A Frank Discussion: Our Planet, Humans and Engineering
Roopinder Tara posted on June 09, 2020 |
Lessons being learned in green tech from our Engineer in Chief.
Green energy? How green is chipping every tree in sight for fuel? So asks Michael Moore’s Planet of the Humans. An ethanol plant in South Dakota. (Stock photo).
Green energy? How green is chipping every tree in sight for fuel? So asks Planet of the Humans. An ethanol plant in South Dakota. (Stock photo).

Michael Moore’s movies usually generate controversy and his latest work, for which he was executive director and producer, Planet of the Humans, is no different. Planet explains how the green energy movement has accomplished little, latching onto environmental causes only to feast on public funds while making nary a dent in the consumption of fossil fuels and carbon output. Meanwhile population numbers continue to grow, demand of energy grows even faster. It doesn’t look good.

The movie was released in full on YouTube (theaters were closed due to the Coronavirus epidemic) but removed shortly thereafter for a copyright violation. “It was a technicality,” says Rolling Stone editor who interviewed Moore, implying sinister and powerful forces at work.

Green technology, with its towering windmills and hulking biofuel powerplants, finds itself lampooned in the Planet as an industry getting fat from the largesse of well-meaning concerns and governments that feel like they must do something. But what role do engineers play in green technology? Have engineers also been swept into action, drinking the Kool Aid, designing and implementing green technology? Should they subscribe to galloping pro-environment sentiment. Are they inadvertently lending their talent and ingenuity to a lost cause?

Frank Baldesarra, CEO and co-founder of engineering.com

Frank Baldesarra, CEO and co-founder of engineering.com

To find some answers to what role engineers have played, can play or should play in saving the environment, we had to go no further than to the upstairs office of Frank Baldesarra. Frank, a professional engineer with a bachelor’s in civil engineering from the University of Toronto, has a strong passion for environmental issues with over 30 years in the field. He is also a co-owner of a few technology-based businesses, including a battery management company (this will be useful in our interview) and, full disclosure, the site you are reading this on, engineering.com.

Do you think the green technology is a scam?

I wouldn’t call it a scam as there are some very good ideas and solutions on how to improve upon our sad carbon emission problem, but let’s simply follow the money for some additional insights. We all know that one of our planet’s major issues affecting everyone is climate change and that our global leaders very well know that burning fossil fuels to meet our energy needs is the primary cause. With that, every environmental group—and for that matter, everyone—expects that governments must do something. So they act the best way they know how, by spending a lot of money and provide incentives to help meet the challenges. Let’s call them very good intentions.

With $10’s of millions or even a $100’s of millions at stake, you now start seeing all sorts of ideas about greener ways to create energy. With those incentives, individuals and businesses are empowered to do something quickly and with the compressed time scales of incentives, they’ve probably not accounted for all the environmental impact of their ideas. As an example, the significant environmental impacts to natural habitats of cutting down trees and burning them for biofuel plants.

Green energy galore, but what of the energy used to create these massive machines? Look closely to see the human on top. (Stock photo)
Green energy galore, but what of the energy used to create these massive machines? Look closely to see the human on top. (Stock photo)

Let’s discuss wind turbines and biofuel plants. Wind turbines: the amount of resources used to create them is enormous, they last 15 or 20 years, and you have to dispose of them. With biomass, Planet points out that the plants are using trees for fuel. That’s hardly green, right?

Absolutely. We don't seem to look closely at the energy consumption to create the new sources of energy because we believe that there is always a short-term pain if we want a long-term gain. As seen in the documentary, if you look at the amount of energy the bio farms use to get the wood, bring the wood to the plant, and then burn it, it's just very hard to make good sense of it from an environmental perspective.

Frank, you are a co-owner in a company that produces battery management systems for green energy. Has that given you any special insights into green tech?

For a green energy solution like solar and wind to be effective during sun or wind down times, battery storage becomes a very important part of the total solution. Our engineers recently worked with one of the largest manufacturers of solar panels in Canada and when we calculated the total costs, including storing energy, of providing a complete solution to be available 24/7, we found that it was currently not practical or economical. These solutions even at scale would not provide reliable and inexpensive energy to a large area without a reasonable reliance on current forms of energy on the grid. You still need the grid as a major source of energy.

If solar and wind cannot be deployed on a mass scale, is the answer for solar or wind to be closer to where it is needed?

There is a lot of promise in solar and wind for the local uses, like partial powering of major warehouses or commercial buildings such as Walmart and Amazon facilities from roof top solar solutions. These solutions can nicely reduce peak demands on the grid during the day and therefore helping to reduce the power generation demands, but sadly, they are not economically capable of replacing the significant energy consumption of these buildings over 24 hours.

There’s a scene in Planet where the Earth Day event was to be powered purely by solar but on the day of the event, solar was not generating enough power and they had to supplement with a generator. That's reality. It would be very difficult and expensive to put on a major event without backup power as you simply cannot depend on or control the weather unless your event was mid-day and in the middle of a dessert. If it gets cloudy or the wind dies down, you're really stuck and you'd need an alternative source of power such as batteries or burning diesel or gas in a generator.

What role does government funding play in renewables?

On one hand, you have government leaders who genuinely want to see progress in reducing carbon emissions and who are pressured to do something to address the problem—and soon. On the other hand, we really have no choice but to continue to burn coal or natural gas at an incredible pace, so as a result we get some solar panels and wind turbines put in place. That helps a little and everyone sees some progress and feels a little better about the promise of going green.

