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Electricity. In the developed world, electricity is simply interwoven into our lives to the point where most people don’t think about it unless it’s suddenly not there. Although it often gets a bad rap for when blackouts and other disruption events occur, let’s not forget that national and international electricity systems (especially the one in the US and Canada) are often called the largest “machines” in the world. Considering their size and the number of interconnected parts, electricity systems work impressively well. The fact that most people don’t think about electricity except for the moments it’s not there is arguably evidence of that. In recognition of this impressive “machine”, ‘electrification’ was named the top engineering achievement as ranked by the National Academy of Engineering’s ‘Greatest Engineering Achievements of the 20th Century’!
So, is the electrical grid broken? Arguably (which I will not do here), no.
Is there a strong desire to upgrade the system so it operates better and more efficiently? Yes.
For me, this is the connection to the Design Impact blog, and I’d like to thank Dr. James Allison for inviting me to write a guest entry about the smart grid. The smart grid will ultimately have many levels of design. How should we design the smart grid? How should we design the consumer products that will interact with the smart grid? How do we design the evolution to the smart grid while continuing to operate the grid in whatever state it is currently in? With apologies to whoever said this originally (as I have forgotten), an analogy I particularly like is that upgrading the current grid to the smart grid on the fly is effectively equivalent to changing the engine on a commercial jet while it’s flying.
Designing and managing the smart grid evolution will be a huge challenge, although not insurmountable. Ultimately, designing the underlying enabling infrastructure for the smart grid will be key. At the moment, we simply aren’t sure which technologies or systems will work best for the smart grid. To address this, I am a firm believer in experimenting and trying new technologies in demonstration projects, which is precisely the point made recently by Patricia Hoffman, DOE’s assistant secretary for electricity delivery and reliability. The Smart Grid Investment Grants are certainly a solid start at funding some experimental smart grid designs. Some ideas will work, some won’t. As these demonstration projects progress, there will be a desire to keep what works and jettison what doesn’t on the fly, meaning that the smart grid will always be in a state of transition. So, how do we design the smart grid to continuously operate under continuous change?
I return to my point earlier that the underlying enabling infrastructure will be key. One effort to help support this goal is the monumental task being spearheaded by NIST to establish communication standards for the smart grid. Among other things, smart meters, utility energy management systems, home energy management systems, and even appliances will need to be able to ‘talk’ with one another. The full spectrum of devices that will connect to the smart grid will almost certainly come from more than one manufacturer, much like a multitude of devices connects seamlessly to the Internet. Establishing communication and interoperability standards is thus critically important for innovation to flourish on the smart grid just as it has on the Internet.
Smart meters are also undoubtedly a key enabling piece of the smart grid’s evolution. Electricity usage is read off of older meters at a frequency of at most once a month, whereas these smart meters will be read on the order of a few minutes to hourly. With this more frequent feedback of electricity usage, electricity customers will have a better understanding of how much electricity they use and at what times they use it. However, smart meters are just a starting point, and as a few utilities have found out, there will be some growing pains along the way as we transition into the smart grid.
These growing pains are likely part of what was behind a recent announcement that had the smart grid world buzzing: the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) turned down Baltimore Gas and Electricity’s smart meter rollout proposal. Personally, I think the Maryland PSC made the right call for reasons along the lines of what Chris King discusses in an article for SmartGridNews (which is a smart grid newsletter that I recommend perusing for anyone interested in easy reading and quick introductions to the many movers and shakers in the smart grid space). It’s not that the Maryland PSC doesn’t support the smart grid. Quite the opposite, I believe. My interpretation of their reasoning is simply that ‘we like where you’re going, but we think your smart grid system design should be better.’ Designing these systems is, frankly, going to be hard. Some pieces, like smart meters, are necessary enablers of the smart grid, but there is much more to truly make the system work. There are many questions to answer as well. Among them, how will customers react in the long run to smart meters, real-time electricity information and possibly time-varying pricing? Will the new smart grid system truly operate more efficiently than the old system? Again, one of the best ways to find this out in my mind is to try out some ideas through demonstration projects, just as Patricia Hoffman suggested.
I’ll stop here for this entry and return at a later date with some thoughts on one or more of the other pieces of the smart grid. I welcome any comments, questions or suggestions of which topic or topics to discuss next.
