|Watt-ever it takes, let’s do it|
|Wednesday, 23 November 2011 01:00|
Watt-ever it takes, let’s do it
Radiant cooling, spectrally selective glass, smart power-strips, volumetric lighting … Sunil Jain gets a Science 101 refresher and a cup of Mocha as he takes a first-hand look at Infosys’ revolutionary solutions for the energy/construction industry
Radiation, you’ll remember from Physics 101, Rohan Parikh, Infosys’ Head of Green Initiatives, tells me as we shift from the bench outside Building 10 at Infosys’ Mysore campus to the wall around the neighbouring fountain, is the most efficient way to transfer heat, and convection the least efficient. And yet, he grimaces, we continue to use convection for heat transfers. Ditto, he says, for gases, given their molecules are so far way (Chemistry 101, since I asked!)—water is 3,200 times more efficient, he adds, while putting his hand to the water’s surface in the fountain—but we pump tonnes of air to cool a room! We’ve moved from the bench to the fountain since that’s the
only way to accommodate Sweta Daga, who does communications and advocacy for the green initiatives team at
Infosys—Rohan finds it awkward that a lady’s standing, while the age-ist in me says it’s okay since she’s half our age.
The story began, Rohan tells me, when he told Nandan Nilekani, at that time Infosys’ chief, that he could cut the software major’s energy to half. On a R30,000 turnover, a R150 crore energy bill didn’t really need cutting, but when you do the math (101, naturally!), the overall impact can be huge. Around 40% of the world’s energy, it appears, is used up in buildings and around 40% of this in heating and cooling—so a 30% cut in heating and cooling costs means global energy uses falls 5%!
So, Rohan’s group began to tackle the problem from what he calls ‘fundamental science’. Why do you feel cool? I don’t answer, partly because I’m out of breath walking around the 350-acre Mysore campus and partly because the answer’s obvious—if the air is cooler, I will feel cooler. Not quite, it appears. Our engineer friend explains that the reason why we feel cooler is because, if the air around us has a lower temperature than our bodies, heat gets transferred quickly (radiation). Okay, so what’s that got to do with energy efficiency and where’s the stuff about the water?
What Rohan & Co planned was to pump in chilled water into pipes embedded in the concrete roof … this would make it cooler than our bodies, so the heat would radiate to the ceiling, and we would feel cooler. The plan was taken to Narayana Murthy, who readily agreed on one condition: there had to be a Plan B. Since the gent in charge of air-conditioning wasn’t too convinced, they agreed the new Hyderabad building would be split into two—half would be cooled the conventional way, and half Rohan’s way. Larger ducts were kept, however, so if Rohan’s way failed, they could go back to the conventional way. The rest, as they say, is history: University of Brunswick’s team measured the efficiency levels (to satisfy Murthy’s ‘in God we trust, the rest must bring data’ dictum) and found Rohan’s half was using 30% less energy.
By now, we’ve walked for what seems like an hour—Rohan promises a coffee break and says just looking at the energy of the 22-somethings that dot the campus rejuvenates him—and we come to the building Rohan and Sweta are exulting about, a building that is part of the tour in a fantastic 3-day conference on various aspects of urban India. It looks quite ordinary, though with a lot less glass than the normal ‘IT’ buildings you see.
Time for another refresher in Physics 101, but this one I know! Angle of incidence = angle of reflection. So? You don’t switch on lights at home during the day, Rohan asks, so why do you in the office? Because there’s no natural light, and the office is paying! Some pretty nifty re-engineering has been done, you can see, as you get closer to the building. For one, it’s slimmer than the rest (16-18 metres, I’m told), there’s a courtyard in the middle of four buildings, and three, there are no blinds on the glass. There are also, Rohan adds, a ‘chajja’ (a small projection coming out of the wall) and small vertical fins on the outside of the glass. So daylight comes in from the glass, just on top of the ‘chajja’, which is vertically in the middle of the glass
instead of on top of it, and bounces off its white coated surface onto the roof (angle of incidence = angle of reflection) and back again into the room. That gets the natural light in around 8 metres. Ditto from the other side, and a 16 metre building doesn’t need any artificial light till around 5 pm! Infosys now has performance contracts with architects which lop off a fourth of the fee if 80% of the floor space doesn’t get natural light!
The fins—2 per window—prevent the glare from coming in, as does the ‘chajja’, so no windows have blinds. All windows have two glass panes with argon in between, which prevents the heating/cooling inside from escaping. But, and I now really need the promised coffee as my head is beginning to swim, there are more lessons to be learnt. This one is chemistry, I think, or maybe we’re still on physics, who cares? The sun’s rays have a UV part, an infra-red part, and one that is pure light of the type that helps you see. Allow the UV part to come in and it harms your skin—and fades the paint/furnishing! Allow the infra-red part, and it heats up the place and you require more cooling. So, a special coating on the glass cuts out the UV and infra-red part of the spectrum.
