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The 7 Characteristics of Better Answers
how to quickly size up what works and also what doesn’t
The Seven Characteristics of Better Answers—the 7C Index—is a list I put together as a reporter’s shortcut, specifically to help me quickly size up companies, technologies, business models, practices and policies with the potential to make an environmental difference. It also works in reverse, revealing where a product, service or scheme could be improved.
The more 7C boxes checked, the better. That’s where to place your bets. Remarkably, the list seems to work for every business, every sector and at every scale.
The origins of the 7C Index date back to a story I wrote about twenty years ago for BusinessWeek on distributed power generation. At the time, distributed generation was considered a radical paradigm shift: replacing large, pricey central power plants with solar panels and fuel cells set up closer to where the electricity would be used.
Technically, gasoline-fueled generators could be included in a distributed system, but the installation of clean energy sources promised cascades of goodness:
Better for the climate: reduce greenhouse gas emissions
Better for public and environmental health: no nuclear waste; no emissions linked to acid rain; no emissions linked to the destruction of the Earth’s ozone layer; no emissions of mercury to bioaccumulate in fish and then into anything, including humans, that eat fish; no emissions of particulates linked to respiratory illnesses, including asthma
More efficient: no heat energy loss; no power grid transmission loss
More reliable: no transmission lines to topple over during storms
Cheaper to build and maintain: easier to replace solar panels blown off a roof than to bring in a crew to fix a downed power line
More secure: no terrorist-tempting central power plants, sub-stations, or vulnerable transmission lines
Today, everybody, including utility companies, loves what are now referred to as microgrids. When tied into the big grid, the combination can deliver a best-of-both-worlds hybrid solution. Microgrids can “island” when the big grid goes down, so can continue to provide power to their neighborhoods. During times of peak big grid system demand (for example, during a heat wave when air-conditioners are running on high), microgrids can be tapped to provide additional power.
But before that happy balance can be achieved, there are a couple of big stumbling blocks. The first is the state of the aging big grid, which is falling apart, held together with a patchwork of temporary fixes. It also wasn’t designed for the climate changed weather of today.
The second hurdle is bureaucratic. The approval process for interconnection is so complicated that many green energy projects have withered in the queue. A microgrid can operate independently, without interconnection, but then it cannot deliver the systemic pay-off. According to recent survey by Reuters, over the last few years the annual number power outages in the US has spiked, so there a growing urgency to figure things out.
Here are the 7C’s:
Cheap at the unit cost
Think Lego® bricks and you’ve pretty much got the first six.
The seventh and most recent addition —“riffable”—brings a jazzy serendipity to the mix. Riffable is the freedom to experiment with different materials, tweaks in processes, and new combinations of technologies and business models. It embraces systems thinking and also opens the door to biomimicry, which looks to nature—the ultimate riffer— for design inspiration.
Life has been on Earth for 3.8 billion years. And in that time, life has learned what works and what’s appropriate here and what lasts here. And the idea is that perhaps we should be looking at these mentors, these biological elders. They have figured out how to create a sustainable world. So rather than inventing it from scratch, why don’t we take our cues from them? These are Earth savvy adaptations. These organisms are the consummate engineers. They are the consummate chemists and technologists. They learned to do it in context. — Janine Benyus
Riffable solutions often seem obvious in hindsight. For example, leveraging a municipal bus system as a “virtual power plant” seems like a stretch until someone does it. Then it just makes sense.
In Montgomery County, Maryland, a newly electrified bus fleet is now an integral part of the city’s power network. The microgrid’s bank of backup batteries doubles can be tapped to send electricity to the grid during times of heavy demand. The utility, or more specifically, the utility’s rate-payers, save money because there is no need to build a “peaker” plant, a back-up central power plant that would likely use natural gas or coal to generate electricity. A central power plant that isn’t built also generates no greenhouse gas emissions. And bonus, battery bank backups kick in faster, reducing the risk of power outages.
Although not part of the current plan, the fleet of electric buses could be dispatched during a crisis as portable charging stations, providing temporary shelter and distributing food and water.
Riffing “What if?” can lead to “Here’s how.”
Projects that score high on the 7C Index are better in the here and now, but also more likely deliver additional benefits over time. For example, in the twenty years since I wrote the story on distributed generation, the global economy and our day-to-day lives have become almost entirely dependent on digital technologies. Modems run on electricity, so losing power means losing connectivity. Cash registers and credit card terminals are dead in the water without the internet. There is no Zoom. No streaming. No gaming. No online shopping. And cell phones last only as long as a battery charge.
Businesses with microgrids enjoy a significant competitive advantage, able to operate without interruption. Likewise, residential neighborhoods wired to microgrids often have higher property values. When power doesn’t go out, food in the fridge stays cold. And if power doesn’t go out when it’s freezing, pipes don’t burst (see Texas). Also, electricity costs are generally lower and more predictable.
The 7C Index is a framework for developing products and services that are resilient, with the potential to improve over time. This is about “building for better,” rather than “building back better.”
And who doesn’t want more of that?
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