for the activity: The more ambitious the goals, the more innovative the solutions are likely to be. Executive Order 13514 implies the use of systems-based thinking by directing federal agencies to develop a comprehensive inventory of greenhouse gas emissions associated with their supply chains.

Systems-based thinking provides a life-cycle perspective that can overcome challenges posed by the budget process and by segmented work processes. It can help federal agencies meet ambitious mandates for the environment and quality of life by providing a more comprehensive understanding of the use of resources and their interrelationships. This understanding, in turn, can help agencies identify new ways to use resources, to substitute more sustainable resources, and to reduce their total use. In the process, agencies can find innovative solutions that will meet a variety of objectives as opposed to finding narrowly focused solutions with unintended consequences.

The difference between conventional thinking and systems-based thinking is apparent when determining how to reduce energy use. In conventional thinking, the use of electricity or natural gas is typically measured by meters at the point of delivery, and total energy for heating (gas for a furnace, electricity for furnace fans or hot water pumps), cooling (typically all electric), lighting (all electric), and appliances and computers is measured. Efforts to reduce energy use at the site typically focus on reducing the energy use per square foot of floor space and do not consider the source of energy. Energy savings are achieved by using equipment and appliances that are energy efficient—for example, Energy Star appliances and equipment and Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP)-designated electronic products.

In systems-based thinking, the focus is on the source of the energy and how efficiently resources are used to produce and deliver energy to a building (Figure 3.1).

For example, to produce electricity, coal is typically burned in a power plant to generate heat and to produce steam. The steam is then turned into mechanical energy to operate a turbine that generates electricity. In this process, about 65 percent of the original energy is typically lost in the form of waste heat emitted through smokestacks and cooling towers. As electricity moves along transmission lines to arrive at buildings, additional energy losses occur. As shown in Figure 3.1, by the time the electricity lights an incandescent bulb, the light produced represents less than 2 percent of the energy used to produce it (NAS-NAE-NRC, 2008). In contrast, the direct delivery of natural gas to a building to produce light would be more efficient and less wasteful.


FIGURE 3.1 Applying systems-based thinking to the use of electricity. SOURCE: NAS-NAE-NRC, 2008.

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement