30 11 2018

dr_susan_krumdieckAn interesting narrative by Susan Krumdieck…….

Let’s explore a thought puzzle: Can you change the future?

You are transported onto the deck of the RMS Titanic, the largest ship ever built and designed to be unsinkable. It is midnight 13 April 1912. There are 2,224 people on the ship, which is under full steam on the fastest ever crossing of the Atlantic. You know what will happen, what will you do?



“You know that at 11:39pm on 14 April the lookout will spot an iceberg, and by 2:20am the ship and 1,517 people will be gone. Can you change the future?”

You know that at 11:39pm on 14 April the lookout will spot an iceberg, and by 2:20am the ship and 1,517 people will be gone. The ship was launched with lifeboats for less than half the number of people on board. You could take a self-sufficiency strategy and make sure you are near a lifeboat, but you know they will be allocated according to class and you might not get a spot.

Clearly, the best solution is to slow down, change course and not hit the iceberg. You know that the wireless operator will receive numerous warnings from other ships about large icebergs in the direct path. You could seek out the operator and help him communicate the danger to the captain. But the captain has hit icebergs with other ships, and the Titanic is unsinkable, so he may not think caution is warranted. Neither will the captain and senior officers want to contradict the owners. You could try to convince the first-class passengers to ask the captain to slow down. But they are not convinced of danger in such a comfortable and luxurious ship, and they don’t want to hear about problems when they have parties to attend. You could go below decks and organize the lower-class passengers to occupy the bridge and demand action to slow the ship and change the course. But the passengers don’t want to worry, they believe in the technology of the ship and that if there was a problem, the captain or the owners would do something.

You are running out of time. How can you slow down the ship, enabling the captain to avoid the iceberg? You could go to the engine room and explain to the men shovelling coal into the boilers that they need to reduce the use of coal by 80%, providing the chance to change course in time and safeguard the journey. They would probably be afraid for their jobs. Could you convince them to change the future?

Transition engineering, an approach to wicked problems

Transition engineering is the work of innovating and delivering the redevelopment of energy-consuming systems, which we must do to accomplish the 80% step down in greenhouse gas production required to avoid runaway climate change. Ingenuity, resourcefulness and creativity are the best resources for achieving change.  However, innovative thinking is stifled if we focus on catastrophic failure.

For example, modern buildings, cities, and the entire economy would fail if coal, oil and gas supplies suddenly dropped by 80%. A rapid reduction in energy supply would be a disaster — but rapid reduction in energy use is the only way to mitigate climate risk. The risks of unsustainable fossil energy use are exacerbated without immediate change, but imminent collapse due to energy shortage is unlikely. This dissonance between the problem and the possible actions can be referred to as a “wicked problem”.

Transition engineering is an approach to wicked problems. The approach starts with defining a specific system, learning the history and knowing the future. Energy use and emissions have grown beyond sustainable levels because the utility, energy return on energy invested, and net surplus to the economy from coal, oil and gas are colossal. Engineering and technology provided access to these benefits at bargain prices. We now refer to this unsustainable activity as business-as-usual (BAU), and it is difficult to imagine changing course or slowing down. Society and its leaders expect that technology will provide new sources of green energy, and keep the economy growing with minimal inconvenience. The transition approach includes honest assessment of green technologies and whether they actually can change or slow the BAU course.

The economics of short-term perceived risk

The innovation phase of the approach is an interdisciplinary discovery of the future, 100 years from now, where the wicked problem has been resolved and the energy system is managed sustainably. For example, when we explored Christchurch 100 years from now, we discovered a city with redevelopment of much of the paved land into productive uses, several electric trams and all buildings incorporating passive design and very low energy use. There was some reorganization of the land use, and the dominant travel mode was bicycles and electrified cargo cycles.

The back-casting phase uses this 100-year discovery model to interrogate the present and identify the key players in changing course. In all instances, the technology used in the 100-year discovery is known today, but projects to bring about the necessary change are few. The problem is the economics of short-term perceived risk. For example, the design tools and materials for near-zero passive buildings are already known, but the business of low-energy redevelopment is not growing fast enough.

