The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


A Waste of Energy


Most "energy conservation" initiatives fall short because they don't address dysfunctional human settlement patterns, the root cause of excess consumption. 


The Context


These days almost everyone has something to say about energy conservation. Recently, there have been statements on the Bacon’s Rebellion Blog that engender misconceptions about the relationship between energy conservation and human settlement patterns. (See End Note One.)


A place to start:

  • There is no greater cause of wasted energy by humans than dysfunctional settlement patterns

  • There are no strategic or tactical alternatives that achieve a sustainable energy consumption trajectory that do not include Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns

In spite of these facts, almost all the discussion of energy conservation ignores settlement patterns or grossly under estimates the energy consumption impact of settlement pattern dysfunction. (See “Soft Consumption Paths,” 7 Aug 2006.)


The reason that settlement pattern impact is ignored is simple:

To address the energy consumption / settlement pattern nexus is to demonstrate the imperative of Fundamental Change. Far too many are far too comfortable with Business-As- Usual to embrace reality and come to grips with what is required to achieve Fundamental Change. (See End Note Two.)

One cannot blame those who are trying to protect their Business-As-Usual turf and their ideological icons for attempting to obfuscate the issues. However, the time for smokescreens is past. The inevitability of Fundamental Change is well settled. Now protagonists are just quibbling over price and terms. With respect to energy conservation the questions are: How long the inevitable can be denied and who will bear the burden of past misdeeds?


What follows is the briefest of brief summaries, intended to define the territory and not to explore reality in depth.




The settlement pattern implications for energy conservation are not new topics for SYNERGY/Planning.  Between 1977 and 1979, while serving as director of planning for Burke Centre, we coordinated developer input into a research project titled, “Case Studies of Project Planning and Design for Energy Conservation,” sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, Community Systems Division, Office of Buildings & Community Services. The final report, published in 1979, was prepared by a nationally recognized team of landscape, energy and engineering consultants. (See End Note Three.)


The study was “state of the art” but the projected energy savings were “modest.” This was due in part to the study assumptions – aka, conventional wisdom with respect to the impact of such topics as flat fees for energy use.  Also, savings were modest because the basic plan was for an orphan Alpha Village that was already energy efficient from a land use mix perspective.


After the study, parcels were sold by Burke Centre Partnership to builders along with the energy conservation plans for each land bay. Following consideration by the builders, most of the ideas were rejected as not being “marketable.”

A major consideration was that the cost of energy was so low that the savings would not be cost effective for the builder and not particularly attractive to the end users.

Prior to this study, between 1969 and 1976, we had supervised the design of an energy conserving Alpha Village scale development on land owned by a university, and participated in the design of several Alpha Neighborhood scale projects intended to utilize Modular Integrated Utility Systems (MIUS) in New York, New Jersey and Georgia. We were retained also to prepare the conceptual plan for an energy self-sufficient Community scale project on 28,000 acres in North Carolina. This project was a joint venture of Ford Motor Co. and Weyerhaeuser, which owned the land.


This settlement pattern / energy consumption experience provided the background for more comprehensive assessments of the energy conservation potential of alternative settlement patterns outlined below.




Energy over-consumption and the looming economic impact of energy waste is a direct result of past governance policies and actions. From at least from the election of Andrew Jackson, land exploitation and cheap energy have been seen as a way to foster economic growth and prosperity. Since World War II “growth and prosperity” has evolved to become Mass OverConsumption. The resulting trajectory is unsustainable in large part due to the pattern of energy consumption.


When the current energy policies were last seriously examined following World War II, the US of A was a net exporter of energy. There appeared to be vast petroleum reserves and a virtually unlimited supply of coal and hydro power for the damming. (See End Note Four.)

Beyond the supposed unlimited conventional resources, unlimited energy was on the horizon when -- not “if” -- the atom was “harnessed.”

With the US of A leading the charge, urbanizing humans across the globe have burned through energy supplies and exposed energy supply assumptions to be gross misconceptions:

  • Petroleum reserves are depleted and production constrained to the point that prices are now rising far faster than contemplated a decade ago

  • Coal has turned out to have major limitations due to secondary impacts from consumption

  • Hydro and nuclear power have significant location, cost, environmental and safety limitations

The US of A is consuming more energy per capita than any other nation-state and has failed to provide leadership in achieving a sustainable trajectory for energy consumption. Both public and private sectors continue to provide counterproductive incentives that encourage Mass OverConsumption of all resources, but especially energy resources.


