In the broadest sense, energy generation and consumption are affecting the engineering profession in unprecedented ways. America’s future depends on our will as a nation to stay at the forefront of technology and to become energy independent while preserving our natural environment. The connections between these forces will manifest themselves in many ways and the engineering community will be called upon to spearhead the advancements.
We have already made great strides in reducing energy consumption, expanding the use of renewable energy and conserving precious natural resources as ways to address these issues. This trend is healthy and one that must continue with a great sense of urgency as the impact of energy consumption is felt across the building construction, power generation and transportation industries.
Energy and Building
The current global trend in reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions is driving rapid change and innovation in the construction industry. Buildings in our country are constantly being heated and cooled, making them terribly inefficient consumers of energy. In fact, buildings consume 40% of all energy and 75% of all electricity in the United States. To combat this waste, future systems will pass heat from areas that need cooling to areas that need heating, eliminating the need to create the primary heating and cooling in the first place.
Advancements in materials are also changing the way we think about building design. Nano-materials represent an exciting new research area that will alter the properties of building materials in new and dramatic ways. These materials will have the ability to make the outside of a building reflect heat in the summer and absorb heat in the winter, effectively maintaining the building skin at a constant temperature without using insulation.
Other areas being researched include phase-change wall materials that can absorb heat when a room is too hot and release heat when a room is too cold, effectively keeping the inside of the building a constant temperature without the use of heating or cooling systems.
In addition, the entire roof, skin and windows of the building will become a power-production system with integrated photovoltaic materials. The net effect of these technologies will be to make buildings dramatically more energy and eventually fulfill the potential of net-zero-energy buildings.
Energy consumption is also driving changes to other industries where innovative engineering will be required. For instance, our existing power plants will need to become more efficient and environmentally sensitive or they will be shut down. New technologies for cleaner burning coal are on the horizon, but viable solutions are not in hand.
Nuclear energy is getting a new look, as environmentalists and others realize this is a clean technology—as long as safe operations and storage are achieved. Huge gaps in America’s electrical transmission grid exist and distribution cycles are driven by large swings in demand. Once the transmission gaps are closed, smart-grid technology will be employed to optimize distribution and make production more predictable.
The focus on renewable energy is an excellent example of how the creativity in the engineering profession is being brought to the surface. As fuel prices fluctuate widely and geopolitical forces threaten to disrupt supplies, alternate sources of renewable energy such as wind, solar, geothermal and waste heat are becoming more attractive. Wind generation is a rapidly growing industry that employs thousands throughout the country. Solar power plants being built across the Southwest and new geothermal plants, similar to those operating in New Zealand, are also coming online. Make no mistake: engineering and delivering renewable energy systems to supplement traditional generation has taken root.
The transportation industry will also be transformed in the next 10 years as hybrid and electric vehicles move on to the scene and combustion engines are gradually replaced. Generating and distributing the electricity needed to charge these next generation vehicles will push utilities to do better at planning as demand cycles change.
Cars that may use PV for charging during the day will need to be able to charge at home at night, increasing nocturnal demand. Utilities will have to use a mix of energy sources to meet the demand, and technologies like wind generation could be used at full capacity as the night hours need grows.