Throughout my college career, I have had the opportunity to interact with many people - students, professors, industry professionals, etc. - who are all passionate and ready to tackle the climate change challenge. All of these people are striving to develop technologies and systems that can be used to mitigate the impacts that humans have on the environment. However, what many people fail to realize is that engineering alone is not enough to “solve” the climate crisis.
In fact, many of the technologies we need to combat climate change already exist. The fundamental issue is not the lack of technology, but the fact that these technologies haven’t been implemented on a wide scale due to limitations in politics, public perceptions, and the implications that new technologies have on people’s lifestyles. To overcome these challenges, we as engineers need to understand not only the technical aspects of how to build solutions, but also the social aspects of how to gain public support, advocate for, and implement these solutions.
The phrase “climate change” refers to the long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns that have been occurring since the 1800s. Human activities have been the driving factor behind climate change due to the burning of fossil fuels that produce heat-trapping gases for industrial activities. Climate change has a significant impact on the environment because it alters many of Earth’s natural processes and causes widespread issues such as rising sea levels, melting ice caps, extreme weather events, and increased pollution. These events all have a significant impact on humans because they can lead to displacement from natural disasters, food insecurity, increased risk of respiratory illnesses, and many other negative impacts. However, there are actions that can be taken to reduce the impact of climate change.
One such action is the implementation of renewable energy - energy that is collected from resources that are naturally replenished and do not produce greenhouse gases. These include solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, tidal, and other natural energy sources. Scientists and engineers are innovating new technologies to help us harness these energy sources and begin to implement them in place of fossil fuels. In doing so, humans can start to limit greenhouse gas emissions and slow the rate of climate change. And if this innovation continues, then one day, renewables might become our primary source of energy. We’re just not there yet.
At least that’s what I was told in my US engineering and environmental science education. However, last summer I had the opportunity to study abroad in Iceland - a country that generates nearly all of its electricity, and an increasingly large portion of its transportation fuel, from renewable sources - and I discovered that implementing renewable energy on a large scale is much more feasible than I was led to believe. How was Iceland, a country that was considered “poor” until the 1970s, able to become a worldwide leader in renewable energy? It was a combination of two factors - geography and necessity. Iceland’s geographic features give the country access to an extensive amount of resources. Halla Hrund Logadóttir, Director of the Iceland School of Energy at Reykjavík University, explains that “the island lies on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, a very active volcanic zone that powers its geothermal systems. Glaciers cover 11 percent of the country. Seasonal melt feeds glacial rivers, which run from mountains to the sea contributing to Iceland’s hydropower resources. Furthermore, the country has tremendous wind power potential, which remains virtually untapped”. 5 But simply having access to these resources was not enough to drive the country’s energy transition. The pressure of necessity was what ultimately pushed the nation’s shift to renewables. Being an isolated island in the North Atlantic, Iceland was heavily impacted by the fluctuations in oil prices - something the poor country’s fragile economy could not endure. 5 The nation desperately needed a domestic energy source. So when people discovered that the naturally occurring features of the land could be used to provide energy to homes and farms, the government quickly supported and encouraged engineering efforts to build up geothermal and hydroelectric infrastructure. It was this consensus between technical engineering innovation and the government’s clear political direction that allowed Iceland to successfully transform its energy profile.
So why doesn’t the rest of the world just do what Iceland did: find something that works and decide to make a change? Well, the United States is significantly larger than Iceland - both population-wise and by land mass, which means we face an entirely different and uniquely nuanced set of challenges when it comes to implementing renewable energy. For example, there is no government consensus to switch to clean energy, and no sense of urgency or necessity to create this consensus. In fact, the government is currently subsidizing oil and natural gas to keep fossil fuel prices cheap. According to Yale School of the Environment, in 2020, fossil fuels received $5.9 trillion in subsidies globally. 3 The article goes on to explain that “47 percent of natural gas and 99 percent of coal is priced at less than half its true cost, and that just five countries - China, the United States, Russia, India, and Japan - account for two-thirds of subsidies globally”. 3 These large subsidies ensure that fossil fuels remain a stable dominant energy source, and makes the Oil Lobby one of the most powerful and daunting obstacles on the road to renewable energy. In addition, implementing renewable energy in the US would require significantly more infrastructure than what is currently available. In the switch to renewable energy, while the power grid would not change, it would still be necessary to build solar farms, or wind farms, or hydroelectric dams. And the production of the supplies needed to create these systems is not something that is heavily invested in. Given the dominance of fossil fuels and the power of the Oil Lobby, historically, there has been no pressure or incentive to invest in the infrastructure that would be necessary to switch the US energy grid to renewables. Another key challenge that renewable energy faces in the US is its diverse and varied geography. Since there is no major source of geothermal energy that spans the country the way the Mid-Atlantic Ridge does in Iceland, the renewable sources that need to be utilized would vary greatly depending on which part of the country one is considering, and these sources are highly weather dependent. For example, the American Southwest is particularly conducive to solar energy due to the high number of sunny days in a year. But there are still days when the sun doesn’t shine, and another source of energy would be required. Beyond the technical concerns, the US tends to have a fierce obstacle of public perception. The public does not necessarily support the shift to renewable energy due to a general mistrust of science, and a fear that those in the oil and gas industry would lose their jobs. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has played a large role in inspiring skepticism. According to a study done by the PEW Research Center, “confidence in scientists… fell from 86% in January 2019 to 77% now [February 2022]”. 1 This likely means that gaining public support for the transition to renewable energy will pose an even bigger challenge than it would have pre-pandemic. Due to this plethora of challenges, the US cannot simply take Iceland’s approach to the renewable energy transition and implement it as our own.