As we have noted in “The Conservation Imperative,” 19 June 2007:

All the renewable, sustainable sources of energy derived from the sun as well as geothermal, gravity and water cycle sources are “thin.” However, humans have evolved a high technology civilization that is dependent upon a demand pattern that is “thick” aka, focused. (See End Note Five.)


This is why the human settlement pattern that supports contemporary civilization must become the focus of every energy consumption and energy conservation discussion.

The distribution of demand is why Big Grid power systems characterized by long transmission lines and power generation far from end users are not only insecure but grossly wasteful, to say nothing about their impact on the Countryside where they are located.


The “thin resource / thick demand” reality will be examined below in the context of individual structures and in terms of the settlement patterns in general.


Who Is to Blame?


When one points the finger at “governance policy,” it is not because it is a “political party” issue.As documented in Chapters One and Two of "The Shape of the Future," both “major” political parties are to blame.


But citizens and “professionals” are to blame also for egging politicians on. In a democracy the buck stops with citizens, and they have failed to protect their own long term self-interest. (See Backgrounder “New Metric for Citizen Well Being,” and End Note Six.)

Failure to change the US of A’s energy strategy after October 1973 demonstrated a fundamental weakness of nation-states' governance processes.

Cheap energy results directly in energy waste and unreliable energy sources. Cheap energy indirectly results in dysfunctional human settlement patterns. (Cheap gasoline and dysfunctional human settlement patterns are explored in the forthcoming Backgrounder “The Problem With Cars.” See Again End Note Two.)


But it is not just cheap gasoline that has generated dysfunctional settlement patterns. Electricity, coal and other energy sources have been produced, priced and subsidized to maximize consumption, minimize conservation and scatter urban land uses across the Countryside.


Big Grid electric generation, transmission and distribution is the epitome of waste. Over half the energy consumed in the production of electricity is wasted by the time it reaches the end users. The more dysfunctional the human settlement pattern, the greater the waste. The more remote the power generation – as in the heavily subsidized hydroelectric power facilities in Western US of A – the greater the waste.


Pricing strategies have provided discounts that encourage consumption. For a good example of waste, observe the how much is spent to lighting up the night sky. To see graphic evidence, tune into the ESPN broadcast of Monday Night Football from Denver this evening (29 October 2007). It is not just Monday Night Football, it is Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday night and Monday night and every night in every sport that the waste of energy is put on display. The waste of energy on earth is visible from beyond the Moon.


Before leaving the issue of “blame” there is one other group to put in the spotlight. WaPo headlines say it all: "Energy Traders Avoid Scrutiny: As commodities Market Grows, Oversight Is Slight. Energy Price Manipulation Is Hard to Detect,” by David Cho. (WaPo, 21 October 2007).  Futures traders and hedge fund managers are the Robber Barons of the 21st Century but they do not leave behind railroads or steel plants much less libraries – just Mass OverConsumption.




Some buildings are energy hogs. The technology exists to conserve far more energy; it has been available for decades. There is good news and bad news about “green” buildings.


The good news is that big building projects have large budgets and could afford to bring together the best design and engineering strategies. In addition, owner / developers have a stake in lowering the costs for the entire life cycle of a building. This means there is a great potential for energy conservation in buildings, and there are scattered examples very efficient buildings.


The bad news is that cheap energy discourages innovation because the return-on-investment does not justify the expense in the design process or in construction. Raise the price of energy, and you'll get far more energy conservation.


A recent announcement by Virginia Tech throws new light on energy conservation in buildings. (See End Note Seven.) An investor is going to raise $500 million and Virginia Tech will oversee a process to upgrade 100 buildings in the National Capital Subregion. The investor will recover the $500 million by lowering operating costs and receiving payment from a share of the savings. Everyone wins and VA Tech gets a gold star.


Something is wrong with the market here. Why do the owners not just borrow the money and pocket the cash and goodwill that these outside parties are reaping? The bottom line must be that the building owners do not think the cost of energy will go up as fast as the investor and Virginia Tech do.


This seems like a perfect place to apply the “mechanism design theory” for which three economists will share to 2007 Nobel Prize in Economics. The problem is that unless the economists understand human settlement patterns at the multi-building scale and above, the “solution” may not make much difference beyond the PR benefit and could make matters worse, not better.


One last thought: Building energy efficiency is a place where we could learn a lot from our friends in the European Union, especially the Germans, who have made good use of the time since the October 1973 energy supply wake-up call.


