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 Sometimes, governments can get in the way with outdated regulations.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.

Engineering Value Creation

Before reading this, please see the post of December 7, 2017, where I have released a comprehensive guide for engineers, students and educators on value creation in engineering enterprises…..

In my last post, I wrote a brief explanation about value and value creation, noting that “value” has many different meanings.

In this post I will summarize what Bill Williams and I think is a new theory of engineering value creation, the subject of my address to the International Conference on Engineering Education Research (iCEER 2016) in Sydney on November 24.

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Why an engineering project can fail (1)

In this series of posts, I am going to show how engineering underpins the world economy more than we think, and how we can improve our engineering performances by changing the way we think about engineering.  The last post was bad news for us engineers.  The good news is that we can all gain by improving our engineering performances.  However, to turn our performance around, we first need to understand what’s not working.

Companies like IPA Global have answers based on statistical analysis, and have provided these answers for several years.  They will tell you which factors are statistically correlated with successful projects, as Ed Merrow has written in his book.  However, even the projects they interact with are getting worse, and there are many more projects that they don’t assess, such as government engineering projects.  Political constraints with these projects usually rule out closing down a failing project: unemployment is often a bigger issue than a failed project for government sponsors.

Clearly there are other factors at work here.  The fundamental difficulty with statistical correlations is that they cannot provide causes.  Try this example.  My hair grows every day and Halley’s comet is moving further from the sun every day.  But that does not mean that my hair will get shorter when Halley’s comet comes back towards the sun.  Statistical correlations can tell you which factors are correlated with project outcomes, but these associations cannot tell us much about the causes of project failures or how to make improvements.

We have to turn to different kinds of research to find the underlying causes for engineering project failures.  The qualitative ethnographic research we do with engineers can help identify potential causes that statistical correlations miss.

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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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Back from Pakistan, UAE, Iran and New Zealand

Some of you may have wondered why there has been a little gap in my blog posts.  I have been pre-occupied with visits to several countries.

My other major project, Close Comfort has developed very quickly with keen anticipation particularly in Pakistan where electricity supplies are subject to frequent interruptions due to load shedding.  Pakistan’s electricity grid is struggling to keep up with demand for air conditioning, and I hope to be able to offer a sustainable solution, as explained in Chapter 13 of the book. Continue reading

How can I find an engineering job?

This question is particularly relevant now in many countries where engineering activity is at a lower level than normal and may engineers are looking for work. This happens at times of low economic growth or recession: it could even be the “new normal” for a while.

It can be a very depressing experience to be looking for engineering work in these circumstances, particularly if you don’t understand how the job market works. However, as an engineer, even a novice engineer with little experience, you are one of the most employable people around.  It is easier for you to find a job than for nearly everyone else. Continue reading