That’s great, but surely lighting can’t be that big a power consumer—has Infosys worked out low-power PCs, I ask? Not yet, but it appears the 24-somethings that work at Infosys don’t shut their computers when they log off, so a smart power strip was worked on which, linked to computer, sends out SMSs that read something like this: “Rohan, you moron, your computer’s on even though you left the building half an hour ago, SMS ‘1’ to shut the computer if you don’t want your salary cut … we could have powered a mid-sized village with the power you wasted dumbo” … Okay, okay, I’m making up the language since a straight-laced company like Infosys wouldn’t say this (believe it or not, you aren’t allowed to booze in the campus!), but the automated power-shutting
SMS-based system will be increasingly de rigueur in Infosys offices. Like with most other ‘inventions/innovations’, Infosys plans to put all this out in the public domain for everyone to emulate.
By now we’re at the gym, which is full of people doing step-ups to a beat, we pass an Olympic-sized pool—with some strange Graeco-Roman pillar structures in the middle—with a few people swimming and others lolling on deck chairs, on to the basketball court and finally the humongous food court where we get a coffee—a mocha for me, a macchiato for Rohan and a nothing for Sweta. They’re fixing to meet architects for the next building over dinner. Apparently, the German government has sent Infosys a proposal saying it is willing to pay for its scientists/architects if Infosys allows them to work on its buildings.
The reason is simple, and has to do with Infosys’ expansion. It hires 25,000 people per year, so that’s 4 million square feet of additional office space per year, making it one of the largest and fastest-growing ‘construction’ companies in the world (with 10,000 rooms in the Mysore campus, it’s India’s largest hotel chain as well!). Experiments on this, in terms of lighting/air-conditioning/whatever, are a damn sight better than simulations in a lab, hence the German interest.
Over coffee, we discuss the larger implications of the energy economy and that the world could well be on the cusp of an energy revolution. Vandana Gombar, a former colleague who now works with Bloomberg New Energy Finance and is an FE columnist—I tell Rohan and Sweta—points to how wind and solar power costs have crashed and can, in some cases, compete with conventional energy on even a commercial basis—by the way, keep in mind that few object when India subsidises conventional power (R1.2 lakh crore for just the oil sector this year) but violently object when this is done for renewables. Indeed, I explore the thought with Rohan, it’s possible that renewables would have a larger market share—it’s 20% for Infosys—if conventional energy wasn’t so heavily subsidised. Amitabh Kant, who heads the Delhi-Mumbai
Industrial Corridor Development Corporation, I recall, talks of how 40% of total energy used in the world is on account of transportation—so he plans to have residential/office spaces within walking distance of one another as far as possible. Between Amitabh and Rohan, they’re talking of making a huge dent in 70-80% of energy used in the world.
(An interesting aside: When Rohan went to meet Amory Lovins, the father of the ‘negawatt’ concept, and asked him to consult for Infosys, Lovins refused, saying Infosys was aiming too low!)
So here’s the deal: If Infosys, through its hold on the construction industry, is able to get it to change, imagine the impact! Only if, I underline, the cost of all the new-fangled stuff has a quick payback—why would we buy LED lights, for instance, if the payback is three years? Believe it or not, Rohan does the math and I’m too numbed to care (but CFO V Balakrishnan should check the maths), his half of the Hyderabad building actually cost 2% less than the other half—he needed smaller AC plants, less power back-up etc; as for the lighting stuff, since a concrete-and-glass building with the requisite ‘chajja’ model costs much less than a glass-and-glass one, the payback is actually negative!
Bits of the building have begun to light up as it’s around 6 pm when we get there. But it’s not ordinary lighting, I’m told (of course not, this is Infosys, I mutter—the campus which Outlook magazine includes in its ‘Kings of Xeroxia’ has bits that look like Capitol Hill, bits like a French boulevard … ). Apparently, the lighting is what’s called ‘volumetric’ lighting. What it means, I’m told, is that the light goes both up as well as down, leaving every part of the room equally lit. Wow, that’s just bloody fantastic, isn’t it?! Translated into English, Rohan tells me, this means your pupils won’t dilate and contract as your eyes flit across bright and less-bright/dark places in the room. And, he grins, it means you feel less tired at the end of the day since your eye muscles are doing less work. Wow, the perfect combination of Management 101 and, I think, Biology 101! Right, Rohan?