Letters to the editor: volume 16, issue 2
Image credit: Patrick Tomasso/Unsplash
Readers’ letters to E&T, covering the opportunities of achieving net zero, oil’s future and how to run successful IT projects.
Exciting prospects of the path to net zero
Jack Hynds (Letters, February 2021) highlights the challenges of decarbonising our energy, yet fails to acknowledge that most solutions in terms of low-carbon generation and storage of electricity are not only well-developed technologies, but increasingly present the lowest cost to the consumer and are already being deployed at large scale.
Take wind power, for instance, which Mr Hynds points to as being ‘in vogue’. There’s a good reason for this – it’s cheap, has a plentiful resource in the UK, and in the case of the offshore variety is one of the few green-tech industries where Britain already leads the world.
In a ‘normal’, non-pandemic year UK wind farms provide around a fifth of our electricity, with new onshore projects producing power at a third of the cost of Hinkley C, without subsidy and effectively bringing down consumer cost. Of course, matching demand with electricity production will always be a challenge for National Grid, yet the roll-out of grid-connected storage systems, increased interconnection with other markets and the smarter use of electricity increasingly diminish the need for ‘baseload’, thus making more efficient use of the ‘cleaner’ legacy gas-generation assets before their ultimate phase-out.
Having spent almost three decades of my career working in the electricity industry, I have never witnessed such an exciting time as we transition to zero-carbon, a transition now rapidly accelerating as it becomes not only greener but cheaper to run our transport systems and provide heat and power for our homes, offices and industry from electricity.
As engineers it is right to identify the challenges, but we also have a deep responsibility to develop, implement and embrace solutions to bring a brighter, zero-carbon future for future generations.
Steve Macken CEng MIET
Gartocharn, West Dunbartonshire
Emergency – what emergency?
Other than mentioning the word ‘emergency’ a couple of times, at no point did I get the sense that anyone mentioned in ‘Has black gold lost its sparkle?’ (February 2021) could be described as behaving like one actually exists. As someone who accepts that human society will not survive global heating above 2°C, the premise behind the concluding paragraph is terrifying. Is it really true that we merely have “...concerns about climate or pollution...”? If the continuation of modern society depends on the price of renewables versus oil we are finished. It’s as though we have forgotten that free-market economics is nothing more than a recent convenient choice because it makes some of us richer.
The description of how the oil market is dominated by governments’ national oil companies could not make it clearer that the idea of ‘free’ markets is hysterical. The Committee for Climate Change has compared the UK government’s approach to decarbonisation to the TV comedy ‘Dad’s Army’. Its funding proposed is a tiny fraction of that needed and it is undeniable that finance is there for the taking and would be better spent on the transition away from fossil fuels. Instead we get a new deep coal mine and continued tax breaks for oil and gas. There may still be room for hope, but with current government policies optimism is fading fast.
How to deliver a project
From over 30 years of running large-scale IT projects, it is clear to me that there is no single answer to the best approach to delivery. If there was, someone would have patented it. For simple deliveries, Agile, or whatever the next equivalent is, may well be the appropriate answer. That may not be the case for large-scale, complex solutions with challenging regulatory and non-functional requirements.
Twenty years ago, having taken on a role as CIO with part of a large bank, I inherited a mission-critical programme that was in difficulty. We had a strong internal and external team, in the CEO one of the best executive sponsors I ever worked with, and total organisational focus on delivery. But things were still very tough.
Late one night I was looking out of the window at the adjacent shopping centre, which was under construction. It was the same scale (£30m) as our programme and seemed to be progressing to plan. The fundamental difference between the two programmes struck me. With building construction, the plan starts with architects, engineers, skilled contractors and tradespeople and, ultimately, people working with uniform items like bricks, cables and pipes. In IT, the most intelligent people on the project are often those building the components. And it can be hard to convince some of these to operate in a particular way.
What I have found to be consistently true is that by being honest with the CEO and the board, not overpromising, keeping the solution as simple as possible and fitting the development approach to the challenge in hand, you will be off to a good start. What is also universal is that assembling the right team to deliver the project is fundamental. If you don’t have the right people for that particular job, you may get to the end-point but it will be a lot harder and cost a lot more, regardless of the methodology.
