Energy and Sustainable design

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An Insight into Energy and Sustainability in the United Kingdom and the ways in which the related issues effect us as both individuals and a community.


The lifestyle in which we live has transformed a remarkable amount over the last twenty years and the way in which society now operates as a collective requires an increased amount of energy in order to keep it running effectively, although as research is clearly showing, the modern definition of effectiveness is not always efficient or environmentally practical.

As the world's population increases, more energy is required to enable society to function in a way we often take for granted. At the rate we are going it has been argued that non-renewable resources such as oil could be depleted as soon as 2050. BP's Review of World Energy claims that the world still has enough "proven" reserves to provide 40 years of consumption at current rates.

Throughout the essay I intend to explore issues relating to energy and sustainability from a social, cultural and economic point of view. By analyzing these issues from a designers point of view will enable me to gain a wider understanding of the reasons behind the problems we face which are undoubtedly not going to disappear by themselves.

Principles of Sustainable Design

The most significant principle of sustainability is that as we manage to fulfill our needs whilst ensuring that the future generations can expect to do the very same. This is seemingly in agreement with Jonathon Porritt's (n.d.) view that

“Deficit consumption is, in effect, drawing down on the capital entitlements of future generations” Green Futures, n.d, s.l.

Whilst attempting to achieve these goals it is crucial that designers are aware of the importance of the three main elements of sustainability: environmental, social and economic values and the ways they can be interlinked with each other in order to create sustainability of the highest level, as explained by Brezet (1997) in the “Model of ecodesign innovation”.


The primary goals incorporated in sustainable design go beyond economic security alone. Nowadays, social equality and justice, as well as environmental protection are also incorporated into design; although not always successfully as these features are difficult to include harmoniously. Arguably, a macrocosmic example of this is the way the world functions. Throughout the 20th century the push for a better standard of living via economic development has damaged our environment, whereby we are now in a position where as a planet we consume more resources then ever before.

It is still evident that the economic balance of the world is in need of attention and amendment. see figure 1.3 below.

Although economic growth will be the basis for continual human development, we must change the way we go about it so that it is less damaging to us and our environment as stated by Buckminster Fuller (1895 - 1983) “To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete -“

Quality Of Life

Sustainability is heavily linked to the quality of life in a community. Arguably it is the balance between economic, social and environmental aspects which determine the quality of life. Clearly not all cultures and societies view the term ‘quality of life' in the same context although there are plenty of overlapping features which two cultures living two completely opposite lifestyles could include into their own ideals to ensure their quality of living is positive by nature.

A major factor which is considered by many, including Prof. John Guillebaud to have a damming effect is the rapidly increasing population.

“Should we now explain to UK couples who plan a family that stopping at two children... is the biggest contribution anyone can make to leaving a habitable planet for our grandchildren?” Guillebaud, J., 2008, Population Growth and Climate Change, British Medical Journal, 337 (576), pg. 164.

Although at present there are no limits in the UK on the amount of children a couple can have. In China for example they have what they call a ‘one child policy' whereby city-dwelling families are limited to one child. In April 2007 the first systematic study of the policy found that it had proved "remarkably effective". Irvine, J., 2007. The Effectiveness of China's ‘one-child' Policy, n/a (n/a), n/a.

The generations of the Future

It has almost become a trend for lawyers, economists and large companies to think about the rights of future generations and is seldom argued that no future generation should inherit less than the one which preceded it.

The vast majority, if not all large industrial and multinational companies have seemed to renew themselves in regards to brand identity and opening new revenue streams. They have done this by paying far more attention to their corporate social responsibility schemes than previously. Companies such as Virgin have realized that by going public in terms of showing the consumer what they do to ensure that issues surrounding sustainability are tackled effectively; have been found to increase customer loyalty as well as increase new customers. As Richard Branson suggests

“We must rapidly wean ourselves off our dependence on coal and fossil fuels” and immediately after announced investment of all profits from Virgin transport business, estimated at $3 billion over 10 years, to be invested in fighting global warming. Sara Parker. 2006. Virgin Group to Invest $3 Billion in Renewable Energy. [online] Available at: [accessed 26th October 2009]

Not only does this show large companies how effective going ‘green' can really be, it also sends out a social message to the world as it is proof that we as a society do want to fix these problems.

