A new engineering discipline developed by a renewable energy expert aims to make transitioning to a sustainable future as routine as safety engineering.
Imagine you’re standing on the deck of the Titanic on 12 April, 1912. You know that in three days’ time, the ‘unsinkable’ ship will hit an iceberg and go down. Wouldn’t you do everything in your power to stop it?
Mechanical engineer Dr Susan Krumdieck, Chair in Sustainable Energy Transition Engineering at Scotland’s Heriot-Watt University, believes engineers should take the same approach to climate change mitigation.
“If you actually had all the information, there’s no way you could not act on it,” Krumdieck told create ahead of her appearance at the Climate Smart Engineering conference in November.
“If you could just get the captain to slow down or change course, or if you could get the architect to admit that this whole ‘unsinkable’ thing might not be true, that could make a difference.”
But the real trick would be to convince the 50 stokers shovelling coal into the Titanic’s boilers that despite their instructions to go full steam ahead, they should slow down.
“Obviously we don’t want to sink the ship, so we have to shovel slower,” Krumdieck said.
“There is a distinct possibility that a very small number of people could save everyone. And it’s also possible that we might never know they did it.”
In the climate change example, energy engineers are that small number of people. They make up less than two per cent of working people on the planet yet have the power to change society’s course by generating a downshift in the production and use of fossil fuels.
“There’s nobody in a position to actually do what needs doing like engineers, because all of our fossil fuel use is produced by, and used in, complex, engineered, global systems,” Krumdieck said.
“They’re the ones who know the systems that must change, and could change them, and figure out how to do it economically and develop new business opportunities in doing so.”
Writing the book
Krumdieck’s research has shown that the way to create this change is to ensure transitioning to a sustainable future is standard engineering practice — just as engineers adhere to safety standards.
She has developed a new discipline — transition engineering — which is the practice of achieving changes to meet sustainability targets. It is based on the premise that only holistic change will slow the ship, and engineers are best placed to generate that change and help society adapt.
“We patterned the whole concept on safety engineering,” Krumdieck said. “The path-breaking idea 100 years ago was to identify hazards and change what needs to change to prevent what is preventable, because it’s your job.
“Safety engineering led to a radically different world than we would otherwise have, and it was engineering that did it. Policy and economics realised the benefits, and safety standards were included in regulations decades after engineers made the changes.”
While engineering students might take few classes on sustainability at university, Krumdieck said the aim is that transition engineering, like safety, is integrated into all aspects of the profession, by requiring that a reduction in carbon is part of the concept generation phase of all projects.
She has written a textbook on the subject, Transition Engineering: Building a Sustainable Future, which provides a reasoning and methodology for engineers to follow. The Global Association for Transition Engineering (GATE), which Krumdieck co-founded, has accredited online courses that teach transition engineering concepts, tools and the methodology. The first course launched in April this year.
The courses, which include a six-module class for engineers and a four-week short course open to everyone, are currently available through the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, where Krumdieck taught for 20 years.
“We have a simple problem definition approach, a seven-step methodology and a set of tools that engineers can learn in a couple of weeks,” she said.
“Engineers follow standards, which is why working groups in GATE are working to write transition engineering standards for due diligence steps like evaluation of net zero claims, energy return on energy invested and material resource responsibility. So you don’t even have to think about it — you don’t have to care about the planet to save the planet. You just have to follow the standards.”
After devoting her career to researching sustainable energy, it was a question from her son that caused Krumdieck to take stock. He was worried about climate change and asked whether the technologies she worked on, such as solar energy, would solve the problem.
“I had to answer honestly, and I said that actually, no they won’t,” Krumdieck said.
“Our work on sustainability was part of business as usual and it hadn’t changed the high-risk trajectory. What we needed to do was change what we were already doing.”
Rather than continue to work on ‘sustainable’ projects, transition engineering posits that engineers have a duty of care to reduce fossil fuel production and use as part of their day jobs — across all industries and projects.
Krumdieck said engineering is the perfect profession to do this, not only because of the technical expertise, but because engineers are required to continually learn from past mistakes.
“You can have policies that help … But the truth is that the engineered systems to produce and consume fossil fuels have a failure mode, and in engineering, when we discover an unintended failure mode, we correct,” she said.
“For example, when a fault in the steering mechanism of a vehicle model is discovered, the vehicle is recalled and an engineering correction is implemented. You don’t say things like, ‘If we want to not die from this faulty steering mechanism, then consumers must not turn to the right, and politicians should put a tax on turning to the right’.
“Transition engineering would have a high impact because everyone follows the same standard methodology using the same language, and standardised methodologies are the engineering superpower,” Krumdieck added.
“If enough people do the transition training, the education, we could start to see change within a few short years.”
Engineers also have something powerful — trust from the community.
“It’s a big resource, it’s a thing we can use,” she said.
“Change engineering, you change the future.”