Green Engineering in a Grey World
Green engineering or Eco-Engineering means aiming for “green” or zero-carbon footprint through the project lifecycle. Not easy with most of our modern “grey” infrastructure, but there are improvements we can achieve.
First, be aware of the eco-limitations. The main one is that most components are grey. Components means tools, buildings, personnel accommodations, communication equipment, and so on. The infrastructure that surrounds our project is grey, and will most likely require grey processes and inputs to keep it running. That will only change slowly as green infrastructure-replacement projects occur incrementally over time. Changing the world is outside the work scope of any one project.
Second, obtain commitment from all stakeholders that all “processes” of the project will be done with zero GHG emissions. This means we use electric vehicles and electric tools, and we ensure that the project power needs during all phases from initial concept to ribbon-cutting can be met using renewable sources for electricity. I know – laughter and guffaws coming from the crowd. A lot of us immediately react with “it can’t be done.” Of course it can be done, but it takes longer and requires thinking outside normal patterns. Sometimes a good approach is to “call for submissions”. Universities and small-scale suppliers are often better positioned intellectually to find green alternatives. Zero-carbon products are more of a challenge to find, and there will be some grey components needed, but those can be kept to a minimum. Part of the work scope is sourcing green components and tabulating the carbon foot-print of grey components so that decisions can be made not only on component / process quality, but on sound eco-costing.
Third, develop a green mindset. This is essential. Here are two suggestions for the sort of mental detritus we can clear out. Avoid creating waste streams. Waste is an unsustainable concept we invented out of laziness. Sustainable subsystems within a closed system do not produce waste, they produce inputs for other processes. That is our goal. Waste heat is a little tricky–hard to argue with the second law of thermodynamics. However, if we incorporate heat absorption aspects into the project to offset heat output, then we can aim for a neutral balance. Usually this means outsourcing to groups that specialize in habitat creation, restoration and preservation, but with some projects, there are on-site measures that can be built into the design, especially if the project includes surfaces suitable for solar panels or locations suitable for installation of wind-turbines and GHG absorbing vegetation. Another candidate for mental re-tooling is the notion that time is money. It isn’t. Instead, think of time as opportunity for either eco-investment or eco-destruction. There’s an entire philosophy elaborating this concept, but it boils down to looking at projects in terms of generational or era survival, not fiscal year end budgets.
Finally, stick to the zero-carbon goal, constantly. Money has a way of finding the path of least resistance, which can lead to loss of quality, compromise of safety, and in our case, erosion of our eco-goals. When it starts to rain in the project third quarter, as it often does, be prepared with an umbrella and rain-boots, of eco-design of course. Eco-contingency is a new concept, but has parallels in current project planning strategies. We will likely fall short of achieving zero-carbon emissions in the short term, but as we gain experience and build up our Eco-Engineering BOK, we’ll get closer and closer to the goal of sustainability.