Then governments that want to go green in a hurry start picking and choosing companies to throw money at—and they’ve thrown lots of money at them. But when some of the ideas and technologies start to pan out, they realize that the local energy and labor cost of producing those solutions on a mass scale is extremely high, often resulting in even more subsidies, or production leaving to lower cost regions. It’s very difficult to politically cut programs even if they are not delivering on their promise.

Let’s go back to the real problem. What is it?

The essential issue, the real problem, is the excessive carbon emissions, the burning of fossil fuels like coal, wood, natural gas and oil-based products to meet our global energy needs.

Nuclear energy may be the answer to growing demands for energy and still allow for our current standard of living, says Frank Baldesarra, CEO and co-founder of engineering.com. (Stock picture)
Nuclear energy may be the answer to growing demands for energy and still allow for our current standard of living, says Frank Baldesarra, CEO and co-founder of engineering.com. (Stock picture)

So how to reduce the carbon emissions without reducing the quality of life and do it quick enough to make a difference?

I truly believe that many countries made a very big mistake in shutting down and or in not building new nuclear power plants. Currently, nuclear energy is the most important green energy source we have that would allow us to maintain a high quality of life. Nuclear power produces a significant amount of energy with a relatively small carbon footprint and does not impact the environment nearly as much as other major sources of energy.

As an engineer, you have faith in the nuclear energy as a green energy. But let me play devil's advocate. What about the problems associated with nuclear energy? What about Three Mile Island, Chernobyl or Fukushima?

Very important lessons learned. A lot of very smart engineers and industry experts have reviewed the technologies and operations of the very many nuclear power plants in operation today, from the building of the first generation of these plants to the latest innovations and we now clearly know a lot more about the dangers and potentials of nuclear energy. Bill Gates shares with us his great insights on nuclear energy 2.0. Everyone should watch it.

[Frank is referring to Inside Bill’s Brain, a 3-part documentary on Netflix, where Part 2 covers his positive outlook on nuclear energy, where Bill also admits to being a technophile. “Any problem, I will look at how technical innovation can help solve that problem,” Gates said. “It’s the one thing I know and the one thing I’m good at. That’s my hammer. And a lot of problems look like nails because I’ve got a hammer.”]

Like virtually anything very important that is engineered and built, after many years in operation a few nuclear power plants have experienced major problems, like in the examples you presented. We need to keep things in perspective and realize that the ultimate damages were not nearly as bad as we were predicting and that we have learned a lot since then. Why would you have considered a potential tsunami from an earthquake in the middle of the Pacific when building a nuclear plant close to the ocean? Or in the case of Chernobyl, where there were significant human errors and maintenance issues. Again, all very important lessons learned, but it does not mean that nuclear energy is all bad and should be sidelined.

You’ve said it takes a team to solve the biggest problems we have. Besides engineers, who else would be part of a team?

Clearly the combination of scientists and engineers has worked wonders and solved some of our biggest challenges over the centuries. As engineers, we respect and need physicists’ and other scientists’ knowledge and ideas to help bring out the best solutions. I’d also say that government leaders are critical. You also need a strong community engagement from the whole team.

Before and after COVID-19. The air pollution obscuring the view of Delhi's India Gate has all but disappeared. (Picture courtesy of  smartairfilters.com)
What about reducing the need for power?

That’s a much more philosophical conversation. How much do we want to reduce everybody's standard of living? 20%? 50%? Can we get people to go for that? Will anyone vote for the politician who says they want us all to shut off our air conditioning during the summer months?

However, look at what happened to the earth’s pollution levels and how much lower carbon emissions were in the last few months with the COVID global shutdown. Look at how clean the air got across India and China. Maybe what we need to help solve our global climate change crisis and not reduce our standard of living is a short global shutdown every year for a month or two. The recent pictures around the world and satellite images of less greenhouse gases and dramatically reduced air pollution are incredible. And all we've done is stay at home. The Earth may even be healing. Could it be like when smokers stop, even if it’s for a month or two, they find their lungs start to get better. I trust this idea is being studied in many places around the world.

Today we've got the ability to measure the effect of reducing our activities and of realizing the dramatic impact on the environment. Imagine 30% of the workforce staying home from now on. What happens then?

People who worry the most about the economy are closely looking at the impact of working from home and maybe those who previously couldn't tolerate people staying home from work one or two days a week, or one week a month, or whatever turns out to be, are now rethinking their position. But what if working from home becomes much more embraced permanently and the hit on our economy is low while at the same time the new behavior helps fix the environment?

As a co-owner of a few companies, here’s what I am learning from these past few months of working from home. Some of our businesses are seeing increased productivity while others are about the same and others are clearly affected. In the businesses where productivity has increased or stayed about the same, we will be finding a way to retain that productivity as it could clearly reduce our costs.

I believe typical business owners like us will all try to see how this new work from home works out. We may need less office space in the future and as I would still want people to come to the office maybe once or twice a week. A shared safe space may be the new norm.

Of course, there are many people who can’t work from home. But looking at the big picture, people that partially work from home will eat better than ever, probably get healthier, will get less stressed and hopefully less prone to serious complications due to viruses like COVID-19.

We thank Frank for his insights and his time—and a chance to align sensible environmental concern and public safety with a concern for business to our normal task of informing and educating engineers.

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