Once again, many thanks to Dr. James Allison for providing me the opportunity to write this guest entry for his Design Impact blog. Have a great day, everyone!
This week is National Engineering Week, and today is Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day. There are events across the U.S. throughout this week focused on both encouraging students to consider engineering as a profession, and to help everyone deepen their understanding of what the profession of engineering is about. In Boston we had a two-day long program with design competitions, career guidance, and a career fair. What are some e-week events happening near you?
While I’m certainly an advocate of encouraging more students to consider engineering as a profession, I’m especially interested in e-week as an opportunity for the public to learn what engineering is about: what engineering has done in the past to help humanity, and the potential it has to address some of society’s most pressing present challenges. In fact, emphasis on the role of engineering in society could stimulate more interest in engineering as an attractive career choice. Senator Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), the only engineer in the Senate, explained recently that one of the road blocks in encouraging more students to pursue science and engineering careers is that they “don’t view engineering and science as the way to make a difference”, but then points out several critical issues that depend on a strong engineering workforce, including energy and economic recovery.
A clear theme throughout Design Impact articles is the positive impact engineers have on humanity. What do you see as the most important issues today that call for engineering solutions? How can we communicate best to students that a career in engineering is an opportunity to make an important difference?
Frank Wicks gives a nice history of the “Oil Age” in this month’s issue of Mechanical Engineering magazine. His article traces the rise of petroleum in modern society, and discusses challenges we face today. He describes early medicinal uses of petroleum by Seneca Indians, the first commercial drilling, and the transition to ubiquitous petroleum use. In the early stages of the oil age, kerosene for lighting was a dominant petroleum product, and natural gas and gasoline were wasted byproducts. In 1879, “Thomas Edison predicted the end of oil when he invented the light bulb”, but this was of course on the heels of internal combustion engines and the phenomenal expansion of petroleum consumption that helps fuel our modern economy.
Wicks discusses how oil supplies are bounded: “Although oil has been found … at many locations, it should always be recognized to be a finite resource because we can burn it far faster than nature can replace it.” In fact, this issue was recognized very early on. Wicks explains that “Henry Ford feared that gasoline from oil would not last long enough to sustain a rapidly growing auto industry, and started research for alternatives.” While there has been enough gasoline to fuel a booming auto industry for more than a century, it will not last forever. Some predict that we are near peak oil, evidenced by the current production rates and the declining rate of discovery. Estimates of how much longer petroleum supplies will last vary widely. Wicks cites one estimate that postulates that:
…the world started the Oil Age with about two trillion barrels of recoverable oil. About half of that has been extracted. The remaining trillion barrels represent about a 30-year supply at the current rate of consumption and will be much more difficult to recover. The fundamental problem is that oil is too good. It is required for most things that we do. The alternatives are mostly inferior or less acceptable. Adapting to the next half and the end of the Oil Age may be the greatest challenge our civilization has ever had to face.
Regardless of how much is actually left, the amount is finite and irreplaceable. It will be increasingly difficult (and damaging) to recover, meaning that we will not be able to keep up current rates of consumption. In addition, we rely on petroleum for far more than fuel. It is feedstock for countless products (think of how many things are made using petroleum-derived plastics and chemicals). It may not happen tomorrow, or perhaps not even in some of our lifetimes, but at some point petroleum will become scarce and very expensive. How are we going to transition to alternatives? Clearly, the earlier we start, the easier the transition will be. And if we curtail petroleum use for fuel sooner than later, then perhaps we can prolong the transition to alternatives for petroleum-derived plastics and chemicals.
Wicks’ article focused on the issue of petroleum finiteness, which is only one factor compelling us to curb consumption. When we combine finiteness with national security, climate change, and other relevant issues, it’s clear we need to take action and make rapid progress. We’ve grown accustomed to the ease of oil, and change to something different can intimidating, but these changes can also be exciting opportunities to create a cleaner, more sustainable world to live in. These changes could even be liberating, leading to better quality of life for more people.