These challenges are significant. But they are not a sign that the US cannot transition its energy profile. In fact, these challenges create an opportunity for engineers to play a greater role in policy and advocacy. The scientific community is generally underrepresented in the political arena, which can often mean that decisions involving scientific action are made without the input of the scientists and engineers responsible for implementing them. The US Congress frequently votes on issues related to science and engineering - there are six House Committees dedicated to fields related to science or energy, and four Senate Committees that do the same. Yet, in the 113th Congress, only 10% of elected officials had a STEM degree. 2 However, if engineers were to get more involved in public policy and advocate for their work - in this case, for the implementation of renewable energy technologies - they could contribute an expert opinion that allows for actionable change.
This seems like it may be easier said than done, right? How can engineers - the people whose training is in technical designs, fabrication, and calculations - take on big obstacles like the US Oil Lobby and come out successful? Well, I think the answer lies in the model the Icelanders have laid out for us. The entire country of Iceland has a population of about 350,000 people - just over 3x the population of Boulder. This makes it easier for the nation to come to a political consensus and implement change. It also means that the voices of engineers are much more easily heard and understood by the policymakers in power. So when the country decided to harness its natural geothermal energy source and make the transition to renewable energy, it was a shift that was able to occur effectively on a large scale. The United States, however, has a population of about 330 million people - almost 1000 times the size of Iceland. Which means, in order to enact change in the US, we must start smaller than the national level, and even smaller than the state level. I believe that, in the US, engineers can have the biggest impact in the political arena by focusing their efforts at the local level - by working with counties and municipalities.
Now, I’m not saying that all engineers should go out and start running for public office. There are plenty of other people who have the proper training and education for that. And honestly? It sounds like way too much writing and bureaucracy for my taste. However, there are roles that engineers can play within the structure of local governments that can make a significant impact - I have highlighted three of them here:
1. Special Boards and Committees
Engineers have a plethora of specialized and technical knowledge in their selected fields. Often, when policymakers are drafting bills or working to address a large task, they will assemble special boards and committees - essentially panels of experts - to help further their understanding of a topic and guide their decision making.
2. Policy Advisors
Engineers are often working on the cutting edge of their fields. Since the role of a policy advisor is to research and analyze policies related to a specific field, this seems like a natural fit for an engineer who often has to conduct a certain level of research to do their job anyway - but with a focus on policy rather than technical specifications.
Many engineers end up working for utilities, even without the intention of advocating for policy changes: electrical engineers work for the electric utility, civil and environmental engineers work for the water utility, etc. But simply working for a utility isn’t enough to effectively advocate for change. However, engineers can still get involved within the utility structure by giving feedback to upper management, or applying for management jobs themselves to ensure that political decisions are being made with a technical consideration in mind.
While these are only a few examples of the ways in which engineers can take up roles in advocacy and public policy, they are highly influential in supporting and progressing the scientific agenda.
This approach of getting engineers involved in government at the local level has already proved effective - right here in Boulder in fact! In 2010, the City of Boulder decided to form its own electric utility after voters expressed their frustration with Xcel Energy’s slow transition to renewable energy. 4 In order to do so, the city needed not just politicians, but specialists in engineering, management, permitting, and various other fields to ensure that the endeavor was well thought out and successful. Then, in 2020, the city once again voted - this time to give up on municipalization and stay with the Xcel Energy utility. At this point you might be wondering why I chose to share this case study as a “success story” when the city did not actually create its own utility. Well, when engineers got involved in this process, it resulted in the city putting a degree of pressure on Xcel Energy - pressure to do better because the consumers were demanding a shift to renewable energy. Xcel Energy is now on track to be 60% renewable by 2030. In addition, the settlement agreement between the city and utility states that if Xcel fails to reach its emissions goals, the city will resume its efforts to municipalize. 4 This example shows that, by encouraging experts to advocate for the policies they believe in, it can enact meaningful change - even if it’s not always in the manner that is expected. In fact, if engineers serving as policy advocates in their local communities becomes commonplace, the role that engineers play as experts in their field who advise new policies could help to, not only propel meaningful change, but to rebuild a sense of trust in science among the general public.
- Durkee, A. (2022, February 16). Americans have even less trust in scientists now than pre-pandemic, poll finds-especially among Republicans. Forbes. Retrieved April 20, 2022
- Lodaya, H. (2013, May 25). There are 535 members of Congress. how many of them really understand math and science? Mic. Retrieved April 20, 2022
- Pearce, F., Gardiner, B., & Popkin, G. (2021, October 6). Fossil fuels received $5.9 trillion in subsidies in 2020, report finds. Yale E360. Retrieved April 20, 2022
- Sakas, M. E. (2020, November 20). Boulder ends decade long pursuit of city-owned power utility. Colorado Public Radio. Retrieved April 20, 2022
- United Nations. (n.d.). Iceland's Sustainable Energy Story: A Model for the world? United Nations. Retrieved April 20, 2022