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Letters to the editor: volume 16, issue 1

Image credit: Patrick Tomasso | Unsplash

Readers' letters to E&T, covering the challenges of achieving net zero carbon emissions, public sector IT projects and engineering's ability to address environmental issues.

Challenges of achieving net zero

We need to debate the conflicts facing the UK as it grapples with ‘green’ solutions, and ‘Energy economics of the zero-carbon grid’ in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of E&T puts forward a balanced view of the different technology options.

There is a clash between popular belief that all electricity is ‘green’ and the rush to decarbonise transport and then domestic heating. According to the September 2020 Digest of UK Energy Statistics, 15.6 per cent of all energy used in the UK is consumed in the form of electricity, of which 37 per cent is ‘renewable’ as defined by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Adding the contribution from nuclear power, today’s electric cars consume, at best, 54.4 per cent ‘green’ energy. The same report indicates transport uses 29.6 per cent of all UK energy. As electric cars are less than 1 per cent of all the cars on the road, there has to be an enormous shift away from the contribution fossil fuels make to the generation of electricity if the UK is to match the expectations of being green by 2050.

While wind power is currently in vogue, where is the necessary electrical storage capacity going to come from? We see very little discussion as to how such a huge increase in electricity is to be distributed. Smart charging at petrol stations grabs headlines, but what about the most likely requirement of charging a car at home or the workplace? Are local substations capable of meeting such a demand? Moving domestic heating towards electricity will greatly add to this issue. Then there is the impact on the environment to extract the materials in this race to achieve a less polluting future.

Jack Hynds CEng FIET

By email

Covid software flaws

Ritam Ghandi’s Comment article in the December issue of E&T on government IT disasters reminded me of my amazement at finding, after failing to secure a Covid-19 test on the government website, that I was nevertheless sent emails asking about my experience of the test and getting my results. That such important software should show such a basic design flaw left me feeling disheartened.

Clearly this application had to be developed rapidly, but I doubt that the software engineers would have wanted to skimp on testing. Failure to secure an appointment is hardly an obscure exception event.

Thankfully, the ease of taxing one’s car online nowadays proves that good design can sometimes prevail in government IT.

Ryder Marsden CEng MIET

Dorking, Surrey

Iteration isn't innovation

I have to disagree with Ritam Gandhi’s otherwise excellent article where he says “The key to innovation is iterative design”. Iterative means going round a loop for continual improvement. Engineers improve a race car by putting a wing on it. Improving a house? Easy, add an extension. Improving a new software project? Easier still, just tweak it here and there. The last statement is just wrong. We don’t want to just improve IT, in many cases we need to destroy it and start again. You could call it an explosive design strategy.

Software engineers invest a great deal of time and effort in crafting and creating IT, so they are reluctant to throw it all away and start again. As a result, improvements start where the prototype finished. We have to distinguish between project speed and project velocity. The iterative development process gives us speed, but not necessarily in the right direction.

Andrew WS Ainger CEng FIET

By email

Keep it simple

Ritam Gandhi is right to berate successive governments for their dismal record in national IT programmes. I was always taught that the best technological solutions were those that were simple, cheap, reliable, maintainable, user-friendly and effective. In many industries economies of scale have brought great quality and reliability improvements at reduced cost. In computing, increased scale has often resulted in enhanced complexity and excessive cost, resulting in error, loss of function and, ultimately, failure.

As an advocate of ‘inversion thinking’, I would suggest a different way forward. For many years I was a community first-responder. Faced with a patient who was unconscious, semi-unconscious or suffering from dementia I would often be stymied in my attempts to administer first aid by not knowing the patient’s medical history or the medications they were taking. The paramedics who took over from me were similarly encumbered and more often than not took the patient to A&E as a precaution rather than as a necessity.

The NHS solution was to posit a centralised store of patient information that could be accessed by frontline staff. Simple in theory, but a nightmare in practice as the system had to interface with disparate software used in primary, secondary and tertiary care without falling foul of data-protection legislation. Using the inversion approach, the objective could in the most part be achieved by giving every patient a card on which all their essential medical details were recorded and by providing card readers to all relevant staff. Each time a patient went to a hospital, surgery or pharmacy they would enter their card in a reader to deliver any information required by NHS staff, and to have their card updated. Simple or what?

Dr Andrew Wyatt CEng MIET

Rowlands Castle, Hants

Agile isn't always the answer

The jump Ritam Gandhi makes from problem to solution is a non sequitur. While many have started to worship at the altar of Agile, its best applications are already well established; assuming it carries over to the largest single employer in Europe (the NHS) will take more than a T-shirt slogan.

What I have seen Agile fail to do well is adapt to compliance requirements – things like cyber hardening and GDPR – because they’re not an output. Factoring in the time and cost of compliance is the first casualty of poorly performing, novice and aggressive Agile teams. An enterprise solution requires an enterprise approach; the things that need to improve aren’t revolutionary, but they would be better than this.

Jonathan Parker CEng MIET

By email

February 2021 issue letters section cartoon

Image credit: E&T

Reduce emissions by using less energy

We need to reduce global warming, but at the same time, with increased electrical generation, emissions will inevitably be transferred from one area to another.

Domestic heating is a case in point. In due course, new houses will not be allowed to have gas heating. The solution to allow only electric heating using heat pumps may be logical, but how much will this increase generation requirements? We should be reducing new house heating requirements, not putting more demands on generation.

We could be building our new housing estates to a Passivhaus standard, which costs about the same to build en masse but needs only a sixth of the energy to heat. On average such houses would emit only half a tonne of carbon a year and if fitted with PV panels would be almost carbon-neutral. The main constructional differences are lower air leakage, some triple glazing, a warm air heat recovery system and a much less expensive heating system. It’s not rocket science.

Eur Ing Dr Colin Mynott

By email

Be honest about tech's limits

Dickon Ross’s claim in his editor’s letter in the November 2020 issue of E&T that “It will be technology that ultimately solves the environmental emergency” is misconceived. While technology advances in areas such as renewable energy and electric vehicles will play a significant part in reducing carbon emissions, they are certainly not sustainable in their current form. One of the fundamental issues is that such technologies have been developed as a commodity to be exploited for the purpose of profit by competing businesses. It would be naïve to think that such businesses will ever prioritise the environment over profit.

No doubt engineering will make significant advances in solving environmental issues, but if what the environmental scientists predict is true then we simply don’t have time for these technologies to mature before irreversible damage will be done.

The real solution to the environmental emergency is education – and to achieve the significant social changes required we need to be brutally honest about the role that technology has played in leading us to this position.

Rainer Hurricks MIET

By email

Virtues of bioenergy

A story on the E&T website, ‘Why British biomass energy is a burning issue for Estonia’, looks at the use of biomass for energy generation in Estonia and abroad, as well as the possible effects on the country’s forests. At the Estonian Renewable Energy Association, our aim is to eradicate fossil fuels through a mixed portfolio of different renewable energy sources.

Biomass for energy in Estonia is predominantly used in the heating sector. A significant amount is also used as firewood in rural areas. In both, it replaces fossil fuels.

Estonia’s wood and forestry industry provides demand for quality roundwood. An increase in the energy sector’s use of residues from logging, sawmills, plywood production, etc, can be linked to growth in this type of manufacturing, not the other way round.

According to a recent report from the European Academies Science Advisory Council, using forestry residues is climate-neutral or even positive. The land use, land-use change and forestry  sector in Estonia has been a carbon sink for decades.

In no terms is bioenergy among the major culprits in one of the most significant challenges of our lifetime.

Mihkel Annus

Director, Estonian Renewable Energy Association

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