Multi-Building Complexes


There is apparent confusion in the market concerning the economics of energy conservation at the building scale but when one considers multiple buildings, a mix of land uses and more than one owner, the issues become far more complex.


A peek at the potential for multi building energy conservation was provided by comment on the 18 October 2007 Bacon’s Rebellion Blog posting “Data Centers and Green IT” by Jim Bacon. Data centers and server farms are energy hogs and throw off waste heat that has to be pumped into the environment via air conditioning. Well, not really. We suggested in an 11:07 AM comment:

The “answer” is functional settlement pattern (at multi-building scales). Put the data center in the Zentrum of the Alpha Village near the MIUS (Modular Integrated Utility System) to get cheap energy during off peak hours, store the energy in batteries and use the waste heat from operations to heat and cool the Jobs / Housing / Services / Recreation / Amenity functions of the Zentrum.

In theory this configuration works like a charm for many functional land uses that consume a lot of energy but do not have a noxious or toxic impact on the immediate surrounding area. Steel mills and airports need not apply. But many “new technology” land uses – like data centers – provide good jobs and heat that can be recaptured and be put to good use as part of a functional Village.


Some snide comments were posted on the Zentrum solution for data centers but they reflect the Geographic Illiteracy of the commentor more than a problem with the strategy. Our experience with Modular Integrated Utility Systems (MIUSs) is that the failure to recognize the organic components of human settlement patterns and the failure to evolve a governance structure at the Cluster and Neighborhood scales condemned MIUS projects. How to manage them and how to secure capital investment at this scale was beyond the kin of project participants. If the “project” was not owned by a single entity or covered an entire municipality no one knew how to deal with it.


How can failure to understand organic components of human settlement patterns possibly be an issue here?  The chilled water / heat exchange system in the Zentrum Neighborhood of the Village of Lake Anne in Reston is a perfect example. The condominium / homes association governance structure of Reston, which is free floating and not a component of the municipal government of Fairfax County, provides a perfect example of why the failure to establish a context for governance of the public utility is critical. The Lake Anne Plaza utility, which is not owned by those who must buy its services, has been a technical, political and economic millstone around the neck of the citizens who live, work and own property in the Lake Anne Plaza Beta Neighborhood for 40 years.


The next result of a failure to understand how to manage components of human settlement pattern – especially at the Cluster, Neighborhood and Village scales – has led to scatteration of “projects.” These scattered projects seem to avoid externalities but in fact prevent the evolution of synergies that would support energy conservation and other benefits.


The “thin resources / thick demand” conundrum comes into play at multi-building scales ranging from multi-Units to Village- and Community-scales. If there is a use that consumes significant amounts of energy, it needs to be paired with uses that can consume the byproducts of this energy. This same principle is applied in synergistic manufacturing and agricultural complexes where the waste from one process is used as the feedstock for another process.


Human Settlement Patterns


The link between human settlement patterns and energy conservation is based on the “Thin resources / Thick demand” conundrum discussed above and on the research upon which the Five Natural Laws of Human Settlement Patterns are based.


As noted in The Shape of the Future, the five Laws were derived from the patterns of land use actually developed between 1960 and 1990 in the US of A. As suggested below, following publication of TRILO-G, we plan to revisit these laws. Because the built environment was driven by cheap energy, the quantities associated with the Laws may change. They are likely to go up but not enough to modify the “order of magnitude” relationships now reflected in the titles.


While each of the Five Natural Laws has a roll in defining the energy conservation impact of human settlement patterns, the most important in this discussion is The 10 X Rule. (See End Note Eight.)


Early research that led to the 10 X Rule was carried out by graduate planning students in Fauquier County, Va. They started by collecting data from developers, builders, contractors, utility companies and end users on the actual cost of delivering a kilowatt of electrical service to customers in differing configurations. They calculated line loss due to a range of variables such as voltage difference to determine the true total cost of patterns established between 1960 and 1990. They then moved on to list and examine the other 40 +/- location variable costs. The result of this work was publication of The 10 X Rule in 2000.


Not a single person who had the ability to identify the actual numbers and then took the time to run the calculations has suggested that the 10 X Rule is not well founded. Many do not like the result and they may try to avoid discussing reality, but no one has demonstrated that the 10 X Rule is not an accurate reflection of reality.


Undertaking the same process 15 years later with different energy costs will in all likelihood result in different quantities but still support the same general principles. How much different? Perhaps the 10X Rule will be the 10.7 X Rule or the 12.3 X Rule but, as noted above, it will not change the order of magnitude relationships established by the Five Natural Laws. (See End Note Nine.)


