SYNESTHETIC VISIONS BY COLLIDE
Words by SARA LUCCHESE
COLLIDE is raising antennas – we are opening our eyes to decoding the contemporary narration and selecting the most ingenious, cutting-edge protagonists in the Industry. Believing that all human nuances must be exalted, we aim to move the conversation forward.
ENERGY AS A SHARED COMMITMENT: BETWEEN TECHNOLOGY, SOCIAL AND DESIGN ENGAGEMENT
The world is undergoing an energy sector transition towards a more inclusive, secure, low-carbon and sustainable future. This transformation is pulled by unprecedented public pressure and policy actions, as a result of the increasing awareness for the tremendous consequences of climate change such as global warming, rising air pollution and water stress. A sense of responsibility and commitment to leading and conveying a turnaround is thus taking hold and shape. Responding to both technical and image needs has prompted countless entities to be part of this movement by creating a common, if multifaceted, front.
Transforming the energy industry is headed by three main paradigms-changing innovation trends: electrification, digitization and decentralization. The electrification of end-use sectors is today’s solution to help decarbonize heating and transport. Having renewable sources involved, however, makes the production of electricity possible only when weather conditions are right. The opposite can also occur, when renewable energy generation is in abundance. In this case, electrification can come into play as a tool for maintaining its value and avoiding future curtailment. Digitization makes it possible to handle large amounts of data and optimize systems. Wider usage of smart meters and sensors, the application of the Internet of Things and the use of artificial intelligence have created opportunities to provide new insights: detailed and real-time information on consumer patterns, load profiles, the performance of components in electricity processes and failures can enable better planning and infrastructure operations. Digitization indeed provides transparency in services, meter reading, billing automation and accuracy, minimizing the need for estimation, reducing human intervention, energy efficiency, instant data for better dispatch by the system operator and so on. Forecasting thus becomes increasingly accurate and crucial as it is based on past behavioral patterns and constant monitoring, which allows to operate with a larger share of VREs – variable renewable energy sources, like wind, solar and hydrogen – as supply and demand uncertainty and related risk are reduced. Complex systems gain the most from digitization when many actors and devices are participating in the power network. This explains the importance of decentralization: the spread of distributed energy resources – as rooftop solar PV, micro wind turbines, battery storage, mini-grids and plug-in electric vehicles – have the potential to greatly increase flexibility. The deployment of such turns indeed consumers from passive, captive actors into active players in the energy sector. They can now generate, trade and store electricity and provide services to the grid, thereby converting to prosumers. However, consumers would not take an active role in it if this would require drastic behavioral change or a large investment in time – they are willing to engage only if they can see the benefits and if automation makes things easy. New business models providing ‘ready-made’ services are therefore emerging and the role of electricity providers are consequently shifting into that direction.
In this tripartite innovation paradigm, the role of AI as a tool to accelerate climate mitigation and adaptation efforts should be considered in terms of benefits and risks, where two main categories can be defined. On one side, AI tools that help with data and insights to lead to better outcomes for systems. Converging vast amounts of data around climate, weather and terrain patterns, making accurate down to physical location predictions about the risk that a particular asset may have because of climate change, automatically and continually improve dynamic risk modeling. Here cities – in terms of the future of infrastructures and power generators -, asset owners, such financing counterparts, as well as insurance companies could benefit. On the other side, automation can lead to a much more efficient or seamless process. All micro patterns – like data around vibration, sound and temperature of a machine itself -, potentially undetectable by humans, can be analyzed by AI tools in order to predict failures, saving millions in downtime costs and repairs. As a result, the system as a whole is potentially much more resilient. In this sense, AI can also be used for simulations for new chemistries and material sciences or to design a whole infrastructure, fastening the process from years to a few seconds. An example of the latter is provided by Aurora Solar, taking worldwide data to map out rooftops. They work with rooftop installers creating the optimal layout for a residential rooftop solar system without having to go to the house to take measurements manually or climb on the roof, thus reducing risk. This way, all is basically structured automatically, done completely remotely and with a fraction of the time – from weeks to 5-10 minutes to design and then play with it. AI is also great for selecting the most promising next experiments. The purpose is not to develop technology for its own sake but to solve problems: the way to stay consciously on top of AI is using it as a tool to answer a need. Indeed, there should be a demand or relevancy, the more because AI itself is energy and computationally intensive, proving whether this is good or bad for the transition depends on its use.
Commitment regarding fundamental change in the energy sector is obviously related to research and technological developments, but real engagement here involves all industries – that is why, in recent years, a huge effort has been made by an increasing number of businesses who recognize the importance of addressing emissions across their supply chains using a variety of tactics to shift towards clean energy. One emblematic sector among all is the textile-fashion one, where the notion of sustainability itself seems to be paradoxical, taking into account the traditionally energy-intensive supply chains, from producing fabric to transporting and selling clothes with its focus on novelty, running through massive ad campaigns to entice consumers. That the garment sector runs on renewable sources is therefore crucial for it to be sustainable. Major fashion houses are working to reduce their carbon footprint – for example, H&M, Burberry, Chanel and Nike have joined the RE100 initiative, which gathers more than 400 influential companies committed to using 100% renewable energy across their global operations. Another organization trying to push innovation for a more sustainable industry is Fashion for Good, which launched the certification program Cradle to Cradle (C2C) to spur renewables and carbon management throughout supply chains. Moreover, in December 2022, the Fashion Pact launched the Collective Virtual Power Purchase Agreement (CVPPA) initiative, aimed at accelerating renewable electricity adoption by investing in clean infrastructure. The CVPPA project seeks to add over 100,000 MWh per year of new renewable electricity generation to the grid, accelerating the transition to clean energy while helping brands invest and progress toward achieving their sustainability targets.