One interesting aspect of this article is its audience: engineers. It’s essential that this audience recognizes the importance of moving (quickly) toward a sustainable way of living. Engineers are the folks who can develop the alternatives we need. But creating alternatives won’t automatically make society sustainable; alternatives need to be implemented and used widely. The rest of us need to support efforts to create complete solutions that combine technical advances with the right public policy, the right incentives, and enough popular support to help wean us off petroleum (and other unsustainable practices). Supporting these efforts is an important way to amplify our individual impact.
Guest blogger Greg Kushmerek continues his series of articles on bike commuting:
Someone I like to follow on-line is Andy Kessler. He’s a financial journalist and author of sorts who’s written a few books and used to run a hedge fund. He’s very practical, has an excellent sense of the arbitrary nature of “value”, and I’ve come to realize as I’ve followed him that he seems to hate cyclists, or at least cycling evangelists.
Andy’s made a few comments denigrating, really almost fearing, a vision of the future where cars are not dominant and cyclists such as me have “won”. He has a real distaste of a future where everyone lives in densely populated areas in order to make a greener place. If I’ve read him correctly, he thinks that would attack the very nature of what it means to be American — that having onerous burdens that force people to live in cities would create a society devoid of innovation.
There are some great areas for discussion in that position, the first and foremost being that it’s a real concern shared by many people who would rather not have to face arriving at work sweaty from a summer ride with dirty hands from trying to rebuild a snapped chain. That little saddle doesn’t sound as appealing as a cushy leather seat and air conditioning (or heat in winter). How do you reach these people? If you can’t, are you going to force them towards that vision via government regulation?
Now Andy has a sharp wit and it’s very tempting to point out that the proper market-oriented answer is that rich people like him would ultimately pay teams of people like me to come out to his vast estate and cart him around in our little cycling paradise. The ruling class could grow to a race of Jaba-The-Hut proportions and lord it over the rest of us.
However it’s at this point I think one should step back and look at this from a more practical standpoint: could the cycling vision really work in America? I’ve previously mentioned that The Netherlands only oriented itself to cycling in the 1960s, which implies that with enough will the same kind of thing can happen elsewhere. The problem with that position is that it ignores what 40 years of infrastructure development in the USA have created: a population spread out over a wide area, much bigger than tiny Holland.
Think about it: if the Feds suddenly put out bike friendly infrastructure and created an economic environment more favorable to cycling, what would it mean? My city condo would go up in value as some people would find my dense neighborhood more attractive, but plenty of people in the suburbs and exurbs would neither want to move or appreciate a reduction in their own property values. The houses in far flung places won’t magically disappear and the communities won’t just transplant themselves. Some people hate dense areas and generations have grown up in spacious suburbs. People will still live in places with long roads in between their destinations. They’ll start driving more efficient four-wheeled vehicles before they move. You don’t have to be especially bright to see the real implications.
In this kind of environment, what do you do to make cycling more attractive in suburban areas? Bike lanes are ridiculous on most roads since they’re plenty wide enough. It’s the main connecting roads that you have to think about. Should there be bike lanes on those? Should there be more “bike stops” so people can duck out of the rain? One policy I like, that would make some people howl, is to reduce the percentage of car use on those main arterial roads by 40%. Shove cars in narrower lanes in the middle, put up some raised granite separators on the outside, and make the space from the granite to the side of the road exclusive to cyclists and mopeds.
Maybe you could buy them out? The Great Smokies National Park used to be plots of private farmland until the 1930’s. We spent the 60’s using eminent domain to raze the center of cities and put in highways. Should we now use those same policies to reverse engineer what’s in place?
In the end, this only confirms Andy’s fear. The houses won’t get any closer if you force the roads to be more cycling friendly. Not everyone will leave and those who do will not do it all at once. Some business will not want to expand into suburban areas if the government creates market conditions more favorable to denser cities or exurbs. While I think that this kind of environment won’t stifle innovation — it will enhance it as people rush to fill voids that a new market condition creates — that’s cold comfort to Andy’s point of view.
Still, I am vexed over what to do with all of those suburbs. You can’t simply say “too bad”. The political backlash would kill pro-cycling integration policies if those policies became onerous to suburban living. Yes you can create market conditions that encourage people to give that existence up, but you need to think of ways to accommodate those who do not switch. After all, even the most avid suburban cyclist is likely to have a car for errands.
