Engineering has a new track.
Professor Susan Krumdieck’s book ‘Transition Engineering: Building a Sustainable Future’ describes the methodology she has honed over the last twenty years to downshift legacy systems to meet the energy decline of the 21st century – developing a new field of engineering in the process.
The IPCC WGII and WGIII reports of 2022 have been an intricate dissection of the climate change adaptation and mitigation challenges we face this century; this decade, in particular. Reactions have been mixed, ranging from ‘we’re doomed’ to ‘we know exactly what to do – shift to renewables’. Fortunately, we’re not doomed because renewables technologies are developing at a fast pace; however, they are only half the answer. With the media flipping emotionally between doom and solutions (wind and solar PV), there is very little attention being paid to the less glamorous challenge of how to downshift unsustainable activities.
And yet, this is our biggest problem. The longer we take to redesign the systems that depend on fossil fuels, the longer they will persist.
This is why renewables projects are adding to, not displacing, non-renewable energy sources. Positive solutions alone are not enough. We have to downshift legacy systems.
To help us understand how to go about this essential work, Professor Susan Krumdieck has written Transition Engineering: Building a Sustainable Future, describing the methodology she has honed over the last twenty years developing a whole new field of engineering.
Professor Krumdieck explains the beginnings of transition engineering as similar to the development of safety engineering in the early 20th century. Factory workers 100 years ago worked in conditions that were extremely unsafe, with lots of flammable materials lying around, doors that opened inwards and so on, which led to horrific accidents. The field of safety engineering emerged to change existing systems to prevent what is preventable. The field of transition engineering exists to prevent the problems of unsustainable development.
Step by step, the book’s chapters takes us through the arguments: (1) the mega risks (peak oil, global warming and continuing fossil fuel exploration and use), (2) the problems of unsustainability (energy investments today aren’t yet replacing fossil fuels), and (3) the data tells us what we need to know (but only if we look at it objectively). Then we get to (4), the mission of transition engineering to leave fossil fuels in the ground by redesigning existing systems to downshift to ultra-low energy, mineral and resource consumption, while uplifting outcomes for quality of life and the environment, (5) the seven-step transition engineering methodology, an evolving approach to logically addressing complex problems, and (6) how to evaluate the costs and benefits of energy transition projects using cost of energy production, environmental cost and financial analysis.
At this point the reader is well enough informed to tackle (7), transition economics, moving the frame of reference years ahead to construct real future values. This is the most enlightening part of the book, linking EROI (energy return on energy invested) and prosperity. An 80% renewable global energy system reliant on wind, solar and biofuel with storage has too low an EROI to support current levels of consumption – proceeding this way would cause prosperity to decline. We wouldn’t revert back to high EROI fossil fuels, so the only way forward would be to use higher EROI renewables, such as existing hydro, and reduce end-use energy consumption by a staggering 70%. We have not only reached peak oil, but peak energy. We must downshift the highest energy parts of the economy – transport and the military, for example – to reduce their fossil fuel use by 80%.
Transition engineering is a proactive imperative that demands seeing the problem clearly. Engineers are good at fixing problems, but not necessarily good at picking the right problem to fix. Our challenge is that in developing a cleaner economy, we must also reduce its metabolism to adapt to energy decline. As Professor Krumdieck puts it, let’s not increase our risks by rushing more sustainably toward catastrophic unsustainability.
This is a book for engineers, young and old, and others who want a user’s manual for repairing global wicked problems. If you’ve read the IPCC reports, and are wondering what on Earth to do next, read Transition Engineering: Building a Sustainable Future.
This book review has been published by the Global Association for Transition Engineering (GATE).