The different coalitions stem from the belief that only collective action can change the environmental impact of an industry. While this has been evident through actions concerning new energy systems and processes, projects at the end-product level have not been as massive. Keeping the fashion industry as an example, there have been some efforts over the years in bringing clothing and textiles into the energy world. Meg Grant and co-collaborators created Solar Fiber, a flexible photovoltaic fiber that converts sunlight into electrical energy via a yarn that can be worked into all sorts of fabrics. “If you look around you, textiles cover so many surfaces, so why not give them a ‘super power’ that can take advantage of this, like solar harvesting,” said Grant. Similarly, Pauline van Dongen started her own womenswear label. Wearable Solar, where clothing produces energy through its integrated solar cells giving people an opportunity to generate sustainable power through what they wear and charge their tech on the go. “Wearable Solar is a sustainable answer to our increasing demand for energy and connectivity, while also anticipating the vastly expanding wearable technology market,” thus Van Dongen. Professor Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman, designer and author of Designing With Smart Textiles, defined this as ‘performance fashion’, where a garment augments wearers and incorporated technology results as part of and as intuitive as our clothing. In the same vein, Harvest – a project by Damon Ahola – investigated the potential of integrating energy harvesting into customers’ lifestyles. Running on a treadmill at the gym watching people bobbing up and down on ellipticals, stair masters and bikes, Ahola noted: “We were all exerting a huge amount of energy while at the same time consuming a vast amount of electrical energy”. With Harvest, a user’s daily movement is transformed into quantifiable power through an electromagnetic process. Energy is then stored in a micro rechargeable lithium-ion battery (embedded in footwear, attached to bicycles or kept in the pockets of clothes) so that users can upload their energy by visiting ‘harvest hotspots’, where its transferred and stored to a green energy bank.
At scale, these types of solutions could reduce the need for traditional energy sources. However, the creation of the garment and how environmentally friendly this would be must be considered. Manufacturing solar panels, for instance, is an energy-intensive process and it has to be questioned if the power to be generated can offset the energy used for the creation of such. Additionally, garment disposal should not be forgotten. Solar panels can be recycled as e-waste, but this may not be possible once they are integrated into textiles. A team of researchers at Aalto University in Finland worked on this last aspect. They developed a technique for embedding textiles with invisible solar panels that provide an energy source for either wearable devices or phones, harvesting energy also from artificial light. This makes it possible to create solar-powered clothing without altering the outfit’s aesthetics. “We wanted to create an invisible energy source into textiles, so they would look like regular clothes”, said Elina Ilén, who led the Sun-Powered Textiles project. The ultra-thin technique developed can be incorporated into any fabric, from cotton to linen to viscose to polyester – they just need to be sewn between two layers. “These solar panels would work in clothes, but they would also work in home textiles. You can imagine curtains or sofas harvesting energy from light and using it to power devices”, llén added. The solar panels were designed to be separate from the fabric so that the two could be taken apart and recycled separately. “We know that recycling is already a big challenge in the fashion industry and we didn’t want to contribute to this problem”, she concluded.
Today, as yesterday, solutions lean toward eco-tech fashion, where the worlds of fashion and technology merge. Willing to find a more environmentally friendly way to produce clothing, Walmart Inc. is teaming up with a California startup to work on the removal of carbon dioxide from its supply chain, with plans to turn that CO2 into yarn for clothing. The pilot project with San Leandro-based Rubi Laboratories Inc. will see Walmart identify factories in its supply chain where carbon dioxide in waste gases can be captured through Rubi’s reactor systems, applying biochemical processes to convert the gas into cellulose – a technique inspired by the way trees need carbon dioxide to grow. That cellulose is used to produce lyocell yarn and can then be made into textiles. “If we can pull CO2 out of the atmosphere and put it into a raw material in a way that doesn’t cause an abundance of electricity usage or other implications, that’s compelling to us”, thus Andrea Albright, Walmart’s executive vice president of sourcing. Moreover, Rubi expects to be cost-competitive with existing textiles. “Affordability is really key,” said Rubi Chief Executive Officer Neeka Mashouf.
Albeit belatedly, humanity is now investing time and money to aim to redress its conduct. For this to work, the energy transition must spread and penetrate like wildfire into every possible and imaginable reality. This means that the change churned out in laboratories must increasingly involve the larger reality as well as the individual. Society, in a multifaceted way, is proving to be more willing and open to change, so it must be supported in this journey so that every single aspect of life can accelerating instead of slowing down the transformational process to true energy sustainability and circularity.