Wednesday 11 May 2016

Can Engineers Change the World? Energy Transition Engineering

Dr Susan P Krumdieck is Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Director of the Advanced Energy and Material Systems Lab, University of Canterbury, New Zealand.

Can technology solve the climate problem? Dr Krumdieck outlines her work on a new interdisciplinary practice called transition engineering: changing course one innovative project at a time.

Business leaders recognise that the biggest risk to their business is energy transition. The most popular concept of this transition involves a substitution of renewables for fossil fuels and development of elusive tail-pipe technologies like carbon-capture and storage. This concept is comforting and simple. But it is also profoundly wrong. There is no way to achieve an energy transition without completely reworking every aspect of our infrastructure, industry and economy to vastly reduce energy demand. Changing the global economy to nearly eliminate the use of fossil fuels is a “wicked problem” – a problem with no known solution. This is why the new field of energy transition engineering is emerging. 

Can engineers change the world?

More than a century ago, safety engineering was started by a few people in New York. Safety engineering has two fundamental principles: honestly evaluating hazards, and preventing what is preventable. The revolutionary idea was to work on changing unsafe practices, one project at a time. The idea has since been extended to environmental and waste management engineering and can legitimately be said to have changed the world. No one today would give up our safety protections. Now, we engineers are taking on the biggest hazard of all time – our own successful exploitation of fossil fuels.

Make no mistake – this is the biggest challenge the engineering professions have faced. Leaving two-thirds of economically producible fossil fuel in the ground is a wicked problem. Transition engineering is revolutionising the sustainability field by tackling global wicked problems on an individual basis - one project, in one place, for one organization at a time. Transition engineers develop intimate knowledge of an organisation’s current operations and technology and, through a radical brainstorm process, create path-breaking solutions that move the organisation to a new, post-fossil-fuel carbon trajectory. The approach has been tested successfully on wicked problems like conference travel, oil company 150-year plans, and urban re-development beyond motoring.

Masters programmes and classes in Transition Engineering are in development at major engineering universities in the UK, France, Germany and New Zealand. Two engineering textbooks are available that teach the transition engineering methodology. The Global Association for Transition Engineering (GATE) was founded last month. Professional training and postgraduate research projects are currently available. Companies, government organizations, community leaders and engineering consultancies are welcome to contact the GATE to hire a Transition Engineer, arrange workshops or sponsor innovation brainstorm research projects. Examples of past projects are available to GATE members.

The GATE can now accept memberships and work to promote the transition engineering discipline, provide educational and collegial services, and develop best practice and standards for delivery of its objectives. Please check out the website and join us:


  1. These initiatives would have been excellent decades ago when we might have been able to slow down this monster but factoring in the 10 to 20 year lag between cause and effect we have passed the point of no return as we leap ahead into runaway abrupt climate change. I personally will be surprised if industrial civilisation still exists at the end of the decade.

  2. The last interview of the late David Mackay FRS backs up Susan's conclusions. He concluded that the extremely popular 'bright green' techno-utopian view of the future was an 'appalling delusion': Retired Otago Physics Prof Bob Lloyd draws many of the same conclusions.

    If the gov't would choose to perform the broad spectrum, non-partisan risk assessment that the Wise Response Incorporated Society is calling for, then perhaps our policy makers would have some coherent basis for futures thinking that is cognisant of the 'solution spaces' (as Nicole Foss calls them that are actually available to us... Again, others, such as NZ futures thinker Dr Wayne Cartwright, have reached similar conclusions, albeit expressed in more guarded language in his excellent 'Creating Tomorrow' series in Element magazine:

    However, in their blind reliance on the dangerous religious fundamentalists in the treasury, the incumbent party has failed to give their civil servants the neccessary evidence in a coherent form. Truly the blind leading the blind....

  3. Just changing transports energy from oil to electric is a huge challenge but I have hope that it can be done. We transitioned from horses to cars in about ten years from 1010 to 1920 and now that Tesla has taken 250,000 orders for its new car the other manufacturers know what the market wants and will not want to be left behind. If they put some resources to it and get the price right we could really make some progress.

  4. The number of passenger vehicles registered in New Zealand has been just over 2.5 million for the past 10 years. There are 600 cars per 1000 people, compared to 400 per 1000 for the USA. In 2015 the government of NZ spent $3 billion on roading and local govt spent $1 billion. New Zealand drivers consume 152,000 barrels of oil per day and at $70 NZD per barrel, that is about $4 billion on fuel per year. There are about 100 registrations of electric cars per month which is about 0.4% of the registrations. There is no economic benefit to NZ if we import an electric car or a petrol car - it's the same. If Kiwi's changed to the same car ownership rates as the car mad, car dependent USA - that would reduce the amount of money flying out of the country. to import cars and parts and reduce congestion and fuel spend by 30%.

    We wouldn't get to save much on roads, as we would have the same roads, but we might have fewer crashes with fewer cars. And with fewer cars there would be better conditions for cyclists and buses. So - Bob - I am working on figuring out why we have so many cars in NZ compared to other countries, and what can be done to reduce the number of cars. This would keep a huge amount of money in the country (close to $300 million on vehicles and $1 billion on fuel) and reduce congestion. The evidence is pretty compelling that MORE of anything is the answer to what ever problem you want to think about at this time. Whether it is buildings or appliances or plastic bottles or cars... the answer is LESS. The transition innovations and engineering projects are about achieving less consumption and more benefit and more real value for people.

    What would it take to get you as excited about a reducing car ownership and reducing vehicle kilometres driven rate in New Zealand as you are getting about Tesla taking orders for electric battery cars?