Dear engineers: Your decisions shape our energy future

engineer prints
SDG 7 calls for affordable, reliable and modern energy for all. Engineers have more power than they realize to make this a reality.

Our SDGs Letter Project is a call to action. Over a year ago, the U.N. adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which collectively represent millions of dreams and aspirations. GreenBiz, in partnership with the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, is publishing 17 letters by Yale University students that highlight the ideas of youth regarding the 2030 developmental agenda. This series seeks to drive forward the collective will to translate the SDGs into reality.

To my fellow engineers,

When I decided to major in engineering, my uncle told me that I made the wrong choice. If I really wanted to protect the environment, I should become an environmental activist, he said. I disagree. In fact, I believe engineers are uniquely placed to create enormous positive impact on people around the world.

The U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goal 7 calls to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. Achieving this goal will require a regionally based reimagining of infrastructure. It will require looking beyond business-as-usual to develop new, efficient, exportable energy solutions. Engineers are equal to the task.

NASA images of Earth from space show a familiar story, laying out in stark contrast those who have and those that do not. Large swaths of Africa and Asia are inky black, while the metropolises of Europe, the United States and Japan shine across the night sky. Over 1.2 billion people do not have access to electricity. Still more are connected to a grid with frequent, unpredictable power outages. Biomass is one of the most thermodynamically inefficient, time-consuming power sources, yet 2.8 billion people rely on wood, charcoal, dung and coal for cooking and heating, resulting in over 4 million premature deaths per year due to indoor air pollution.

In regions with existing, reliable grids, we are faced with other, equally engineering-intensive challenges. We must find cost-effective ways to retrofit an electrical system into which we have already sunk billions of dollars. The transition to sustainable energy sources will increase energy security, lead to a more stable energy market, and help reduce many negative impacts energy production has on our climate. 

We already know how to retrofit the modern grid and how to build new electrical distribution systems. Yet progress to date has been slow for both. Here in the United States we wait for regulation to force our hand toward more sustainable power. In South Sudan, Chad and Burundi, where less than 7 percent of the population has access to electricity, progress is slower still. Lower density populations result in a high connection cost per capita. 

Historically (1850-2011), the United States has been the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases, emitting 27 percent of global emissions. The next largest (China) racks in at 11 percent. Our outsized contribution to climate change is due to our path to industrialization, with a heavy reliance on fossil fuel consumption to power our transformation. In 2006, China surpassed the United States as the largest annual emitter of greenhouse gases. It is unrealistic to expect countries such as India and China to halt development due to the deleterious effects to the climate. However, developing countries do not have to follow the same path to industrialization as America. They can do better. 

Infrastructure engineers design projects that last. Years from now, you can drive past a project and say, "I designed that retainment wall, that lightning protection system, the pipes this water flows through." Energy projects designed now will be in place for the next 50 years, and likely will lock us into a specific fuel source for longer than that.

As engineers, as human beings, it is our job to continue to make the world a better place , environmentally, socially as well as economically. Climate models indicate that change seems to be accelerating. Energy is the dominant contributor to climate change, accounting for around 60 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions. In the United States and abroad we don’t have time to wait for regulatory support. We need to significantly change how we use energy and soon. 

What I want to say is this: too often we follow the minimum requirements. It doesn’t matter whether you are installing a replacement chiller or designing a high capacity hydroelectric dam. Approach each design as if it could fundamentally change the way our world operates. Seek out opportunities to contribute to nascent energy systems. Work on projects where your talent and knowledge will have the greatest positive impact. Ensure that the innovative solutions you design are exportable to new markets. That your solutions are shared so that others can benefit from your challenges and successes. 

I believe in a better future. While my uncle and I still do not see eye to eye on this, I truly believe in the power of engineers and designers to take us there. We have an important role to play in developing a sustainable energy future.

With our backing, SDG 7 is an achievable goal. Here are five things you can do to shift your own sphere of influence:

  1. Volunteer with Engineers Without Borders — Engineers Without Borders partners with communities from around the world to develop sustainable solutions to pressing needs, including many energy projects. Work mentoring engineering students or on designing solutions around the world.

  2. Push the envelope in your professional organizations — Encourage your organizations to participate in programs that support progressive, exportable energy design. Professional organizations are a great platform to locally establish best practices that inspire design innovation.

  3. Run for public office — Decisions are made by those who show up. I encourage all of you to consider running for public office. Whether on the school board, town council or for president of the United States of America, you can make a difference and have your voice heard. We need more technical specialists making decisions on how to invest in energy design.

  4. Serve on advisory boards — Help shape local and international energy design by serving on advisory boards that select where and how to invest capital resources.

  5. Take the time to educate yourself — Affordable, sustainable, reliable, modern energy is always being redesigned. Subscribe to newsletters about projects and technology from around the world and take the time to read them. Learn what others are doing and think about how to bring those lessons home. I personally subscribe to ASHRAE’s HVAC&R Industry Newsletter, SNL’s Greenwire and GreenBiz’s weekly VERGE.