Business-As-Usual flacks dismiss the high-end estimates of energy conservation with comments such as, “People will not live that way,” or the even more silly, “An allocation of true costs takes away my freedom.”


In summary, dysfunctional scatteration of a specific use increases the energy consumed and the energy lost in transmission. Further flat fees for large areas average costs and subsidizes disaggregated end users.


Islands in the Sun


Next, we move to a discussion of “Heat Islands.” Heat islands are real but they are also tossed out as a red herring to dismiss the idea that compact urban agglomerations are energy efficient. There is a vast amount of flammable underbrush to clear away on these islands.


First, a superficial application of the “Thin resources / Thick demand” dichotomy might suggest that urban areas are energy hogs. Such a conclusion is valid only if one thinks that the issue is “energy consumption per acre” rather than “energy consumption per capita” – or per Household.


Second, there are great opportunities for wasted energy from one use to become an input for other uses. The example of data centers and server farms is noted above.  Also see “All Aboard,” 16 April 2007.


Third, large buildings present, as noted above, great opportunities for conservation and reuse of energy within the structure.


Four, much of the energy waste emanating from the Zentrums of New Urban Regions to date is entirely avoidable. Solar sinks include parking lots, roadways and bare rooftops. These heat sources emanate from badly designed buildings, inefficient building complexes and dysfunctional human settlement patterns, not from the flux of human activity pe se.


Urban agglomerations are not endemic inefficient concentrations of human activity. In fact they are just the opposite, as suggested by the discussion in “All Aboard” cited above concerning shared-vehicle system station areas.


Finally, very little of the area within the Clear Edge around the Core of a New Urban Region is “high density” in the sense that, say, Manhattan is. For a discussion of this fact see The 95% / 5% Guideline Two in Percentage Guidelines in GLOSSARY.


As noted by Joel Kotkin in the article discussed below, Alpha Community scale developments that meet The 10 Person Rule (aka, Planned New Communities) have canopies of trees that cover not just roofs but streets and some roads. In addition, up to 40 percent of the total area of an Alpha Community and an additional 50 percent of the land within the Clear Edge can be natural area if intelligently designed.




Last but not least, we come to the topic of intentional and unintentional use of Core Confusing Words to mislead those concerned with the energy conservation / human settlement patterns nexus.


Joel Kotkin’s latest contribution to a long list of stellar examples of word and phrase misuse is “Hot World? Blame Cities,” published in the Sunday 14, Oct. 2007, WaPo Outlook section. For a refresher on Joel’s misuse of words see “The Foundation of Babble,” 28 Nov 2005, “Deconstructing the Tower of Babel,” 12 Dec 2005, “Babble Postscript,” 3 Jan 2006, and “Words Matter,” 20 Mar 2006. 


Kotkin works for clients that relish his “man bites dog” op eds and books. He apparently gets a bonus for spinning stories in ways that aggravate doctrinaire Smart Growthers. He also gets a bonus for unjustifiably bashing Portland, Ore.


There is, however, a useful antidote for Kotkin’s intentional confusion. If one goes through "The Hot World" sentence by sentence and takes out the Core Confusing Words, it turns out that many of his statements have a factual base. On occasions he makes very useful observations. There are also some terrible errors in the “”Hot World” op ed but most of the energy conservation points have a basis in fact. (See End Note Ten.)


It does not matter what words are substituted for “city,’ “local,” “suburb,” “burb” and other Core Confusing Words that are used in different contexts to mean different things. They key is to use words and phases consistently and in ways that reflect the meaning that Kotkin probably had in mind.


Joel Kotkin and Ali Modarres make many good points in the article and repeat many things we have been saying for years, but you would not know it because of confusing Vocabulary they intentionally employ.


Repairing the Kotkin op ed underscores an important point: It is hard to overestimate the power of Vocabulary.

Whether one is building a “tower to Heaven” or attempting to create functional human settlement patterns the same problem exists. If one cannot understand what others are saying, the result is bad.

When Kotkin and others use words in the manner of Humpty Dumpty -- “When I use a word, it means exactly what I intend it to mean” -- the results are dismal.


Those who benefit from Business As Usual know if citizens realize the need for a new Vocabulary they lose power to make short-term profits. It is amusing to see “well meaning” blog commentors suggest that the evolution of an understandable Vocabulary is not worth the effort.  (“You have some good ideas but confuse the issue with attempts to introduce a new Vocabulary.”) Sorry, there is no alternative to a robust Vocabulary with everyone on the same page.