Andy Leslie CEng MIET
Not all over for oil
While there is no doubt that we need to decarbonise our energy system, and take steps to reduce our use of oil and gas, we also need to be able to explain to society, in a responsible manner, how that will be achieved and at what pace.
We need as much renewable electricity in the energy system as we can get, but let us not forget that we don’t make things from electrons. A single wind turbine needs several hundred tonnes of oil and oil derivatives to make its turbine blades and gearbox oils, and provide insulation for its cables.
Oil demand is declining, but slowly, and the demand rate decline is actually slower than reservoir depletion rates and gas will be needed for many decades to come so exploration will continue. Using the oil price as an indicator of the health of the industry is fraught with difficulty, given the cyclical nature of the supply/demand balance that drives trading and pricing. It is much more realistic to look at demand levels. At the peak of the Covid-19 crisis, when nobody was travelling, oil demand dropped by around 15 per cent from 100 million barrels a day to 85 million barrels a day. That is still a huge quantity, and as supply/demand balances again, prices will recover; they sit around $55 per barrel as I write this. Although oil demand will recover, it will never again reach the level it was in 2019.
This is not a defence of the oil and gas industry – it needs to change rapidly, but we need to address consumption and find alternative materials with which to make the things we need as a society. Rather it is an appeal for us as engineers to be more realistic about how the energy transition will develop.
Stop thinking, start doing
It can’t be doubted that we have some major steps to take to reach net-zero for carbon by 2050, and engineers have a major role to play in that transition. It just feels to me that we’re pondering trying the find the right answer, fearful of getting it wrong before we set off. There are things we should be doing now and some we could have been doing for years and yet we’re still thinking about them.
The idea of sweeping aside all our established central heating in favour of air-source heat pumps seems a bit drastic. Not throwing away perfectly good equipment until it is worn out is always best practice for low CO2 and our existing gas system will work with 25 per cent hydrogen injected. We could then progressively improve the mix as production ramps up, adjustments are made and new equipment replaces old.
Cars have been successfully run on liquid petroleum gas, so if that works it should with modest adjustment work with hydrogen. Again, it would seem gains could be realised now using existing internal combustion engine technology and manufacturing base. That electric car outside might seem ‘clean’ and make you feel good, but extracting all those precious metals for the motor magnets, fuel cells and batteries is impacting massively on the environment and there may not be enough to go round anyway.
Brian Jenkinson MIET
Norway's Green Credentials
With reference to ‘North Sea oil: a tale of two countries’ (February 2021) I would expect to have seen in an IET magazine a more balanced article drawing from the facts of the situation. Nowhere is it mentioned that the current populations of the UK and Norway are 66.7 and 5.3 million, respectively. A factor difference of 12.5; the ratio of population densities is even greater being approximately 18. The article states that total oil and gas production of the two countries are similar.
It is not surprising that Norway is now one of the richest countries per head of population in the world with a large capital reserve. Low population-density and vast hydroelectric possibilities enable Norway to wave its green credentials. However, these are based on it exporting large quantities of carbon-producing products to the rest of the world, including the UK.
Les Peachell CEng MIET
Reasons for skills shortage
I totally agree with the issues that David Hesketh raises in his letter ‘Skills issues are nothing new’ in the February 2021 issue of E&T. There are two main reasons people leave the engineering profession for other areas of employment. First is professional recognition – everyone who can hold a screwdriver or a spanner is considered by the public to be an engineer. Second are financial issues. If you look at the salaries offered for senior positions within the UK, it is a wonder they ever get any applicants at all. I would not dispute that there are a few well-paid positions out there, but the majority offer little incentive to would-be applicants.
If companies are going to adopt an attitude that engineers are dispensable, but want to attract them, salaries will have to be increased and significantly. Professional engineers will take their skills where they are properly remunerated. This could be by changing profession or, like myself, by taking positions in other countries where engineering is appreciated.
Ray Cragg CEng
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.