Tag Archives: education

What is Sustainability?

This morning I attended a wonderful talk given by Dr. Scott Smith, retiring Dean at the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment during the monthly “First Friday” breakfast event, hosted by the Sustainability Working Group of the college. During his 13 years in office, Dean Smith has overseen/participated in the radical (though he didn’t use that word) transformation of the college, Kentucky agriculture and perhaps even some Kentucky culture. He told some wonderful stories and was very insightful on the rapid KY-wide transition from a “tobacco, cattle and grain” family farm culture with a ~100% male student body (in 1978 when he joined the faculty) to one that is now highly inclusive and diverse, both in its people (60% of the students are women! and with e.g. chefs, economists, etc. on the facility) as well as in the topics and species/crops/products that the college supports and that Kentucky produces. He highlighted the fears of the unknown future that the Kentucky farm community had when he took office on what would happen after the federal tobacco pricing program stopped (in 2004). He said it turned out to be very much about sustainability, organic, ‘value-add’ programs, investment and marketing (e.g. Kentucky Proud, etc.) All concepts which were almost unheard of in his own agricultural education and early teaching days.

I can’t hope to capture all the components and insights of Dean Smith’s talk here. But one particular (and small) question that he addressed really caught my brain and is very aligned with my own recent thinking. The question was “Will there ever be a Department of Sustainability?” His answer: No. Rather, sustainability is an integrated concept in most, if not, all the college’s courses and activities, and perhaps in all of our culture. This is also very true for me. And while he didn’t discuss sustainability in exactly the same way as my own thinking, he did touch on many of these same elements.

Sustainability in my thinking has at least three major elements or themes; or, being the engineer that I am, I’d say it has three “necessary, but perhaps not sufficient, requirements” to be true:

  1. [My engineering viewpoint:] The “system” of input resources, processes and outputs has to be in balance over time. If, over time, an input resource will be depleted, then the system is NOT sustainable (obviously)! If a process produces an output (whether waste or other) that accumulates over time without a place for it to go and for it to become an input (with similar flow rates) into some other process (whether natural or human-driven) then that’s not sustainable either! The “lifecycle” of each resource/element, including also the energy used/produced, must be quantitatively in balance for it to be sustainable. Math is required! Others may label this theme an environmentalist’s viewpoint, but to me it’s the fundamental concept of “systems engineering.”
  2. [Also having a ‘product manager’ mindset:] The economics of any human-driven process must be positive! Without being value-additive, a process cannot be operated for very long. A business case must exist with positive financial gains (math, again!) for those involved. When a process depends upon charity or donations, then it may be helpful (or even necessary) to get started, but it won’t be sustainable over time. And unlike any of the “resources” in #1, the human concept of this thing we call “money” has no law of conservation.
  3. [The social (a.k.a. human) being prospective that:] Any human-driven process must not cause injustice to any of the people involved. Others may use the term morality, or some other wording. And I wish I find a positive wording of that statement, rather than the “not cause” wording here (that software logic mindset again…). This theme (of the three) was not something I had understood as a young engineer (I was oblivious). But as I age (wiser?), it is ever clearer to me that “human resources” is NOT appropriate terminology! Human beings should never be viewed in the same mindset as taken with the other things we call “resources”, whether a component, natural resource, chemical compound, or any animal or a plant species, etc. Justice (not the same as fairness!) must be present in our society and communities, or else they (we!) are not sustainable! In practical terms, injustice is cause for civil unrest which leads to civil disorder which is not at all sustainable (and this is not the same disorder as in Chaos Theory).

Perhaps this third theme is better articulated by the fields of social science, politics (which is what Dean Smith referred to often), or the domain of the liberal arts and philosophers… Or, perhaps, this engineer is still learning new concepts… Which reminds me of the bumper sticker (and the series of books by Henry Petroski) that states “To Engineer is Human.”  Yet at this time, I can only hope that humanity is also sustainable! [Time to balance those equations!]

Solar Party

Last Saturday (Oct 26th), I participated with others from the Kentucky Solar Energy Society in a work project for the University of Louisville assisting several of their research projects going on at the new Karen Lynch Park within the Beargrass Creek watershed of urban Louisville. There were at least 20-25 people present working on multiple projects and ongoing efforts to improve and monitor the water quality and general environment. This is one of many improvement projects lead by the Kentucky Waterways Alliance, as well as others. Specifically, I and five others were there to install a 1.4kW off-grid solar system funded by UL’s research. We were the volunteer labor, but the employees of Solar Energy Solutions were the professionals.

Thanks to Matt, Ezra and Robert who took the time and extra effort to teach and involve everyone!

Thanks to Matt, Ezra and Robert who took the time and extra effort to teach and involve everyone!

The system is not grid connected, but instead will directly power a DC pump to move water up from the creek to a water tank (not yet installed) that will feed an artificial 50+ foot waterfall back down into the creek, adding oxygen in the process. All powered by the sun! The research projects will be measuring the levels of dissolved oxygen before and afterwards, and make other quality measurements to determine the effectiveness of the modification and how many of these installations would be needed to significantly improve the entire watershed.

Ezra making the final connection to the pump controller.

Ezra making the final connection to the pump controller.

Altogether the entire solar installation only took about 3.5 hours. We probably would have been much faster, except that the tin roof of the shelter had no sheathing under it, and could only support one person with extra care required. The UL team was still working to get the piping in place when we left. It was a good day for a worthy cause! – Jack

 

The future of …

Last week, I was an invited speaker at the Southern BioProducts and Renewable Energy Conference in Tunica MS. My topic was the Past, Present and Future of Solar Technologies. The organizers found me through my participation in ASES (which I’ve talked about previously) and because I’ve been a member of the board member of the Ky Solar Energy Society for the past 3 years. I was honored to provide a brief overview of solar technologies and some of my personal experiences to the folks there. A great small conference and a great set of people trying to make a better world.

Now, I’m not a leading expert on the current solar research going on in academia [by far], but I have been following the solar industry for 10+ years, and have invested much of my own time, energy and money into becoming educated in the technologies and their applications. We’re purchased multiple solar systems for our home (1 PV system, and two thermal systems installed). I’m an engineer, so I can’t help myself from learning how it works, why, the economics, etc. So I’ve become a solar energy advocate. And yes, I have some biases… because I believe our future depends upon transitioning off of our addiction to fossil fuels and becoming a sustainable civilization, rather than one that dies out after destroying its environment via natural resource extraction (too many examples of that in human history!).

Next week (Sept 30th) the United Nation’s IPCC releases to the public the final draft of its latest (5th assessment) report. I’m no expert on climate change or global warming either. Nor is Mary Anne (she’s an environmental scientist, rather than a climatologist). But as is my usual behavior I have spent time reading and trying to understand the prior 2007 IPCC report (ok, actually I just read the synthesis report, which in itself is >100 pages; the three Working Group reports are challenging academic tomes to read), and I’ll be trying to read and fully understand this latest update too. The new report is just from Working Group I (the other groups and the AR5 summary report are not due out until 2014), which covers the physical science basis for their findings. A condensed version for policymakers has been released in advance.

Given the media’s coverage so far and build-up already underway, I fear for what happens next. Our media-driven society seems to believe the opinion of a random person-on-the-street is just as ‘right’ and actually more important, than the hundreds of career professional experts working in the field from 39 different countries. Let’s please take the time to become educated on the topic, and actual READ the report (even if just the condensed version), rather than listening to just the ‘public opinion’ spewed out so far. I’m at least “95% certain” of certain other biases that are in play here…  – Jack