07.07.2015 : Colin Pearson

Engineering to transform our world

Engineering should enable life - Let’s engineer to the correct scale.

We are living on the planet like we have another one to go to.

What does Terri Swearingen’s message, the winner of the 1997 Goldman Environmental Prize, mean to me as an engineer? It means I should “pride myself on continual improvement and creating infrastructure projects that deliver increased efficiency”.

In a world where some of our precious resources are not sustainable, without realising it, some of today’s best engineering designs are allowing or even increasing waste. They are encouraging communities to use more resources than is necessary to live. While many designs undoubtedly offer long-term solutions, we all need to make decisions that use our planet’s resources efficiently.

Take engineering. Engineering is helping to create ‘more’ – more resources, more infrastructure, more power, food, growth, urban spread – the list goes on. However, as a society, how long can we continue to create ‘more’ until it’s no longer sustainable?

I’m not saying engineering is wasteful. Many of our sustainable solutions are designed to be in the background; doing or providing the required performance without being seen while being highly efficient.

My role in the power industry is about providing reliable, safe electricity to workplaces and homes. What I do is created in the background, using the least resources possible. It is located where possible to operate without being seen or heard. And, in my view, it’s ok to be behind the scenes if it means being efficient and looking after the environment while doing so.

New Zealand’s electricity grid has one of the highest ratios of renewable energy generation of any country. We get the big ‘green tick’ and as a power engineer I am very proud of that.

However should I be?

In today’s communities, people are now living further away from the energy generation source or central distribution substations. This means electrical energy is being transported further with subsequent transmission losses.

In a report published by The World Bank, we lose 7% of our energy in New Zealand through transmission compared to the world average loss of 8.1%. Again New Zealand infrastructure is performing well however that’s still a lot of electrical energy being wasted without most people realising it!

Electricity seems so available we now just don’t switch on the TV. We switch on the TV, the media system, the decoder, player or recorder and perhaps the special lighting system. Or chances are we don’t switch it on; we leave it on standby wasting more energy!

So by enabling more, society is using more. More than is needed.

We want to have more space, more consistent temperature, more lighting and more entertainment in more places. We want it, but do we need it?

Engineering enables the ‘want’ level; often far beyond the ‘need’ level. If it’s wanted, someone tends to deliver it.

In the past construction was optimised to use the least materials with little thought of whole life resource usage. Fortunately engineers now look at the construction and the operation, increasingly making modifications to the designs to use least the resource throughout the whole life cycle of the building, plant or infrastructure project.

However scale is often the wastage trigger … “Give me bigger, better, more……sustainably?”

In my opinion, the best engineering should lead. It should quietly guide us towards the ideal of challenging ourselves to ask “We may want it, but do really need it and to what scale?” If we can get the scale right, our infrastructure will do what it has to - no more, no less. It will work with the environment, not against it.

Obviously the engineering profession can’t do it alone. Society needs to change too however together, we can all be part of that change. The change required is massive. It requires a less material view on life but it needs to happen as we have nowhere else to go to.

If you don’t agree with me, you may after you listen to this:

If you still don’t, please feel free to comment on why your ‘want’ is really a ‘need’.

About the Author

Colin Pearson

Associate - Power Systems Engineering

Colin has led many wind farm grid integration studies, along with new substation builds and upgrades from 11kV to 400kV. His career as an electrical engineer started with 1000’s of wires connecting dozens of standalone devices and it’s migrated to often using less than 10 intelligent devices and a few fibre optic cables, fitting well with his interest in efficiency, sustainability and renewable energy.

Ignite Your Thinking

What Do You Think?

Colin Pearson · 9/07/2015 4:23:03 PM
NIMBY opinions are always going to be very hard to change. There's a Cree Indian Saying "Only when the last tree is cut; only when the last river is polluted; only when the last fish is caught; only then will they realize that you cannot eat money." Some people understand that, some don't, some just don't want the chasing done in their backyard.

Colin Pearson · 9/07/2015 4:10:35 PM
David, thanks for your comment. I absolutely agree engineers by nature do tend to get excited by the detail and overlook the big picture, be that now or many years into the future. While length constraints limited my article to electricity, the same right sizing principles apply to most engineering projects as they can readily become larger, faster, more, better(?) than necessary wasting building materials and increasing running and maintenance costs. There are many ways to say it; appropriate future proofing and right sizing does become the optimal solution. Often smaller is smarter and better! Quality design and materials are more important than producing quantity, use fewer resources and can cost less. Win win.

Kevin McFarlane · 9/07/2015 1:19:41 PM
Colin - a thought provoking piece. I liked your comment regarding "the best engineering should lead." I agree. However, my own experience is that politicians and 'society' don't always want that. When I was in New Zealand there was significant resistance to a local project to build more wind turbines. Those objecting (who convinced those non-engineers to reject the proposal) all have the TV decoders and mobile phones that you mentioned but they don't want that electricity being produced by fossil fuels, nuclear reactors or turbines. Stalemate.

David Alabaster · 7/07/2015 5:50:13 PM
Hi Colin

Great article. Engineers should always lead and we should always seek to minimise the impact on the environment. I think we often get lost in the detail, forgetting that we should always be doing good for the communities we live in and thus looking after the environment is essential!