on November 23rd, 2007

Dear Colleagues

Two items today:

 1. Over 300 shareware software programs available

Thanks for the superb responses of a few hundred programs to my request for shareware and free software. We are finalising the list and should have it out next week with a free CD or easy-to-download from the website. Much obliged.

 2. Are we tilting at windmills with solar and wind energy?

I always admire engineers who practise what they preach. After my nuclear power article some weeks back and the rather violent response from the esteemed readership, I had a particularly thoughtful response from Alex H., a senior consulting engineer with one of the world’s larger consulting firm. He outlined his thoughts on the preference for renewable or clean energy and noted that he has his home wired up completely for solar energy. Not a watt of electricity is purchased from the local electrical utility. As he pointed out: “Incidentally I have been living in an off-grid solar powered house in the bush on and off for the last 6 years and it’s a breeze – no different from the city except that I don’t get a power bill.” He continued to say that renewables are not the whole answer but should be considered as the most significant part of the system. Their advantages are cheaper in capital cost (esp. compared to nuclear power) and shorter lead times to installation (hence the large number of wind projects in the pipeline worldwide). But his reservation was that we are not clear about how best to integrate them into the current power system paradigm (wind, solar, geothermal, hot rock, hydro and thermal).

The clean energy business is turning into the next big investment boom. Investment in the field has gone from $500million in 2004 to over $2 billion today. This is fuelled by high oil prices, energy security fears and global warming concerns. The economic problem is that renewable power and fuels will be more expensive than the dirtier sort for the foreseeable future; government hand outs are essential to make this workable in the short term at least, however governments tend to let tax breaks expire which often causes a hiccup in the industry (eg wind generation in the USA some years ago). If oil prices dropped below $50 a barrel, the momentum would be lost as governments again lose enthusiasm for the carbon-free technologies due to the more expensive subsidies required. At present, keeping pace with demand is the challenge – manufacturers of wind turbines have full order books for years ahead; solar firms are outpacing the supply of high-grade silicon to make their panels and investors are rushing in. Despite all this, solar power will still only provide a tiny percentage (1%) of the world’s energy for the next decade, which can be dwarfed by the other pressing issues.

The point made is that despite this flush of enthusiasm for renewables, there will be many bumps along the way. It is important as engineers that we keep the rudder steady and keep persisting with bringing the prices of the renewables down and improving the technologies and staying the course. No matter what happens.

 So my suggestions are:

  • Keep researching new improved technologies in renewables
  • Actively look at applying these technologies in our next design
  • Educate others about the benefits
  • Do what Alex did and set up your own domestic renewable energy system
  • Do not lose faith despite the temporary obstacles – we are not tilting at windmills but doing something really important in applying these new clean energy sources in our world

Finally in the Australian elections this week, may I respectfully suggest you vote thoughtfully for the party who will manage our resources, infrastructure and environment in the most responsible and sustainable way. Do not follow Mark Twain’s exhortation of: “It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them”.

Yours in engineering learning,


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