If we are going to make our world green and sustainable, someone had better tell the engineers. They are the ones who will be building the new houses and assembly lines. They will be the ones designing the more environmentally friendly materials.
To further this connection, the New Jersey Technology Council is presenting, “Integration of Sustainability into Engineering,” on Thursday, July 24 at 4 p.m. at Princeton University’s Bowen Hall. Cost: $60. Visit www.njtc.org. Acting as moderator is Victor Udo, Atlantic City Electric’s manager of business planning and research. Presenters include John Carlton, client service manager with CDM and an expert on solid waste policy; and Michael Celia, chair of Princeton University’s department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Discussions will follow.
Udo fulfills that idealized model of the immigrant who comes with little more than innate ability and a willingness to work. A native of Nigeria, Udo says he learned the value of education from his father, a school administrator. Udo graduated from Howard University with a bachelors in electrical engineering in 1989.
After a brief stint with another power company, he was recruited by Atlantic City Electric, which spotted his abilities and sent him to school. He earned a masters in energy and environmental engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, followed by a doctorate in public policy. As part of the Governor’s Renewable Energy Taskforce, he helped forge New Jersey’s “20-20” goal: having 20 percent of the state’s energy come from clean sources by 2020. It is a uniquely ambitious plan that New Jersey, so far, is achieving on schedule.
Sustainability — developing a pattern of materials use that meets today’s needs while preserving the environment adequately to keep meeting them indefinitely — is a lofty goal. But Udo insists it’s doable. “Sustainability is all in the mind — the minds of the researchers, the minds of the policy makers, and the minds of the power-consuming public,” he says. To lessen our civilization’s negative effects on the environment will take a combination of new technologies and increased employment of existing techniques.
Cradle to grave. Engineers now face the sustainability factor beginning at the earliest design phase. “When I was in school, for engineers it was all about economy and durability,” says Udo. “Now sustainability has become the prime consideration, almost trumping the other two.”
The sustainable product has deep roots, going back to the manufacture of the most basic materials. Is the planking made from sawdust-compacted pressboard instead of virgin timber? Seems good, but how much energy and what kind was used in the board’s production? For how many miles does the board get carted in an greenhouse gas-spewing truck? Can we get a similar material closer? How environmentally friendly is the paint, the roofing materials, the nails?
With the construction comes a whole new set of balances. Are the windows set to take advantage of optimal light and breeze? Are the walls, roof, or back property the best place for the solar panels? Is the landscaping planted to avoid future shading of the array? Passive solar is achievable using clearstories and slate flooring. The construction crews can be scheduled to afford minimal driving to various sites.
Eventually this house will fall apart, or catch fire. That PVC piping so friendly to the pocketbook and plumber, holds enormous toxicity. Some paints disintegrate into the earth with toxic virulence; other newer brands vanish without a trace.
“Sustainability is a tough master, requiring an endless thinking-through of every material and process,” says Udo. But it definitely brings longterm cost benefits. Granted, larger upfront costs often accrue in staff time for developing a sustainable process, and for some higher material prices. But the minimalized energy costs and the increased resale value bring swift paybacks.
Getting inventive. A host of amply funded, impact-lessening innovations are crowding the nation’s laboratories, from cheaper solar panels to cleanly obtained hydrogen fuels. Udo cites two prototypes whose fruition will definitely boost sustainability. Nearest to his own field is the creation of superconductivity.
Depending on distance, up to 5 percent of electricity is lost in the form of heat by sending it though standard copper or aluminum wiring. Newer materials that are neither metal nor solid state are being considered for the task. Some very expensive methods that demand nitrogen cooling are being tested in some rare areas. “But the research is not far away where we will get conductivity running at ambient temperatures with no electrical loss,” says Udo.
Atlantic City Electric has always been a fan of the hybrid vehicle and on July 16 will be adding a large hybrid truck to its fleet. However, the real hope Udo feels, lies in the electric car, which the company has been developing.
“This car can become an electricity storage facility,” says Udo. Originally developed by a University of Delaware graduate student, the car can take power from the grid and store it. The utility will then pay the owner to hold onto the electricity until it is needed. “It can draw power into its battery from the grid, preferably at off-hours, and be re-plugged into the grid at peak times to put energy back.” There remain some kinks in this system — namely the $70,000 price tag of the auto. However, a little math makes this cost a bit more reasonable.
Imagine buying your next car for $20,000. Treat it well and it will last 10 years. Driving the national average of 20,000 miles annually, at 20 mpg, that’s 1,000 gallons of gas every year. At $4-plus per gallon now, not to mention increases through the next decade, that $70,000 might just be a good investment. And of course, the cost of the car should fall rapidly in the coming years, Udo notes.
Plus, selling electricity back to the utility can reportedly earn drivers up to $5,000 a year.
Smart grid. Udo is a constant lecturer on conserving energy. Within its own house, his company strives to follow the code.
Apart from some minor holdings in small-unit generating systems, Atlantic City Electric is a deliverer of energy. As such, it has adopted bill stabilization for its services. Thus, while the generated power is still sold to the customer based on his kilowatt/hour usage, the delivery part (A.C.E.’s part) comes as a flat fee.
It’s like getting into a taxi. The passenger pays the same rate for the delivery whether he is alone or whether he packs in his wife and five children. Atlantic City Electric reasons that since it just delivers, the actual amount flowing through the wires and over the poles is not its concern. Not every utility is so laissez faire, but Atlantic City Electric feels it gives the company the right to preach the gospel of energy conservation.
In addition to this active publicity campaign, the utility has switched to an automatic metering infrastructure, allowing it to read meters from the home office, rather than sending drivers everywhere.
“It will all come about through little things,” says Udo “installing smart switches that automatically turn off lights in an empty room, printing on both sides of a page, making one errand a week by bicycle instead of auto. We are not fated for destruction, we can sustain ourselves.”