Undoing doomsday

March 28, 2007
Maintenance, reliability and asset management professionals can't do much about nuclear proliferation, but they sure can do their part to stem global warming, says Paul Studebaker, CMRP, in his latest column. Also, listen to the mp3 version of Studebaker narrating this article.

I imagine you heard that on January 17, in a symbolic representation of their estimate of the threat of humanity’s extinction by its own hands, scientists decided to inch the hands on the Doomsday Clock up two minutes to within five minutes of midnight. For the first time, the decision was influenced not only by the threat of nuclear annihilation, but by scientists’ perception of the emerging problem of climate change.

This is great news for maintenance, reliability and asset management professionals. As engineers, technologists and all-around smart folks, there isn’t a great deal we can do about the political machinations leading to nuclear proliferation, but climate change is right up our alley. We know a lot about energy efficiency, combustion controls and alternative sources. We enjoy planning, implementing and optimizing the high-payback projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and we want to operate and maintain our facilities to be as clean and green as they possibly can be.

It doesn’t matter whether you believe that global warming is a problem. Perception is reality, and the perception that fossil fuel combustion is warming the planet, perhaps catastrophically, has reached the tipping point.

A report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on February 2 again warned of rising sea levels, more powerful storms and rapidly shifting weather patterns, including floods and droughts, resulting from a warming of the planet that could last 1,000 years. Scientists from 113 countries said they are now 90% confident that global warming is caused by mankind, in contrast with a 2001 report saying they were 60% to 90% sure.

Then there’s the January 22 letter to President Bush, signed by chief executives of 10 major corporations, calling for mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions. The executives represent utilities, aluminum and chemical companies, and financial institutions including Alcoa, BP America, DuPont, Caterpillar, General Electric, PG&E and Duke Energy.

Claiming progress under the existing voluntary system is inadequate, the executives call for an economy-wide emissions cap-and-trade system. They urge Congress to cut greenhouse gas emissions 10% below today's levels within a decade, and at least 60% by 2050. (Releases of carbon dioxide, the principal villain, have been increasing an average of 1% per year.)

Some pundits have suggested the executives are motivated by the potential for competitive and financial gain (duh!), but again, it doesn’t matter. As Peter Garforth pointed out in our first Energy Expert column (September 2005, page 29; www.plantservices.com/articles/2005/549.html), most facilities have the potential to increase energy productivity by 25% or more over three to five years, and every plant that implements a sound energy strategy will reap financial benefits. Mandatory caps will simply push industry in a direction it ought to go anyway, and solidify the market for energy-conserving training, technologies and services.

Response to demand for energy efficiency was rampant at the recent AHR Expo, and no one expressed it more eloquently than Dan Chiles, chairman of the board of directors of the Green Mechanical Council (GreenMech, www.greenmech.org) at the January 30 press conference announcing the council’s formation.

“The rising price of fuels, the scarcity of fresh water, the growing waste streams and our rising impact on global warming demand improvements in our homes and our businesses,” Chiles said. “We can’t all build new buildings on green grassy hilltops, so we have to improve what we’ve got. This is hard and it’s complex work, and it will require the cooperation of manufacturers, designers, installers, service techs, educators and the government.”

That cooperation is coming. Designers and manufacturers at AHR Expo highlighted hundreds of breakthroughs in energy efficiency. HVAC Excellence (www.hvacexcellence.org), one of the founding members of GreenMech, announced that it will add green technology and additional energy efficiency questions to its exams, Combustion Analysis to its Professional Level and Master Specialist certifications, and High SEER competency to its Professional Level certification.

“If bright young technical people want to save the world, they can go into mechanical contracting,” Chiles said.  As for the government, time will tell, but the first days of the new congressional session saw a rush of climate-change legislation introduced. Among those pushing versions of a cap-and-trade approach are Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain.

The world is now proceeding on the premise that global warming is real and people are causing it, so let’s go ahead and do our part. Reducing energy consumption is rewarding work for engineers and technologists, and much easier than controlling the spread of nuclear weapons.

Paul Studebaker, CMRP
[email protected]
(630) 467-1300 ext. 433

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