Guest blogger Greg Kushmerek continues his series of articles on bike commuting:
A key design tip in the world of print is consistency: keep consistent design elements in place. People recognize a designed page as “belonging” to the overall product. Apply this to the physical world and you get predictability, and that’s good for something like traffic management.
We don’t have enough predictability on today’s roads, however, for drivers or cyclists. For example: should bikes be subject to all rules of the road, or should they have their own set? Aside from the fact that some cyclists create their own rules, I have seen plenty of examples where bikes have been given the right to do things that cars cannot.
For example: it’s the law in Massachusetts that bikes can pass cars on the right so long as the local town or city hasn’t explicitly outlawed the practice. Pass someone on the right in a car, and you’re subject to a ticket (it was the first one I ever got when I was a teen). Of course, few people know this — I once had someone try to use his car as a rolling roadblock to prevent me from going down the right side.
More signage would help as would other aids to navigation. Intersections can have bike traffic lights or bike signs explicitly dictating what cyclists may do. Signs in advance of major intersections could warn cyclists and drivers that the road is about the change and thus the dynamics are about to be different.
Consider bike lanes again: the non-uniformity of how they appear, how long they last, on what kinds of roads you’ll see them all lead to ambiguity. Ambiguity in traffic is bad. When are they solid lines? When are they dashed lines that allow cars in them? And, as I previously mentioned, how close to the side of the road are they? I personally prefer the idea of redefining the idea of a road to be partly a place where cars travel and then partly a place where “other things” happen. Some roads are generously wide enough that you can cut out eight feet from the side, leave six feet for parking, a foot of space, and the last foot be available for bike lanes. Consistent marking would make it clear where moving cars do and do not belong, and people would form new habits.
What about sidewalks? Any cyclist who’s spent enough time on the road has been asked, rhetorically, “Why don’t you go back on the sidewalk where you belong?” (Presumably, the thought of a cyclist rapidly sneaking up on a baby stroller is more appealing to these drivers than having to share the road.) Just when is it a good time to be on a sidewalk? Ever? Never? I think they’re even more dangerous for cyclists than most roads, but the laws here are also quite mixed even encouraging cyclists to use sidewalks.
I think it’s time to consider a federal-level set of guidelines tied to highway and road funding. Signage, lane width, location, requirements on which kinds of roads should have bike lanes, consistent rules — all of this can come right down and level the playing field to create the predictability we need on the roads. It won’t stop cars from complaining about bikes on the roads, but hopefully it will move their complaints over how someone is biking on the roads and not whether someone should be biking on the road.
Steiner predicts that as fuel prices climb, we will become less of a disposable society, and migrate to denser, more interactive living arrangements. Air travel may not be economically viable for most of us, and travel by rail will grow in popularity (look at nations in Europe or Asia with high-speed rail infrastructure for examples). Other positive changes include more exercise in people-centered (as opposed to car-centered) communities, cleaner air, better (local) food, and improved health. And let’s not forget one of my favorite impacts: increased popularity of cycling.
In addition to environmental and health benefits, curbing petroleum consumption is a national security issue. This video features retired generals and others discussing a recent report from CNA that ‘explores the impact of America’s energy choices on our national security policies’. Vice Admiral Richard Truly, USN (Ret.), discussed the urgency of helping improve public knowledge about energy use, and the importance of resolving our energy situation. General Chuck Wald, USAF (Ret.), explained that Americans must realize that our energy situation is not going to take care of itself without us being a part of it. The link to national security alone could be motivation enough to take action.
The transition to higher fuel prices and lower consumption will certainly be painful, and hurt more for certain segments of the population than others. Should we wait for fuel prices to rise due to market forces and adapt then, or should we take some preemptive action to ease the transition? A phased-in fuel tax could be used to fund required infrastructure changes, as well as investments in technology that will enable us to enjoy a high standard of living on far less petroleum. Revenues could also be used to assist those struggling most with the transition to higher fuel prices. Instituting a U.S. fuel tax would funnel revenue into infrastructure and investments that benefit Americans, whereas waiting for market forces to drive up fuel prices will instead boost revenue for oil producers. Automakers actually support a fuel tax, hoping that it will stabilize fuel prices so they can invest in advanced technologies with more confidence in future demand for energy efficient vehicles. The main question here is not whether fuel prices will increase, but would we rather transition with foresight and a strategy, or just wait until we are forced into reacting. The former option would certainly be less painful, and would leave us in a much better position after the transition.
