Saturday, October 16, 2010

Making Renewable Energy Work is a Systems, Not an Engineering Challenge

By David Rosenbaum

Renewable energy, specifically wind power, is very much in the news today, and the news is mixed. The Boston Globe on Oct. 10 revealed that when (or if) the proposed 130 turbines of the Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound begin generating electricity, it will cost up to “twice as much” as hydroelectric power and raise the average New Englander’s monthly bill about two percent. Two days later, the New York Times reported that Google was investing almost two billion dollars to build an energy transmission infrastructure for a proposed giant offshore wind farm stretching from New Jersey to Virginia.


Neil Snyder, Executive Director, Systems Engineering and Program Integration at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory spoke on Oct. 5 to the System Design and Management (SDM) cohort as part of SDM’s Industrial Relations Committee speaker series.

Clearly, Google thinks wind power will someday be profitable. Just as clearly, we’re not there yet. Fossil fuel consumption is still rising, as are CO2 emissions. Fossil fuels are still cheaper than renewables, and look to remain that way for some time, a point vividly made by Neil Snyder speaking Oct. 5 to the System Design and Management (SDM) cohort as part of SDM’s Industrial Relations Committee speaker series. Snyder, Executive Director, Systems Engineering and Program Integration at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), believes the normal timeline for technology and systems evolution will not be fast enough to provide the U.S. with the sustainable energy it needs to end the environmental depredations of fossil fuels, free it from the price volatility caused by oil dependency, and bring an end to the global instability brought about by the oil economy.

“The Wright brothers flew in 1903,” Snyder said. “It took 30 years before a commercial aviation industry was established . We haven’t got 30 years.”

The mission of NREL, a MIT Partner organization, is to bring renewable energy to widespread use by accelerating the development cycle. In order to do that, Snyder told the SDM cohort, he needs them.

“We need to overcome a great deal of inertia,” said Snyder. “Industry is resistant to change because change is expensive. The tools needed to overcome that inertia are those that help engineers deal with people, culture, and with business and economic systems, not just engineering systems.”

Snyder said NREL needed “engineers who can look beyond engineering.” In other words, it needed engineers trained in systems thinking and the associated disciplines taught at MIT System Design and Management.

“Right now,” Snyder told the cohort, “renewables represent only six percent of the total U.S. energy system. To increase that percentage, we need disruptive and breakthrough technologies. But the recession hit investments in renewable energy R&D hard while the fossil fuel industry is heavily subsidized. So to accomplish change, we need to replace the some of the infrastructure that feeds the fossil fuel industry’s interests, and we need to change the political culture that revolves around those interests.”

Snyder said that NREL’s goal is to get renewable energy up to 20 percent of the U.S. energy system by 2030. To reach, or even approach that level, Snyder said, looking out at the SDM cohort, “we need the engineers in this room who are learning about marketing and social policy.

“Technology,” he said, “can’t do it alone.”

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