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Report from the Research Frontier: January 2019

New findings: Life cycle analysis can address emerging technologies; cooperatives are a powerful economic model; and Vehicle 2 Grid makes its case

Every month, researchers publish dozens of articles on business sustainability. NBS highlights insights at the frontier of knowledge. See all monthly highlights.


Life Cycle Analysis Can Address Emerging Technologies

What if developers of a technology could foresee the impact their product will have – and change it for the better? “Prospective” Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) is a way to understand likely impacts when a technology is still in an early phase of development. These insights allow developers to alter the technology before design parameters are fully set.

Traditional, or “retrospective,” LCA, looks backward at an existing technology. For prospective LCA, the emerging technology is modeled at a future, more‐developed phase (e.g., large‐scale production). Researchers Rickard Arvidsson and colleagues provide recommendations for dealing with the uncertainty involved in such modeling. They suggest:

  • Comparing the technology under study to a wide range of alternatives, as it’s difficult to know which ones will be most relevant in the future

  • Using scenarios to model production of the technology and its alternatives, and to consider changes in the broader system (e.g. regulations)

  • Drawing on different kinds of data to build scenarios: for example, expert interviews and patents instead of the lifecycle databases used in traditional LCAs

Article (free access): Arvidsson, R., A.‐M. Tillman, B. A. Sandén, M. Janssen, A. Nordelöf, D. Kushnir, and S. Molander. 2017. Environmental assessment of emerging technologies: Recommendations for prospective LCA. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 22(6), 1286–1294.


Cooperatives Are a Powerful Economic Model

Existing economic models are showing strain. Cooperatives — an old idea — may be becoming new again.

Cooperatives are “jointly owned, democratically controlled enterprises that advance the economic, social, and cultural interests of their members,” explains researcher Nathan Schneider. Cooperatives exist as credit unions, grocery stores, healthcare, utilities, and more.

“Since the financial crash of 2008, the cooperative movement has been coming back with renewed vigor,” says Schneider. His book provides multiple examples, from “taxi cooperatives that are keeping Uber and Lyft at bay,… to a fugitive building a fairer version of Bitcoin, to the rural electric co-op members who are propelling an aging system into the future.”

Schneider sees cooperatives as increasing accountability and equity, because users are also owners. He comments: “Shared ownership and governance are poised to set higher standards for how businesses demonstrate their commitment and accountability to their customers, employees. Any kind of company can learn from the cooperative tradition. It is a uniquely time-tested strategy for building businesses that live by their values.”

Book: Schneider, N. 2018. Everything for everyone: The radical tradition that is shaping the next economy. Nation Books.


Vehicle 2 Grid Makes Its Case

Electric cars have been called “batteries with wheels.” They draw electricity from the energy grid but, when parked, can also supply electricity to that grid. Grid managers can use such “Vehicle 2 Grid,” or “V2G” connections to smooth out peaks in energy demand. V2G generally lowers the energy system’s carbon emissions by replacing non-renewable energy sources.

The case for V2G is growing stronger, according to researcher Micha Kahlen and colleagues. They used modeling based on real-life data to identify the benefits of V2G. They found that V2G reduced the average electricity price for consumers up to 3.4 per cent, and increased profits for electric car fleet owners by 4.3 per cent. (So far, V2G efforts focus on fleets owned by large businesses or car sharing companies.)

“This is a strategy which is both profitable for electric vehicle fleet owners and sustainable for society and planet,” the authors write. V2G is already operational in locations including the Los Angeles Air Force Base and University of Delaware.

Article (free access): Kahlen, M., Ketter, W., & Gupta, A. 2018. Electric vehicle virtual power plant dilemma: Grid balancing versus customer mobility. Production and Operations Management, 27(11), 2054-2070.

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    The Network for Business Sustainability (NBS) is a non-profit advancing sustainable development to build a fairer and more environmentally sound future. We aim to improve business practice by facilitating knowledge sharing across an international community of business leaders, scholars, students and policy makers. With these stakeholders, we co-create high-quality content that enables practical action. Our content focuses on 6 critical sustainability themes, from climate change to social justice.

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