I don’t know where you were during the oil embargo crisis of the 1970s, but the gas rationing lines, together with the national call for conservation and responsible energy use, made quite an impression on this idealistic adolescent’s psyche.
In no small part, the potential to help extend our resources for future generations, and to help find solutions to society’s inevitable withdrawal from its fossil-fuel addiction, drew me into the study of engineering and, ultimately, master’s thesis work in the area of alternative energy.
Fast-forward to 2007. Not since those tense days of the 1970s has there been such a perfect storm of momentum directed toward the issue of energy. Booming global energy consumption against tight supply has oil costs hovering near unprecedented levels. Here in the U.S., against a backdrop on ongoing terrorism concerns and continued unrest in the Middle East, the already frenzied drumbeat for energy independence intensifies. Early this February, the United Nation’s climate change panel issued its strongest warning yet that human activities are heating the planet, adding pressure on governments to do more to combat accelerating global warming.
“February 2, 2007 may be remembered as the day the question mark was removed from whether people are to blame for climate change,” Achim Steiner, the head of the UN Environment Program, told a news conference. He urged governments to inject more momentum into stalled talks on long-term cuts in emissions. Indeed, the final text of “Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis” stated it was “very likely”—or a probability of more than 90%—that human activities led by burning fossil fuels explained most of the warming in the past 50 years. Forthcoming reports from an authoritative group of some 2,500 scientists from more than 130 nations are intended to further elaborate the anticipated consequences and mitigation alternatives.
Add to this already potent mix the recent step-change toward green in the American political scene as a result of last November’s elections, and it’s clear that energy use—and the management of its byproducts—will be a dominant driver of legislative and industrial activity for years to come.
And while the Chinese calligraphic character for crisis may indeed mean “moment of danger” and nothing more, a renewed focus on energy and climate change nevertheless offers industry in general—and process automation professionals in particular—the opportunity to stand and deliver.
One renewable energy frontier demanding instrumentation and control expertise is the rapid proliferation of ethanol production facilities. Ethanol production was already expected to double this year, even before President Bush announced his goal of cutting gasoline consumption 20% in 10 years by increasing ethanol production to 35 billion gallons per year. While this goal is arguably climate-change neutral, it scores well on the renewability and energy independence sides of the ledger.
If I were a betting man, I’d also put money on the long-debated return of new nuclear power capacity as a necessary element of the United States’ energy mix. Sure, disposal of radioactive wastes still presents a challenge, but today’s far safer nuclear reactors (realized in no small part through improved control strategies), combined with zero greenhouse gas emissions, argue overwhelmingly in favor of nuclear’s resurgence.
But today, as in 1970, the biggest near-term contributor to both energy independence and managing industry’s greenhouse gas emissions is conservation. Much of the climate-change legislation now on Capitol Hill involves “cap-and-trade” schemes that, in effect, establish a free-market system and give incentives to industry to reduce carbon output.
The implications of these bills, if passed, for those of us in process automation are clear. Plant optimization algorithms will need to be reworked, defining a new operating envelope that includes carbon output as a significant economic lever. Many long-postponed capital and process control improvements will get an extra boost over their ROI hurdles. For example, industrial motors (which currently account for more than 70% of all industrial electricity use), may start to give way en masse to high-efficiency models. Replacing many inefficient pump-and-control-valve combinations with pumps driven by variable-speed drives may finally be justified.
The changing energy landscape promises to keep process automation professionals quite busy for many years to come. Now, if we can just get that potential through to a few more idealistic adolescents…