Engineers Are the Creative Minds Behind Critical Climate Tech Innovations
As we put electrification into transportation and other industrial processes, we will build new industries and new companies.
Note: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and/or interview subject and do not represent positions of IEEE.
Sir Jim McDonald1, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, and a noted renewable energy expert, declares the Paris Agreement2 targets as the challenge of the 21st century. Sir Jim’s approach revolves around five points, with engineers at its center.
This system begins with acknowledging the three competing forces of decarbonization, affordability, and reliability (or security) across the energy system, representing the so-called “Trilemma.” We’ve seen how fragile energy reliability can be, and so all countries want to ensure they can source energy without crisis.
“Added to these three forces,” Sir Jim explains, “is the notion of economic opportunity. A new energy industry based on renewables and major infrastructure expansion to accommodate large-scale electrification will have to be built, which will essentially involve rewiring the power grids around the world. As we put electrification into transportation and other industrial processes, we will build new industries and new companies. It is critical that we have economic opportunities that drive energy innovation forward.”
The fifth component of Sir Jim’s five-point plan is public engagement. An informed and engaged public will drive the acceptance of new technologies vital to achieving net-zero targets by 2050 per the Paris Agreement.
Scotland provides a microcosm of this five-point approach with its push toward wind as the primary source of renewable energy. Since the early 2000s, Scotland has been on a path to develop wind farms, both on and off shore. Today, these farms deliver the equivalent of nearly 100% of its electricity demand. Capturing the full off-shore wind potential will require new infrastructure, skills, and businesses anchored in economic value for the region.
Significantly, the pioneering floating wind farm in Eastern Scotland3 is the result of knowledge transferred from over 50 years of oil production and the implementation of new engineering solutions and technologies. Insights on the innovation were presented in a paper at the 2018 International Conference on Renewable Energy Research and Applications (ICRERA4), of which IEEE is a co-sponsor.
In the five-point systems approach, engineers need to consider energy storage when addressing wind sources. Dr. Joydeep Mitra5, IEEE Fellow, discussed the “Use of Energy Storage for Reliability Generation” as part of a May 2022 webinar organized by IEEE UK and Ireland Power and Energy Society Chapter, and hosted by the University of Birmingham IEEE Student Branch6. Prof. Mitra illustrated the use of augmented wind farms, concluding with an explanation of how energy storage can be used to improve the reliability of wind energy.
Engineers are the creative minds behind projects like these and many others around the world. Solving the sizable challenge of placing wind turbines in the sea, by drawing from the maritime industry’s experience with floating platforms and designing a novel HVDC (high-voltage direct current) subsea grid system, is an example of the five-point system in action.
Sir Jim sees IEEE as a catalyst for enabling the transition to renewable energy. By bringing together brilliant engineering minds from across the world, IEEE is uniquely positioned to convene discussions and share knowledge that promotes solutions that help yield an equitable transition for all parts of the world. IEEE is also an independent trusted resource, he says.
“Engineers tend to make a proposition, provide the evidence and the argument for it, and then give a pathway to a solution that can be implemented to improve the system they’re looking at. IEEE members have a systems frame of mind and can provide evidence-based solutions of engineering expertise,” says Sir Jim.
Looking to the future, Sir Jim is optimistic about the next generation. “Young people have a sense of obligation to do what’s right for their environments and the planet, in general. These young people see the issues and will be the generation to provide the innovations to solve problems brought on by climate change in all parts of the world. I advise young people to get into engineering because it’s about improving people’s lives and to make a difference.”
Engineers make things possible. In collaboration with policymakers who are dedicated to a just transition and in concert with an engaged public, Sir Jim believes they will help us reach our net zero targets by 2050.
Related links: Sir Jim McDonald’s TEDx talk from December 2021. McDonald, S.J. (2021). A systems engineering approach to delivering Net Zero by 2050. [online] www.ted.com. Available at: https://www.ted.com/.