I am so thankful I don’t have to work all the time in an air-conditioned office building. Especially since Covid-19, our entire Close Comfort team works part of the time at home. We’re happier and feel healthier too. Of course, I have a Close Comfort personal air conditioner with me. Our team members each have at least one at home as well. Lee Kuan Yew, honoured as Singapore’s founding father, loved to tell everyone how air conditioning enabled today’s Singapore by providing a comfortable working and sleeping environment. However, there’s a dark side that comes with 20th-century air conditioning systems. It is well established that people who live most of the time in constant temperature air-conditioned buildings lose their natural thermal acclimatization. As a result, they only feel comfortable at about 23 °C. Recently I hailed a Singapore cab and climbed into the shiny black refrigerator on wheels, feeling so glad I remembered to bring a cardigan tied around my shoulders. The driver exclaimed, “Ah, it’s so hot today, la!” “What’s the temperature?” I asked. “33, it’s really hot, la”. “But, yesterday it was 32”. “Yeah, 33, it’s so hot today, la!”
Today with the internet and web sites like Freelancer.com, you would think it is possible to find native speakers of any language who can readily do translation for you and prepare documents like instruction manuals. And with computer packages like InDesign, you would think that the job of setting up a professionally printed instruction booklet again would be trivially easy. Well, maybe in some languages, but not in Urdu. This has been a fascinating learning experience, and frustrating too at times.
I never imagined that translating our air conditioner user manual and getting it designed ready for printing would have been so difficult. This manual is critical for us: few people will read it, but the few who do will pass on that knowhow to lots of other people. It’s really important that they get it right.
“The Making of an Expert Engineer” was officially launched in Lahore at the Avari Hotel on March 3rd before a gathering of 120 engineers, engineering faculty, aspiring engineers, and friends. Prof. Fazal Ahmad Khalid, Vice Chancellor of the Lahore University of Engineering and Technology (UET) presided at the launch. The launch was sponsored by the author’s company Close Comfort.
James Trevelyan demonstrating the Close Comfort bed tent with air conditioner.
“The Making of an Expert Engineer” was officially launched in Islamabad at the Serena Hotel on January 7th before a gathering of 120 engineers, engineering faculty, aspiring engineers, and friends. The Hon. Ms. Marvi Memon, Minister Chair of Benezir Bhutto Income Support Fund spoke about the potential impact of the research on the poorest 5.8 million people in Pakistan served by the fund. Lieutenant General (R) Syed Shujaat Hussein, former rector of National University of Science and Technology presided at the launch.
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)
A Pakistan university Vice Chancellor told me how, when he first took up his position, he challenged his engineering faculty.
“Listen, he said, you and other engineering schools in Pakistan have graduated tens of thousands of electrical engineers, yet, the more you graduate, the worse electricity load shedding becomes.”
“Sir, they replied, that is a political problem, it’s nothing to do with engineering! The politicians have accumulated a huge circular debt, which is not real debt, just an accounting aberration to cover the fact that rich people don’t pay for electricity.”
The Vice Chancellor smiled. “Please remember, he said, electricity and water utilities are staffed and run by engineers. Furthermore, the debt is real debt: Pakistan State Oil now has to pay cash in advance of delivery because it ran up too much unpaid debt with suppliers. As long as people can use electricity without paying enough to cover the cost of fuel to run generators and maintaining and extending all the transformers and cables, the problem will get worse. So whether you like it or not, as far as Pakistan is concerned, it is an engineering problem. That means it’s your problem too!”
Pakistan’s politicians and business community have a low opinion of Pakistan engineers: it is not just load shedding and poor water service quality. Pakistan is a high cost operating environment, and Pakistan engineers (with a few notable exceptions) have a poor record for delivering on promises: on-time, with good quality, high safety standards, and within financial constraints. In short, Pakistan is an unattractive destination for capital investment because engineers (among others) don’t deliver what they promise.
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.
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.
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 →