Australian Election Surprise

Some of you may be disappointed with the Australian federal election result last Saturday. Especially if you think like I do, that we need to take stronger action to reduce greenhouse emissions and also to prepare people for much warmer weather to come.

Actually, there’s not much politicians can really do. Think about it. Pretty much everything we need to do to reduce greenhouse emissions relies on engineering and that in turn relies on private finance.

Coal fired power stations are not uneconomic because of the cost of coal and generation equipment. They’re only uneconomic because financiers suspect that no one will be able to operate these power stations after about 10-15 years. So instead of recouping the money over 30 years, the project proponent has to show how they can recoup the finance and interest (hiked for risk) over 10 years. That makes the whole project less commercially attractive than renewables like solar and wind.

It’s unrealistic to expect governments in a coal producing country to rule out coal-fired power stations. But there’s no need to. Risk-averse banks and pension funds do it for us. As they will in India, China and other countries as well.

We now have engineering solutions for reducing and eliminating most greenhouse emissions.

Take Close Comfort for example. Small localised air-conditioners greatly extend the temperature range in which people can be comfortable in hot conditions. Up to 45° or so. Close Comfort can help eliminate greenhouse emissions caused by air-conditioners. That’s expected to reduce warming about 0.5° compared with business as normal by the end of the century. What’s more, people will be paying much less on their electricity bills. And governments will be collecting less taxes as a result.

In other words, no government action is necessary. Sometimes, governments can get in the way with outdated regulations. In theory, governments could help. But that relies on politicians and committees making smart decisions: sometimes they do but not always.

Of course, as engineers we need to remind ourselves that it’s our job to enable people to do more with less: less effort, less energy, less material resources, less health risks, less uncertainty for investors, and less environmental disturbance.

And we also have to learn to collaborate better: something that is not acknowledged in engineering schools, let alone taught. That way we will be more likely to deliver on our promises and improve our present appalling project delivery performances. Fixing that would make it easier to get investors on-side.

So let’s not worry too much about politicians and get on and do the things that we need to do: things they cannot do anything about. If we as engineers provide solutions which make life easier for people, and save money, we don’t need government assistance. And I know we can do that when it comes to energy efficiency and greenhouse emissions. Some issues, like plastics pollution, probably do need government action. But we need to recognise where politics can help and where it just gets in the way.

A Bright Energy Future for Pakistan

Despite current on-going energy shortages and load shedding, Pakistan has energy wealth that could be unlocked just by thinking differently about electricity distribution.

Electricity distribution

Electricity distribution systems are large engineering enterprises (photo from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_power_transmission)

Electricity supply is capital intensive engineering. Pakistan built the existing electricity supply network with the help of large loans on favourable terms from the World Bank and other international institutions.

In addition, Pakistan has benefited from the generosity of Saudi Arabia in providing low-cost fuel.

Pakistan has reaped the benefits of large hydroelectric generating plants at Mangla, Tarbela and other dams: they generate electricity with no ongoing fuel costs.

As fuel and capital borrowing costs rose for Pakistan in the last 20 years, and the proportion of cheap hydro power reduced, Pakistan governments shielded people from the real cost of electricity generation with generous subsidies but these cannot continue.

Another factor that frustrates efforts to find energy solutions is the high cost of engineering in Pakistan. Through research we have identified many factors that Pakistan engineers struggle to overcome, such as the deep social divides that inhibit effective collaboration and knowledge sharing between engineers, investors and labour. Given the same requirements for product availability and service quality, the cost is almost invariably higher in Pakistan than in industrialised economies like Europe and the USA. Just as an example, when indirect costs are taken into account, the cost of safe drinking water ranges from US$50 to $150 per tonne in Pakistan while the cost in Australia, the driest continent, is US$3 per tonne.

(This is an updated and extended version of an article published in The News, Pakistan, 31st May 2013)

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What does the Paris Climate Change Treaty mean for engineers?

The Paris climate change agreement has received rather more praise than detailed explanations.  Public discussion during the meeting seemed remarkably muted, perhaps for fear of reawakening ghosts of acrimonious disagreement from Copenhagen, 6 years earlier. I was in Paris on leave for the last few days of the meeting and far more media attention focused on European immigration, Syrian refugees, and the widely expected resurgence of the far-right National Front in local elections.  The National Front lost, the Paris agreement was applauded: everyone sighed with relief and switched attention to Christmas and Star Wars 8. Climate Change quickly vanished as exhausted delegations left Paris.

Galleries-Lafayette-Window 151212

Galleries Lafayette had this stunning Christmas play on Star Wars among
elaborately decorated windows to draw crowds of shoppers.

I believe that the Paris Agreement will soon re-emerge as one of the most significant developments influencing engineering in this century.  It may not have received much media attention yet, but it demands close attention from all of us.

This agreement places enormous responsibilities on us as engineers and the world’s expectations are daunting. Continue reading

Opportunities for Pakistan Engineers

In my last piece I pointed out some of the challenges for engineers in Pakistan.  Yet each of those challenges is an opportunity for any engineer who is prepared to take advantage of them.  Yes, water and power are far too expensive. However, reliably supplying water and power at a lower cost represents a huge commercial opportunity because ordinary people will happily pay for a high quality service that provides real economic value over the alternatives.  Given that water is the equivalent of US$50-$150 per tonne today, supplying safe drinking water at $10 per tonne is a huge improvement.

Here’s an example, my own personal invention, mentioned in the book (Ch13). Air conditioning is unaffordable for the vast majority of Pakistan people because most Pakistan buildings are not insulated. Conventional air conditioning consumes large amounts of electricity. Too many people are using conventional air conditioners, leading to electricity load shedding. Continuous air conditioning requires a generator and the electricity cost (with fuel) for a typical room air conditioner is about 20,000 Rs or US$190 for one month.

Take a look at www.closecomfort.com.

This technology can provide similar comfort, running continuously through load shedding on a UPS, for about 1,200 Rs or US$12 monthly electricity cost which is much more affordable. The first production units will be on sale in Islamabad and Lahore in a couple of months time.

Challenges like climate change also represent a huge opportunity for engineers.  Engineers can do more than almost any other occupational group, and can earn high rewards from grateful people at the same time.

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A moratorium on new coal mines: a hypocritical Australian gesture

Recently there has been an Australian move to propose a moratorium on new coal mines.

For several years I have researched energy supplies on the ground in India and Pakistan.  I have also researched how engineers respond to the challenges of energy and water supplies there, and also in Australia.

I strongly disagree with this moratorium proposal.

Why?

First, it will be seen as hypocritical and selfish in countries like India and Pakistan because we Australians, more than many countries, have grown rich and prosperous by burning vast quantities of coal in the past and continue to do so today.

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