Creating projects that shift energy use by 80%

The next phase is to develop shift projects and new business opportunities that improve energy performance through holistic measures. These shift projects must be beneficial and profitable. For example, From the Ground Up is a new social enterprise in Christchurch that forms partnerships between electric tram manufacturer Alstom, the city council, retailers along a main avenue, student volunteers, the local community and property developers. The aim is to redevelop an area of old, substandard low-density suburb near the university into higher density, transit-oriented development along a tram corridor into the central business district. The enterprise has developed the base data and business case for the redevelopments.

Another example is the redevelopment of old buildings in old areas of cities. Many are in locations that could become vibrant, walkable and transit-oriented urban eco-villages, but the projects must be done one at a time in each city. The shift project will develop a new renovation business that invests in old buildings in the right locations, becoming the owner of the improvements, taking over the energy, utility and waste contracts and charging clients rents. The return on the investments is in both capital gains and in improved rents and lower energy costs. The shift project includes an insurance product that de-risks investment in redevelopment by guaranteeing a minimum energy savings return for fully modelled and reviewed renovation designs.

The transition engineering approach is about creating projects that shift energy use to 80% less fossil fuel while realizing social benefits and making profits. The Global Association for Transition Engineering can provide consultation and training for companies, councils and organizations to take on their wicked problems and change course.

Susan Krumdieck is professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, and founder of the Global Association for Transition Engineering

Fossil Carbon Safety Margin

11 02 2016

dr_susan_krumdieckA follower of DTM pointed out to me that one of my favourite sources of information, Susan Krumdieck, is now blogging……. here is her first effort on this new site, well worth the read.

by Dr. Susan P. Krumdieck, Professor in Mechanical Engineering, University of Canterbury

To me, as an engineer and a person with a family, the language of climate change action – for example setting “targets” for emissions – seems to be dangerously at odds with the science.

It seems obvious that the engineers of the world have a lot of work to do in changing everything that uses fossil fuel to use much less to no fossil fuel. However, this discussion is not really taking place.

The science is clear, so I wanted to look at how we might use the language of engineering to understand the way forward. The latest IPCC Fifth Assessment Report gives conclusive modelling and science observation that profoundly affects every person on the planet. However, the general population doesn’t seem to understand the message.
Everybody knows that it is not wise to exceed a safety limit, but we also know that we can probably get away with it. If the curve up ahead has a sign that says 65 km/hr, then I know it would be safe to take it at that speed. I also know I will “likely” make it through the curve if I do 70 or even 80 km/hr. Unsplash_Speed Sign

If I do speed through the curve, however, the risk of losing control, drifting into the wrong lane or not being able to manoeuvre to avoid any unexpected obstacles is higher. A failure limit in this situation would be the speed in the curve where a crash occurs. This could be 70 km/hr if there is any water or loose gravel on the road or if my tires don’t have good tread. There is also a speed, say 130 km/hr, at which it is likely that a person will crash going around the curve. In the best car on the best day with the best road conditions, there is a speed, say 250 km/hr, beyond which it is not physically possible for a car to stay in contact with the road and there will be a crash.

As a mechanical engineer, I can’t predict exactly at what speed a crash will occur. There are a lot of other factors. I also can’t predict exactly what will happen in the crash – whether it will involve rolling or hitting a tree or a fire – and I can’t predict whether you will live or what kind of injuries you will have. But – I can definitely recommend that you should not take that curve at more than 65 km/hr; this is the safety limit. I would call 130 km/hr the failure limit. I would call 250 km/hr suicide.

Now, let’s translate the climate science of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) loading into terms of a safety limit. Dr James Hansen, former director of the US NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, explained to the Bush administration that 350 parts per million (ppm) was the safe limit for atmospheric CO2 concentration. If the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere got to this level, there would definitely be climate change.  Going over this level would be likely to cause warming that could do more than just change the weather; it could melt polar and glacial ice, acidify the oceans, cause changes in ocean currents, and change the climate in unpredictable ways. There would, however, be certainty that more frequent and more extreme storm events would occur. This safety limit of 350 ppm atmospheric CO2 has been exceeded. Current atmospheric CO2 concentration is over 400 ppm, and evidence is mounting of unprecedented warming and ocean acidification.