The Environment

The environment is vital to our survival as without it we would and could not exist. It is often forgotten that as the dominant species on the planet we have the ultimate effect on it. We have enabled ourselves to mould it to suit us; however, we have not always done this in a positive way.

Climate Change

Greenhouse gases trap the heat from the sun which would otherwise be reflected into space by the earth's surface, letting light in but preventing heat from escaping. In the last two decades concern has grown about the association between climate change and these GHGs. It is currently known that the world's climate has risen by 0.6ËÅ¡C in the last 100 years which without doubt could have detrimental effects if it continues to increase such as rising sea levels and the extinction of plant and animal species which cannot survive the change.

The most common greenhouse gas is of course carbon dioxide (CO2). The gas occurs as results of burning fossil fuels. However, the combustion of coal produces a much higher percentage of CO2 then natural gas.

The Kyoto protocol is an international agreement across 37 countries which intend to reduce greenhouse gases and their CO2  footprint. The convention where this agreement is signed and the agreement itself are different in their aims. The convention simply advises the world's countries on how to reduce emissions where as the protocol actually commits the countries into setting and achieving the targets.

Under the Treaty, countries must set their targets primarily through internal measures. However, the Kyoto Protocol offers them a supplementary means of meeting their targets by way of three market-based mechanisms, which are:

  • Emissions trading - a.k.a “the carbon market"
  • Clean development mechanism
  • Joint implementation
Ozone Depletion

The Ozone layer is found 25km above the earth's surface (with some traces of the triometric molecule in the localized atmosphere). This layer absorbs a portion of the UV light emitted by the sun, however around 40 years ago scientists realized that there was a hole appearing in the ozone due to CFC's (chlorofluorocarbons), previously found in aerosols and air conditioning systems.

Life on the planet will not be sustained if the ozone is damaged much more as the UV light will not be filtered and will therefore damage ecosystems beyond repair.

International action has been taken to both reduce the problem and possibly put an end to it. This has been done in the form of the Montreal Protocol which was set up in 1987 requiring countries to take steps to eradicate chemicals which have the potential to destroy the ozone. Luckily, it is claimed that if we manage to significantly reduce the number of harmful substances in the atmosphere then the ozone layer will manage to repair itself by around 2050.

Action Being TakenThe Brundtland Report

The origin of sustainable development was set up in the form of the Brundtland report. It alerted the world to the importance of maintaining economic development whilst simultaneously preventing further unnecessary usage of finite resources. The report was concluded with one simple statement that reads

“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Anon, 1987, The Brundtland Report, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The W.E.E.E Directive

Since the 1970's, ideals on sustainable design and concern for the effect design has on our environment has changed. The movement towards designing products with a range of parts, which are not a drain on finite resources and have the capability of being reused has taken a fast pace towards reality. This movement has been supported and enforced by a range of designers and has now become part of a proposal known as the WEEE directive (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) in which:

“The European Commission has adopted a proposal for a Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and a proposal for a Directive on the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment. The proposed Directives are designed to tackle the fast increasing waste stream of electrical and electronic equipment and complements European Union measures on landfill and incineration of waste. Increased recycling of electrical and electronic equipment, in accordance with the requirements of the proposal for a WEEE Directive, will limit the total quantity of waste going to final disposal. Producers will be responsible for taking back and recycling electrical and electronic equipment. This will provide incentives to design electrical and electronic equipment in an environmentally more efficient way, which takes waste management aspects fully into account. Consumers will be able to return their equipment free of charge. In order to prevent the generation of hazardous waste, the proposal for a Directive on the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances requires the substitution of various heavy metals and brominated flame retardants in new electrical and electronic equipment from 1 January 2008 onwards.” European Union Environment Agency, 2007. WEEE Directive. [Online] Available at:  [Accessed 29th October 2009]

Other Directives

As well as the WEEE directive and the Brundtland report, sustainability has seen a range of other reports, summits and agendas to promote it. Some of these include the Rio Earth Summit, The Convention of Biological Diversity and Agenda 21.

These all deal with the fundamental elements of sustainability and sustainable design, economic, social and environmental prosperity.

Part 2

Sources of Renewable EnergySolar Power

Solar Power is the generation of electricity, sourced from the sun. This type of power can be collected directly, via photovoltaics and indirectly by concentrating the suns light into heating and water (solar panels). To a designer, idea of direct collection seems more efficient as it can eliminate the need of bought electricity, it can also be converted into more forms of energy which gives a broad range of possibilities when looking to make a product more sustainable. As the sun is a source of energy which is not going to disappear in our lifetime, it should, arguably, be something which designers of the future concentrate on heavily.

