Energy Supplies – Bridging the Gap to Sustainability


As concern grows around the world about the risks presented by the energy shortages that could result from a variety of sources, it is apparent that more risk mitigation concepts need to be incorporated into our infrastructure.  This will take years, decades really, and it is unclear how much attention is being paid by the corporations and governments that must create and implement the solutions to problems we are only beginning to recognize as possibilities.  I keep thinking of examples of such problems, measures that might be implemented to address them, and how things might be different 20 years from now as we (hopefully) make substantial moves towards sustainability.

How, for example, can we address the risk that sea level might rise by anywhere from a couple of feet to perhaps twenty feet in just a few years or decades?  I can foresee a time when, instead of being built just feet above sea level, new power plants, refineries, and ocean shipping terminals would be built farther inland.  Pipes and material handling systems would be designed to have the ability to be quickly (days or weeks) shortened or lengthened to reach wherever the shore might be.  The cost of building new facilities would be staggering, so as many existing facilities as possible would need major modifications to meet the challenge.  Perhaps some could be elevated on stilts or floating platforms to handle the changes.  Some could be designed to essentially be portable, with the ability to follow the shore line or even be moved to where demands might dictate they would provide the most economic benefit.

Would this change the emphasis for the civil engineering profession and construction industry responsible for the design and creation of such large scale facilities?  An increase in emphasis on design flexibility to permit inexpensive and quick expansion, changes in function, changes in location, and adaptation to new technologies would be needed. 

Though I personally would like to see more emphasis on small scale energy generation and conversion technologies, it seems that the energy companies have a lock on the promotion of their own, understandably large-scale systems.  It is especially unfortunate, in my opinion, when the profit motives of the large energy providers drives them to inhibit or discourage growth of small scale energy independence, as I believe big, centralized systems present higher risk – the “all the eggs in one basket” concept.

As long as we are committed to big energy plants, big shipping terminals, and intercontinental commerce in energy, however, I expect we will see ever larger facilities built, though some may be made smaller out of necessity to permit better flexibility or portability.  I only hope that we will see them created to operate in more ecologically friendly and efficient ways, more flexible in their inputs and outputs, more easily expanded, and with the ability to react quickly to environmental changes that could produce geographic market shifts and rapid changes in demand quantity and type.

For instance, if the ocean rose, say, three feet, it would inundate not only many energy plants and shipping terminals, but would cause mass relocation (migration) of many millions of people.   Areas now served with high volumes of energy might decline in demand fairly rapidly, while areas with previously modest requirements might see big increases in demand.   At the same time, as new shipping facilities were constructed, the establishment of new shipping channels would become an additional challenge, as river and estuary bottoms would require re-mapping.  New power lines and pipe lines would need to be constructed, using as much of the existing infrastructure as possible.  Perhaps some facilities and components could be moved (refinery equipment, power substations and transformers, for example) but plans need to be in place, and equipment ready, before the fact.

To accomplish this, the quantification and forecasting of risks needs to be ever more rigorous and comprehensive, and the companies who would be most impacted need to be working now to establish a state of flexible readiness.  Environmental changes will occur, whether it is global warming or cooling, rising or falling seas, increased hurricanes or drought, and I look to see the business world responding, but understand that the short planning horizon, driven by stock markets, for example, has prevailed in the past.  The planning horizon must lengthen, and judicious preparation must be trumpeted publicly as a differentiating, competitive advantage.  That is a change in the business culture that will be needed to enable movement towards flexible and sustainable energy infrastructure.

Because we can’t foresee the exact nature of future changes, scientists must continue to work to not only predict, but quantify AND PUBLICIZE the possibilities in ways that enable industry to justify planning for flexible and cost effective responses.  Given the time scales involved in the establishment of new facilities and infrastructure, which can take decades, the planning and accumulation of needed resources should be going on now, along with the needed changes in attitudes.  As the public are investors in (and essentially owners of) these companies, we need to demand evidence of movement towards sustainability and invest more in and thereby reward the corporations who demonstrate commitment to that movement.  I believe this will be a key component in the movement of our energy supplies towards sustainability.

Your thoughts?

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