy communities of the future.

Dr. Sood said the concept of ‘Osmotic Utilities’ was generated collaboratively by the international team of specialists working on the Emerging Economy Report, based on observations coming directly from the field. “We looked at heat-saving techniques from China, cooking techniques from rural areas in India, kitchen technologies from Indonesia. And we were seeing certain energy-saving patterns in all of them, whereby one or another mechanism was serving as a two-way valve to release or store energy within the system. That’s why we called this approach ‘osmotic,’ using the concept of osmosis, which happens in certain kinds of membranes.”

The concept was also inspired by the observation that in many Emerging Economies, including India, power is in short-supply and there can be scheduled or unscheduled power-cuts during the day. “The non-availability of continuous and reliable power has some downsides, but one major upside is that the entire ecology adapts to surviving without it. We wanted to build on this adaptive side of Emerging Economies, wherein we have observed all kinds of inverters, battery back-ups, generators and alternative energy supply mechanisms as alternatives to municipal power supply.” A little bit of re-engineering is all that would be required to transform an energy back-up device into an osmotic utility.

The Informationalization of Energy

A large section of the report is also devoted to ‘Intelligent Infrastructure.’ As Emerging Economies continue to grow, the Report points out that they will make more and more investments into their urban infrastructure – new suburbs, new industrial parks, new systems of mass-transit and many more energy-hungry buildings. And even though environmentally-sensitive individuals might want to use energy right, they may not have the freedom to do so. Most of the decisions concerning the energy and environmental costs of different activities are scripted into the infrastructure that makes them possible. This is why new urban infrastructure needs to become intelligent.

Zackery Denfeld, an energy and environmental designer who also worked on the Report, said that the infrastructure of the future would be able to monitor, consume and generate energy, communicate with end users, and even help them to coordinate and plan their shared-use of infrastructure.

In order to develop intelligent infrastructure scenarios, the Emerging Economy Report Team studied how very rural and remote families in Kenya made plans to travel into the city. They found that social networking and coordination was very important for people who did not live near regular bus or train hubs. They contrasted these findings with data from Indonesia, where even scooters and rickshaws had their own stands, which also served as social spaces for waiting travellers. “What we understood from these examples is that we can help people reduce their travel costs as well as help the environment by creating infrastructure that helps them coordinate their travel with one another. This in turn changes the energy consumption and environmental footprint per person-mile travelled.”

A New Theory of Emerging Economy

These concepts sound attractive in theory, but would they work in practice? The CKS team working on these and other energy concepts at their studios in Bangalore seem confident. “Our whole approach is about actually driving innovation,” said Saswati Saha-Mitra, who also worked on the report. “While in the Report we are interested in describing key scenarios, in our regular consulting work we actually work with technology, product and service companies and their customers to put these kinds of scenarios into practice. What we do in the field is truly rewarding, because it benefits our clients, their end customers as well as the environment.”

The Emerging Economy Report often uses insights and terminology from the telecommunications industry to provoke new thinking in the energy sector. This kind of cross-disciplinary thinking was possible on account of the composition of the team behind it. Zackery Denfeld works with CKS from Bangalore, India, but is originally from Michigan in the United States. He was enthused at the collaborative nature of this study: “A report of this kind couldn’t have been written out of India in any other decade. The team brings together an amazing variety of talents – design, anthropology, economics, ergonomics, and straightforward business thinking. The Report is truly a case of globalization now becoming a two-way process.”

The Report focuses on seven countries: India, China, Indonesia, South Africa, Kenya, Egypt and Brazil. These key regions of the world were included in the study because they are “experiencing Informationalization under conditions of limited or partial Industrialization.” Dr Sood explained that this report was dedicated to understanding the new directions in which these economies and societies are headed. “In our conception, Emerging Economy refers not only to a growing economy, but more importantly to a new kind of economy. One based on information, technology and knowledge.”

Other Energy-related findings from the Emerging Economy Report:

  • India is the most energy efficient country among leading Emerging Economies, including Brazil, China and South Africa.
  • Most Emerging Economies remain far below the energy consumption as well as carbon emission levels of industrialized economies. China’s CO2 emission of 2.6 thousand metric tonnes per 1,000 people is far below the 10.16 thousand metric tonnes per 1,000 people for Germany. Indonesia’s per capita energy consumption of 21.5 million Btu is higher than India’s (12.6) but it is almost negligible when compared to its more economically developed neighbors like South Korea (170.2 million Btu per capita) and Taiwan (181.5).
  • Energy Scarcity can lead to Energy Efficiency: Most Emerging Economies have outstanding and latent demand for energy that is never met. To some extent this can contribute to energy efficiency, at least in economic terms.
  • Energy Efficiency can lead to Energy Innovation: Emerging economies employ a number of innovative just-in-time and very local techniques for energy creation, redistribution and management. Confronted with the high costs of energy as well as the prospect of climate change, Emerging Economies will become energy innovators in future.
  • Emerging Economies will play pivotal roles in reducing the environmental anxieties that are growing worldwide. They have the opportunity to voluntarily moderate their carbon emissions for global environmental benefit and market advantage. Environmental concerns and carbon footprints will be the next major global dividers over emissions commitments negotiations and implementation.

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