A strategic transition would require a substantial fuel tax (or a price floor), but this appears to be politically impossible right now. What do you think it would take for U.S. citizens to support an appropriate fuel tax?
A few weeks ago Congress sent a letter to the presidents of the National Academy of Engineering, National Academy of Science, and the Institute of Medicine, seeking advice on steps our nation should take to strengthen our research universities. You can download a pdf of the letter here. The letter describes how long-term research has contributed to our “social and economic well-being”, and has made possible the high American standard of living. The authors express concern that our research universities are at risk, and pose this question:
What are the top ten actions that Congress, state governments, research universities, and others could take to assure the ability of the American research university to maintain the excellence needed to help the United States compete, prosper, and achieve national goals for health, energy, the environment, and security in the global community of the 21st century?
If you were to respond to this letter, what would you say to Congress? What actions do you think we should take? What are your thoughts on what is at stake?
Guest blogger Greg Kushmerek continues his series of articles on bike commuting:
There’s a lot of arguments out there about whether bike lanes are good or bad, and a lot of the arguments against them seem to come down to “They create more problems for cyclists than they solve”. Perhaps that’s an oversimplification, but it’s an opinion I agree with with when looking at many implementations of bike lanes in my own area.
Consider Boston. Boston really should be a great biking city. It’s not that small, has lots of parks, fairly wide roads, and isn’t all that hilly right in the city area. However, biking in the city feels risky. The few attempts to put in bike lanes have simply stunk. The first bike lane I’m aware of is behind Jamaica Pond on Perkins Street. There’s some parking between the curb and the bike lane, and then the parking lane ends and the bike lane takes over. What happens is this: people fill up all the parking spaces and then just park right over the bike lane when parking runs out.
Now you can point your fingers at the Boston Transportation Department or Boston Police Department and say that they should be out there doing more ticketing, but that ignores the larger point. The implementation stinks. The bike lane competes with parking in a highly desirable location. The bike lane could have been one foot further out, eating into the regular road. This would make it clearer that there’s a real lane there. The lane could be using different paint than the simple white lines that, everywhere else in the city, denotes the shoulder.
Worse still is that the placement of the bike lane puts cyclists in a zone of danger. People come in and out of that area with their cars all the time to go walk around the park (yes, they drive to the pond to go jogging, but I’m not going there today — at least Massachusetts has the 2nd lowest rate of obesity in the country today). In other words, the risk of a cyclist getting doored is pretty good.
Imagine if the federal government had a law giving states and municipalities the incentive to put in bike lanes only if those lanes had little boxes all alongside them that randomly punched out at passing cyclists? That’s kind of what’s happening today. If you are resurfacing a road, you can ask the feds to chip in on the cost, which they’ll gladly consider if you agree to spray on some bike lanes.
So here we are: you have local transportation departments taking the cash and laying down lines about as close to the side of the road as they can get it, regardless of the parking situation. In Cambridge, MA, this led to a cyclist’s death a couple of years ago when a female cyclist in her lane on Mass Ave was doored and fell to the ground in front of a passing bus.
I don’t think this automatically makes all bike lanes bad. I think that bike lanes are a really good thing when they’re done correctly. I point to The Netherlands as one such example of doing these things well frequently, but this time I don’t have to look so far. Right in Newton, on Beacon Street, the town effectively cut the road in half by making a shoulder out of what was an unofficial second lane. It’s not now considered a bona fide bike lane, but that’s how it’s frequently used by many commuters and college students. Parking is limited and where there is parking, a passing cyclist has enough space to get around the car and not be in traffic.
I’d like to see more of this, and I’d like to see the feds put in some guidelines on just how a bike lane gets implemented rather than having them simply hand over a check.
What do you think makes a successful bike lane? How can the policy be better?
When you hear someone is an engineer, what is your first thought? Are these poor souls cursed with “The Knack”?