Limiting the thermal imbalance, or warming, to less than 2oC above the 1860-1880 decadal average would require cumulative CO2 emissions to be kept below a certain level. CO2 emissions are caused primarily by burning solid and liquid fossil fuels; other major sources include industrial production and deforestation. The cumulative carbon loading limit likely to result in 2oC global warming is 1000 gigatonnes of carbon (GtC) (with a probability of greater than 66%) burned since the 1860’s. Accounting for forcings from additional greenhouse gases lowers the failure limit to 790 GtC.

As of 2011, over 500 GtC of fossil fuel had been extracted and burned. Just like with our driving speed analogy, the exact risks and the exact failure mechanisms can’t be predicted. But, we are now beyond the safe level for fossil fuel use, and we are pushing toward a failure limit.  I hope this is clear. If today we stopped extracting and burning fossil carbon, we would still be above the safety limit for having no risk of climate changes, and we would watch over the next 100 years to see how the climate settled into a new warmer equilibrium. If we were to extract and burn another 300 GtC in fossil fuel, then the energy balance on the planet would likely result in a temperature rise of over 5oC and the changes to the climate would be catastrophic.

According to the International Energy Agency, in 2012, global CO2 emissions from all sources totalled about 31.5 GtCO2 per year. I will do the analysis using this number, but be aware that the 2015 emissions are expected to top 40 GtCO2. Note that emissions are discussed in terms of CO2 emitted, but production is in terms of the carbon in the fuel. Burning of one GtC of fossil fuel produces 3.7 GtCO2.  If we did not increase our consumption of fossil fuels any further above the current 11 GtC/yr, we would have less than 30 years until we have burned the amount of fossil carbon that is likely to cause catastrophic climate change. If all nations of the world actually had achieved reductions called for in the Kyoto Protocol of reducing emissions to 1990 levels (14 GtCO2) or lower, then at 3.8 GtC/yr of fuel production it would take 80 years to go past the failure limit. Which is more acceptable: exceeding the climate failure limit in about 30 years by limiting growth, or exceeding the failure limit in 80 years by dramatic reduction of fossil fuel production?

The only intellectually acceptable answer is neither. It is not acceptable to exceed the failure limit.

This is the point where we usually start arguing over the numbers. Should the failure limit be 800 GtC, or 1000 GtC?  What should we count in current emissions rates? We also start questioning what the catastrophes would be. Would the sea level rise be 2 m or 17 m? This is like arguing about taking a 65 km/hr curve at 130 or 200 km/hr, and whether the car would skid into a tree or roll into a ditch. Once you have exceeded a safety limit, and you are pushing into the range of increasingly likely failure, it is really not the time to be arguing about the details.  It is TIME TO SLOW DOWN!

For reference, the amount of proven reserves (oil, gas and coal) that the energy companies plan to extract and bring to the market is more than 2800 GtC. This figure does not include the Arctic oil that Shell and other oil companies are scouting for at the moment. The best engineering terms I can find to describe the extraction and burning of these reserves are: unthinkable, irresponsible, negligent, reprehensible, criminal, and suicidal.

How can I explain to my future granddaughter that we had to preserve our economy so we accepted policy which would breach the climate failure limit in 20-30 years? Why does 30 years seem like a long time in the future? Why has this rather clear bit of science not caused radical change?

In the next part of my blog, I will turn to the personal interaction with the data to see if it sheds any light.

“Transition Engineering: the Job of Change”

17 03 2015

Susan Krumdieck spills the beans on our energy and cultural future…..

On July 19th 2014, more than 140 professional engineers and university students attended the fourth annual Engineering Change humanitarian engineering conference at the University of Canterbury. Engineering Change is the national conference for Engineers Without Borders New Zealand.