Photovoltaics work by a base which acts as a semi conductor, in most cases this is silicon. Impurities are added into this base such as boron or phosphorus. When the cells pick up the sunlight a chemical reaction occurs with the impurities and the electrons pick up thermal energy. This thermal energy allows them to vibrate which gives off an electrical charge. The electrical charge is picked up by the silicon base and stored.

  • The energy source (sunlight) is completely renewable and can be completely sustainable.
  • In collecting energy there is no damage to the environment as the output is 100% energy.
  • In some senses it is an economically viable idea, cost of current electricity bills far outweigh the installation and maintenance cost of a photovoltaic cell over a period of years.
  • Without sunlight, the cells are useless and will be able to generate no energy.
  • Rate of energy collection is proportionally dependent on the position of the sun, the more directly the sun hits the cells, the more energy that can be created.
  • Hypothetically, in a socioeconomic sense, if the idea were to be installed on a large scale in continents such as Africa which receive the most amount of sunlight could sell energy to countries which receive very little. Could cause worldwide tensions as countries which are currently powerful would be overtaken by countries which are at present considered to be only developing.

Biomass is energy which is generated from living or previously living organisms. Produce such as wood, waste and gas given off can be collected and burnt.

Commonly biomass is plant matter which is specifically grown to be burnt. This type of energy is most definitely sustainable as it uses no finite resource. In terms of viability, biomass requires a large amount of produce to give off a sufficient amount of energy.

More recently, plastics have been developed purely from biomass. The life cycle ends when they are placed into sea water and dissolve. They fulfil most requirements of standard plastics produced with non-renewable resources, which is positive for designers looking at creating new products which are purely sustainable. Unfortunately they obviously lack some of the hydrophobic qualities of standard plastics due to their dissolving properties.

  • Economically viable on a wide scale as dedicated farms would produce solely for biomass energy production.
  • No wide scale social issues, as the economic cost would not be too high for developing countries.
  • Environmentally it is sustainable as plants can always be replaced.
  • Using biomass as an energy source creates a closed carbon cycle. - Produce grows absorbing carbon dioxide, produce burnt - releases carbon dioxide.
  • Energy created can be used to help design in the manufacturing department, powering machines which turn out high volumes of products.
  • Large amounts of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere. Although in relation to its own carbon cycle it is fine, as part of a wider context the carbon balance is still not restored.
  • Amount of energy provided may be overshadowed by the cost of transport.
Wind Power

Wind power is generated by the heat given off by the sun. The air almost acts like a giant convection current, as the air heats up over land it rises and is carried towards the coast, when the air loses energy it cools down and descends, to be heated up near land again. This is the main reason why beaches are often windy as this is the transition point between hot and cold air.

Energy is collected by placing windmill like structures close to this transition point. As the wind turns the blades, energy is stored in some form of generator which can then be converted into various different types of useful energy such as electricity.

  • It allows an effective collection of energy which once again can be harnessed by designers in a range of ways, offering a diverse opportunity to create sustainable products.
  • Can be done on wide scale in the form of wind farms.
  • Wind farms are clearly expensive to install and although they make a good return, it is more of a long term financial investment, therefore other types of renewable energy may be further developed by the time some form of profit is seen to be made.
  • Some environmentalists see wind farms as a scar on the landscape.
Part 3Consumer Durable ProductThe Laptop Charger

Laptops, a product which had just a 2% worldwide market share in 1986 have grown into something not too far short of a necessity. It is estimated that this year alone over 177,000,000 notebooks will be sold.

Laptops boast low power consumption in the regions of 20-90 W compared to their desktop relation. However, I have picked this product from a worldwide context rather than that of the individual.

Laptops are used by both individuals and large companies alike. Despite being portable electronic items capable of lasting several hours without the need to be charged, many people leave the charger connected for long periods when it is not necessary, clearly wasting electricity. On an individual scale this is insignificant due to the reasonably low power consumption. However, considering the sales figures previously stated for this year alone, the amount energy which is wasted is huge. 

For this reason, it is not the laptop itself which needs to be redesigned. I personally feel that it is the charger as this is the component which is a link between the laptop working and the mains.