White Pine - The Sustainable Real Estate Journal

Sustainable Design Principles and Innovation,
Merging Building Technology with the Forces of Nature

Efficient Energy and Water Distribution - Lessons From the Natural World

by Don Kulak

Today’s modern economies are leaning more and more towards highly centralized production and distribution ─ mega farms and power plants, massive reservoirs, etc., all require electricity food and water to be carried great distances from central locations.

Centralized economies have some advantages such as economies of scale, but at what cost? Long transport and distribution of energy, water, food, etc. is expensive and relatively inefficient compared to more localized production and distribution.

The inefficiencies in terms of energy production and distribution alone are staggering: 1. Only about two thirds of the energy contained in raw materials (coal, oil…) actually makes it to the power lines. The rest of the potential energy is lost in the form of heat during the transformation process. 2. Another 2-6% of the energy is lost as it is carried through high voltage transmission lines.

These percentages vary from state to state with the more rural states losing the highest percentage of energy, due to the longer lines required to connect rural, spread out areas.

Long water transport through antiquated pipes and pumping stations is also inefficient and expensive. In 7 Midwestern alone, some $28 billion in drinking water-related infrastructure repairs are desperately needed. Just ask the citizens of Flint Michigan how dire the situation is. In those same states, another $39 billion is needed for wastewater systems, not to mention stormwater problems.

With a crumbling infrastructure (that governments seem unwilling to upgrade), more effective production and distribution methods should be addressed. For this we will look at some solutions found in the natural world.

Two-way water transport in trees ─ bringing enough water to the root system, and nutrient-enriched water back up to the leaves. It seems like a formidable task given the tremendous size of some older trees. Large trees require huge amounts or water to survive, and rainfall just hitting the ground would not be nearly enough. In order to compensate, trees capture raindrops in its vast array of angled branches and leaves and funnels it directly down to the root system.  Without that funneling effect and increased water flow, the tree would die.

During a big rain storm, a large deciduous tree can funnel up to 200 gallons of water to the roots. We would do well to make better use of stormwater runoff by using it to benefit the local ecosystem rather than dumping it into sewers which creates more flooding “downstream.” Following the wisdom of the natural world, we would do well to implement similar systems that solve problems rather than move them elsewhere by:

  • Redirecting stormwater water to constructed marshes, lakes, ponds, irrigation systems… so it can be put to better use
  • Retaining the original hummus-rich soil with native plants, which absorbs 100+ times more water than turf, thus reducing/eliminating flooding
  • Use more pervious pavement for driveways, sidewalks, etc. for more local absorption
    Keep clusters of trees intact for their water retention and erosion-prevention capabilities
    Use raingardens in lieu of conventional street sewers (see “Sustainable Real Estate – The Big Payback” for a detailed analysis of the financial and environmental benefits.) 


Nature’s Pumping Systems
Now that rainwater was redirected to the tree’s roots, the challenge is to move the sugar-laden, nutrient-enriched water all the way back up the long tree trunk and branch system. Here, the water is essentially pumped back up through the process of transpiration.  Leaves and pine needles breathe out, or exhale water vapor. This process creates suction, which pulls water up through the transportation capillaries. At the top of the trees, these capillaries are extremely narrow, .002 – .0008 inches in diameter, which increases the pumping effect and speed of flow. The void created by transpiration was used to pump nutrients upward.

The real estate development industry and public works departments would do well to emulate the engineering systems of trees, and nature as a whole. All too often, problems are solved in one area only to create a worse situation somewhere else. 

This cause-effect is particularly glaring in today’s mainstream stormwater management protocols, which typically just diverts the water further downstream. To make matters worse, stormwater and wastewater are both often handled in the same facility. When stormwater capacity is overloaded, guess what, waste water and sludge start leaking out, into waterways, streets, schools, etc. Ask the residents of St. Petersburg, Florida how they feel and what they smell after a few days of heavy rain.

Creating Joint Ventures for Synergy and Efficiency.
Trees are social beings; they tend to clump together where it is easier to care for one another and share nutrients. They also recognize the benefits of creating strategic relationships with other life forms, in this case the Mycelium fungi. It is a mutually beneficial relationship. The fungal threads grow on the roots in order to absorb water and nutrients there.

Not only do they grow on the roots themselves, they continue to grow out well beyond the reach of the roots and bring the water and nutrients back to the roots. This creates a root system with extended range and an augmented ability to absorb water much further out than the roots themselves. That’s the quid pro quo. The fungi take a little bit of the roots’ water, but in return, they bring in much more due to their extended network.

Another joint venture is between the Pine tree and the fungi Laccaria bicolor. These fungi release toxins that kill small organisms in and around the tree. When the organisms die and decompose, they release phosphorus back into the soil, which is beneficial fertilizer for the tree.

Becoming more localized, and less dependent on large centralized systems requires implementing techniques and strategic relationships that help local economies outperform large conglomerates.
These partnerships and engineering feats abound in the natural world. One just has to look around their immediate surroundings to find them.  At the very least, they should stimulate new thinking, and reveal creative ideas and better ways of doing business in a particular field – ways that create win-win situations, with more efficiency and productivity.