INTERACTING WITH ENERGY: Using Interactive Sub-Structures to Soften the Grid

(An Initial Research Prompt, Context Evaluation and Literature Review)

lost energy diagram

Of all the energy produced by petroleum, natural gas, coal, nuclear, and renewable sources, only 42.8% of it gets used. The rest is lost in inefficiencies. 38% of the total energy produced goes toward generating electricity for our buildings, but only 32.78% makes it to our outlets and devices. The other 67.21% of electricity generated for our buildings is lost in conversion and distribution(Derived from 2011 data, Harvard University)

dc to ac to dc


I add DC{Direct Current}-producing solar panels to the roof of my building. I switch out my lights for low-voltage DC-consuming LEDs{Light Emitting Diodes}. But, because of the hardware in my building, the low-voltage DC electricity coming out of my PV{Photo-Voltaic} panel cannot go directly and seamlessly to my LEDs. First it must go through a series of changes that drain energy. Before entering the infrastructure of my building, the PV’s output enters a battery (so that a constant supply can be given to the power inverter), then the battery’s 12-volt DC energy is boosted to higher-voltage, and translated to AC{Alternating Current} in a power inverter. This step cuts out ~25% of the original source energy. The high-voltage AC then travels through my building’s wiring, until it gets to my LED lamp. At the lamp, it gets transformed and rectified back down to that 12-volt DC (like it was when it was on my roof). This step cuts out another ~10%. Then the DC electricity finally lights my LED.

Currently, solar panels (DC) supply us with only a tiny fraction of our total energy. But hydrogen batteries and fuel cells, widely hailed as the storage solution for advancing renewable energy paradigms, output DC. Diode technologies, computational devices, and an increasing number of low-voltage domestic appliances run on DC. As we continually switch both our sources and our consumption to low-voltage DC electricity, it becomes less and less sensible to invert to AC for delivery.


In typical building infrastructures, AC is the supply standard, because it can be used for all energy needs. It is the highest-grade energy. Not only can it be used to power any typology of building system, from mechanical compressors to space-heating, it can undergo the most conversions before it is entirely dissipated into its final form: heat. During a time with less sophisticated technologies and methods of computation, it was important to simplify the transportation of energy into one common denominator. Conversion was substantively more attainable than any other solution. But now, abilities to calculate, generate, and organize types of energy have caught up, and the paradigmatic reliance on conversion is no longer necessary. Energy infrastructure has the opportunity to customize to specific productions and consumptions.

Why is infrastructure customization a more beneficial solution than mass-conversion? Not all types of energy have the same level of exergy—the amount of energy that can be used. AC electricity, for instance, has a much higher exergy than heat, for equal units of energy. They are not of the same quality. High-grade energy has the benefit of being able to meet both low-grade and high-grade needs, but it is created by converging lower-grade forms—a process that includes gross loss of energy to inefficiencies. {A typical kWh of AC electricity is created by focalizing three kWh-worth of low-grade heat energy.} Thus, we should avoid using downgraded AC for heating or DC lighting, when we could circumvent the associated energy losses by simply matching type to need.


Infrastructure that delivers energy and/or data is comprised of two categorical systems: 1) molecular actions along waves or paths and 2) the physical hardware that transports these actions. The vast majority of existent electricity and internet infrastructures are organized in a stable, centralized grid. Arguments to decentralize the internet “utility” are common, citing both technological and social incentives.

Decentralizing internet infrastructure can be accomplished by modifying only the flows of data and the storage hardware. The hardware responsible for transportation of the data (including public or corporation infrastructure) does not require substantive alterations.

-electricity doesn’t work like internet data, because there are fundamentally different types: differences in direction, grounding, data delivery

-non-gridded paradigms: different because of resources involved

-in a new, ideal development, there would be the following infrastructural changes: {1.Standardize all electronics to run on the same voltage of DC, relieving the need for voltage conversion at outlets. 2.Develop a standard wall outlet for DC. 3. Add a separate DC grid to all buildings. 4. Reduce the standard AC grid to only a few outlets per building, for the occasional appliance that requires intensive mechanical action (vacuums, washing machines). 5. Link DC building grids into community-scale infrastructure that connects directly to production sources. 6. Integrate community-scale non-chemical storage of DC electricity. 7. Eliminate water heating and space conditioning via electricity, by linking heat needs directly to heat sources, reusing heat sinks as new sources, and introducing passive heat boundaries. 8. Reduce space heating/conditioning to micro-climates rather than building envelopes.}

-so, that’s what the ideal would look like, but what about the existing, where we have already invested so much of our energy and resources? how do we adopt a mindset of malleability towards these structures?

“There should be more to Gov 2.0 than Web 2.0. Without understanding that, web and mobile services simply skate over the veneer of big, ugly problems like the city, without genuinely engaging. Or, as my colleague Bryan Boyer and I have taken to saying, ‘matter matters’.” (Hill)


“If we could begin to think of these environments at the small scale – what the body needs – and not at the large scale – the building space – we could dramatically reduce the energy and material investment of the large systems while providing better conditions for the human occupants.” (Smart Materials)

-additive systems with embodied interaction are well-posed for this problem

-soften the infrastructure so that it is adaptable — optimize energy systems to the user rather than to the building — most energy systems are better suited to the sub- or supra- scales anyway

-collapse electricity distribution

-transfer of heat: micro-climates & heat sources and sinks


-visibility is also good for reduction of energy consumption

-if we reduce consumption and reduce waste, must be mindful of economic rebound effect. in this case, positive impact on the system comes not just from visibility, but from true agency and feedback, making the user part of an energy ecosystem. (just as human is a heat source)

-beautiful seams: opportunity for energy to become something spatial; something occupied

-intersects well with a reconceptualization of “boundary” and materials modified by energy (Addington)

-construct the energy ecosystem in such a way that the seams can be understood and leveraged, making the seams submissive to the agency of the user in the continually updating energy ecology

-{ecology = how a unit interacts with other units of its own kind, and how it interacts with separate types or species in its environment. e.g. how individual energy forces interact with other energy forces and how they all interact with users}

-high-tech, low-tech? careful-tech.





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