There is a need to understand the relationships between energy conservation and human settlement patterns. That is possible only if the Core Confusing Words are abandoned.     


-- October 29, 2007



End Notes


(1). Due to requests by readers of the Bacon’s Rebellion Blog who have been confused by unfounded comments concerning energy conservation and human settlement patterns, this column provides a brief primer on the topic. This column will become part of Chapter 5 of BRIDGES, the second book of TRILO-G forthcoming. Several recent comments on energy conservation and human settlement patterns have confused readers who thought they had a good grasp on reality. Readers have suggested that, by not responding to these comments, we we are conceding that these commentors (rhymes with “tormentors”) have a basis for their postings beyond short-term self-interest.  See 16 October Blog Post "ENERGY CONSERVATION AND HUMAN SETTLEMENT PATTERNS."


(2). We explore this issue at length in the Backgrounder “The Problem With Cars” forthcoming.


(3). “Case Studies of Project Planning and Design for Energy Conservation,” sponsored by the US Department of Energy, Community Systems Division, Office of Buildings & Community Services. 1979 Land Design / Research, Inc. Columbia, MD 1979. Also see End Note Two in “Soft Consumption Paths,” 7 August 2006.


(4). As it happens, my father farmed and worked on oil rigs during World War II. Our family lived in a “lease house” on an oil field just after World War II. My father was offered lucrative work in Venezuela and Saudi Arabia but choose to move to Montana where we lived near the Bonneville Power Administration's Hungry Horse Dam in the late 40s and 50s. It is surprising how much direct early experiences can provide a framework for later understandings of complex topics. (See End Note Three in “The Conservation Imperative,” 19 June 2007.)


(5). By “thick” we mean that the settlement pattern most highly valued in the market (including by the “creative class”) and best supporting contemporary economic, social and physical reality is a conterminous, synergistic mix of Jobs / Housing / Services / Recreation / Amenity.  These compact settlement patterns are found within Clear Edges, organized in Balanced Communities.  To be sustainable, these Balanced Communities must be aggregated into New Urban Regions with significant amounts of Countryside and in Urban Support Regions primarily made up of Countryside. For a discussion of each of the Capitalized words in the prior sentence see GLOSSARY.


(6). As spelled out in Chapter Two, President William Jefferson Clinton made unfounded excuses for high per capita energy consumption in his first State of the Union speech.


(7). See “Va. Tech, Investor Aim To Cut Area Energy Use.  100 Properties to Get Upgrades,” David Fahrenthold, WaPo, 16 October 2007.


(8).  The 10 X Rule is noted in the GLOSSARY under "Natural Laws," and the derivation is provided in Chapter 4, Box 6 of The Shape of the Future. Here is a Cliff Notes version of Then 10 X Rule: Assume two groups of 3,000 persons each live in two Neighborhood-scale sets of 1,000 dwellings (1,000 households) in different configurations. One set is randomly scattered across 10,000 acres on lots that average 10 acres each. A second group with the same size dwelling and carrying out the same daily and weekly activities is located in functional Clusters on 100 acres. Under these conditions, the location- variable costs of the first group is ten times (that is ten times, not ten percent more or 110 percent more but 10 times or "10 X") the cost of the second group. note that Neighborhoods of 30 persons per acre are the most common configuration of Neighborhood-scale groups of dwellings in Alpha Communities of 10 persons per acre. This is the case in Reston, Columbia, Burke Centre and Fairfax Center.


(9). The other Natural Laws ( A= BR2, The Cost of Services Curve, The 10 Person Rule and the 87 ½ Percent Rule) also come into play but a discussion of these Rules is beyond the scope of this column. For discussion of the rules and their derivation see The Shape of the Future, Chapter Four.  


(10). Using the name James Rouse in same sentence as Frank Lloyd Wright with respect to understanding human settlement pattern is a gross injustice to Jim Rouse. See The Shape of the Future, Chapter 18, “The Planned New Community – Almost Nothing is as Old as the Planned New Community,” for an extensive discussion of Rouse' wisdom and Wright's foolishness -- "Broadacre City."














Ed Risse and his wife Linda live inside the "Clear Edge" of the "urban enclave" known as Warrenton, a municipality in the Countryside near the edge of the Washington-Baltimore "New Urban Region."


Mr. Risse, the principal of

SYNERGY/Planning, Inc., can be contacted at


Read his profile here.