Or, does something else come to mind? There is a lot of talk about technological solutions to energy and other sustainability problems, but who actually makes all of this happen? We need policy makers to create an environment conducive to investment, innovation, and implementation, but we also need creative people who have a grounded understanding of how to make things work (i.e., engineers).
When I was at the IESS Conference last month, I heard Chuck Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering, speak of the concerning state of engineering education in the U.S. (you can download his slides here). He explained that the graduation rate for engineering in the U.S. is lagging substantially, which “does not bode well for our future”. He described the 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering (a topic for another article), which is a set of critical problems facing our world that require engineering solutions. We need more engineers to tackle these challenges, several of which involve sustainability and energy issues.
Chuck Vest spoke of studies that aimed at understanding why so few Americans pursue engineering as a profession. One question that was asked of college students in these studies was “why aren’t you studying engineering?”. A popular response was “because I want to make the world better”. Clearly this is a failure in communication; engineers can have a profound positive impact on the world and create lasting value. Why is there a disconnect? Why don’t our youth see engineering as a way to make our world better? What can we do to inspire more Americans to become part of the technological solution so that we can build a better future and reestablish America’s leadership role in science and engineering? Have a look at this video and this post for a few ideas.
Vest proclaimed that we must get the word Engineer back into the vernacular. Engineering needs to be a more common topic of conversation. We need to somehow remake the perception of engineers. I believe this requires action on two fronts. Obviously we need to get the public more interested and excited about engineering, not just absorbed with enjoying the fruits of engineering. In addition, perhaps we need to adjust what engineering is. For example, a common theme at IESS was to address problems holistically, not just from a narrow disciplinary view. We can’t just design technical solutions in a bubble, ignoring relationships with other aspects of the world. The problems we are facing are growing too complex to continue with that approach. We need renaissance engineers: people who are skilled in more than one discipline. We need engineers who can focus on solving important societal problems, and who are willing to learn about and engage with other disciplines outside engineering (e.g., economics, psychology, public policy, etc.). Taking a whole-systems approach to solving these socio-technical problems will lead to much better solutions, and perhaps will improve public perception of engineering and it’s role in improving the world.
Paul Krugman, Professor of Economics at Princeton, summarizes what the passing of the Waxman-Markey bill would mean to Americans in a short NPR interview. He explains how it will help us take into account the cost of global warming into the economy, providing incentives to change how we produce and consume energy (see my article on externalities for more on this). He says that the overall number of jobs will remain about the same, but the mix of jobs will be different. Krugman says he would bet his Nobel prize that the climate bill would not cost Americans much financially (he says serious studies conclude it would cost most families less than the value of a postage stamp per day), but was not willing to bet his Nobel prize that the bill would save the world, explaining that it may not be enough. In fact, some members of Congress opposed the bill because they felt it was not aggressive enough. Several environmental groups, including Greenpeace, also oppose the bill for the same reason.
How does all of this relate to design? While many exciting technologies are emerging that help us use less energy and produce it more sustainably, these technologies only make it to market if they make economic sense. To invest in a new renewable energy project, for example, a business case must be made. If we include the true, long-term costs of fossil fuel derived energy, some renewable energy sources are clearly the right choice. While many engineers and others are concerned about sustainability and interested in energy efficiency and renewable energy, this concern is not enough to produce the large-scale shift to sustainability we need. We need to create an economic environment that supports substantial, continued investment that will accelerate the development and deployment of clean energy technology.
I hear many folks talking about what individual choices they can make to reduce their carbon footprint or live more responsibly. I hear support for wind and solar energy. Consumers are starting to consider ‘greenness’ in purchasing decisions. But oft times there seems to be a disconnect when it comes to making collective choices that will bring about substantial change, much more than what individual choices will procure. We need to shift our collective support from status quo energy systems to new energy strategies that will carry us (and the natural world) through successfully for generations to come. The innovative spirit and talent is there, waiting to rise to the challenge. It will lie relatively dormant until citizens make the clarion call for strong incentives and bold policy that will empower engineers and others to accelerate the metamorphosis of our energy, transportation, and agricultural systems.
Waxman-Markey is not ideal. It may not be enough. But perhaps it will give Americans a taste of the exciting progress that can be made when we focus and guide our efforts in the right direction. Perhaps after this first taste we will be willing to move beyond this first step.