Prof. Susan Krumdieck (University of Canterbury) presented “Transition Engineering: The job of change, with a Ruapehu district case study”

“Transition Engineering: the Job of Change”

14 02 2015

More from Susan Krumdieck on her favourite subject, Transition Engineering.

Published on Oct 28, 2014

On July 19th 2014, more than 140 professional engineers and university students attended the fourth annual Engineering Change humanitarian engineering conference at the University of Canterbury. Engineering Change is the national conference for Engineers Without Borders New Zealand.

You don’t know shit

21 11 2014

I’m well known for predicting the demise of large modern cities.  Utterly convinced of their massive unsustainability I am…  apart from the vulnerability of their food distribution systems in a collapsing fossil fuelled world, there is the issue of sewerage.  People in cities just flush and forget, but have no idea of what happens afterwards.  Nobody, absolutely nobody, wants to know what happens to their shit!  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t find it the most palatable of subjects myself, but if you’re interested in sustainability, then shit is a major issue.

Then, along comes this film past my intray.  It’s times like these you’re glad they haven’t yet worked out how to make your computer generate smells as well as sounds..!  All the same, it’s a real eye opener.

There is no doubt that sewerage saved London (the first sewered city in the world, if you don’t count Rome a couple of thousand years ago – though it wasn’t sewers as we know them that they used back that far., but sewers did not save us from cities.  Cities MUST have sewers, they are simply too big and there are too many people to deal with.  At one million inhabitants, Rome had it easy compared to those cities today that count their citizens in the tens of millions…..

So, watch this……:

I knew these things were complex, but this blew me away nonetheless, because all I could think about as the film advanced was “what will they do when the oil runs out…?”

It is simply extraordinary how I can achieve the exact same results they do, using just a couple of 4W fans…..


Complexity will kill complex civilisation.  it was built off the back of huge amounts of surplus energy.  For me, the future of civilisation comes down to just those two words: SURPLUS ENERGY.  Nothing else matters.  Here is Susan Krumdieck on ERoEI and nett or surplus energy….

Peak Oil: The Ultimate Challenge for Transition

11 11 2014

Originally Published on Youtube on Oct 8, 2014, this is Susan Krumdieck at her best.  Professor Krumdieck was asked – “what is the ultimate challenge?”. This presentation was given to the 2014 Leadership NZ workshop in Christchurch (Leadership New Zealand Trust).

Susan Krumdieck on Transition Engineering

15 04 2014

dr_susan_krumdieckSome ten years ago, when I first discovered we were up against it, I read a great book titled “Factor 4″, written by Amory Lovins, his then wife Hunter, and Ernst von Weizsacker (isn’t that a great name?!)

In that book, Lovins proclaimed himself a lover of cars with “the Hypercar”, a hydrogen/fuel cell contraption built out of Carbon fibre, hyper aerodynamic, etc etc….. having just googled it looking for a link to give you reveals not much has happened.  But at the time I was mesmerised by all this technology, it all seemed so likely?  I lurked in forums full of fans of the Hydrogen Economy, and Lovins’ green car…. and there, I found one person who argued it was all BS.  Her name is Dr Susan Krumdieck, an American engineer from Colorado who now lives In New Zealand where she’s an  Associate Professor at Canterbury University and teaches sustainable systems around fuel cells, alternative energy technologies, energy conservation, energy systems engineering, and materials for energy systems.  You know, someone I can really get on with?

Susan is very approachable (if very busy) and replied to an email I sent her, fishing for info, all those years ago….  It turns out what she doesn’t know about fuel cells isn’t worth knowing!  She actually lectures about this stuff all over the world, and surprise surprise, has come to the same conclusions as me.  We will have to make do with a hell of a lot less in the future.

Find out how straight from her mouth…..

Susan Krumdieck

Originally aired on Saturday Morning, Saturday 12 April 2014

Susan Krumdieck: transition engineering Researcher in mechanical engineering at the University of Canterbury, and a founding member of the National Energy Research Institute.

Duration:  30′ 20″