Electricity from coal produces 200 times as much solid waste as electricity from wind

There has been a lot of focus on wind turbines’ end of life recently. You may have seen posts and articles like the one above popping up in your social media feeds. Photos like these raise questions about whether you can really call wind turbines “green” if they create so much non-recyclable waste. Does burying tonnes of fiberglass at the end of a turbine’s life undo all the good work done by the clean energy generated over its lifetime?

These are completely reasonable questions, and I want to know the answers too.

But one thing that I noticed was that these questions are always about wind turbines in isolation. I didn’t see anyone asking how the waste produced by wind turbines compared to other forms of electricity generation, or other sources of waste. So I set out to do a little bit of what I am calling investigative engineering. …

What are the applications with real potential, and what is just hot air?

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What is the go with hydrogen these days? Everyone is talking about it all of a sudden! It is literally the most abundant element in the universe, and also plentiful on earth, making up 2/3 of the atoms in water and present in vast volumes of organic compounds. Hydrogen was first produced artificially in 1671 and discovered as an element in 1766. It has been quietly going about its business for hundreds of years before suddenly a couple of years ago, people started to pay attention. …

Anyone can learn to apply the first two laws of thermodynamics to separate actual developments from perpetual motion machines.

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Popular Science cover 1920 Norman Rockwell / Public domain

I’ve been a professional engineer for 15 years, and I can’t stand the way that engineering is communicated to the public. Engineering shapes the world we live in, and it is incredible to me that we still haven’t figured out how to communicate engineering developments in a way that the general public can understand and would be attractive to them, but also getting the technical part correct. Writers are so concerned to make engineering reporting sound exciting that they often sacrifice accuracy or even plausibility. It doesn’t need to be this way.

One topic that is especially prone to misrepresentation or overselling is renewable energy (my field of expertise), particularly new renewable energy technologies. Reporting on individual new technologies often presents the new tech as the solution to all existing problems and, in the process, overplays the problems with current technologies and ignores challenges with the new tech. I get it. Writers want to write about exciting topics, significant new developments, brand new technologies that their audience hasn’t heard of. And traditional engineering and technology development can seem slow and incremental in today’s fast-paced news cycle. But this type of sensationalism gets in the way of progress towards what should be our real goal: zero emissions as soon as possible. …

The engineering principle of design lifetime explained by a wind energy engineer.

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Did an engineer design it like this on purpose?

Sometimes when I am talking to people about wind energy, I will say something like “wind turbines are designed to last 20–30 years” and the person I’m talking to gets a kind of shocked look on their face (if they are pro-renewables) or a kind of “gotcha” look (if they are anti-renewables). I can see what they are thinking: are wind turbines designed to purposely fall apart? Perhaps so that “big wind” can rake in the profits as hapless wind farm owners have to buy new turbines? The truth is less dramatic than that. The principle of design lifetime is used by engineers for several good reasons, and it allows products to be more reliable and cheaper than if every individual component was designed to last as long as possible. Still not convinced? …

5 Lessons I Learned from Backcountry Skiing

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The author hiking a snowy backcountry ridge (Photo: Ryan Gormly)

I remember when I was learning to ski, I had to find the balance between trying to stay in control, yet being relaxed enough to respond to unexpected obstacles as they arose. The first time I found that balance, the exhilaration I felt proved addictive and skiing has been an important part of my life ever since. I especially love to go backcountry skiing, where I can get away from the crowds and use my own power to climb mountains and ski untouched slopes.

The tension between control and agility is something I strive to balance in my work too. Managing innovation projects means not knowing at the project start what the product is going to look like, or even what the limits of the technology are. It pays to stay flexible to manage this inherent uncertainty, but standard agile project management methods are notoriously hard to apply to hardware products like the ones I manage. These have long lead times, low volumes and need to fit into factory production plans that are set well in advance. …

Exciting opportunities but missing a low emissions commitment

It’s a “low emissions technology roadmap”, without a “low emissions roadmap”. And that’s a problem.

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Time to update Australia’s renewable energy plan

The Australian government’s recently published technology investment roadmap is a strange document. It feels like both a bottom-up document written by engineers and a top-down document written to a political script… and with the two parts jammed together without worrying too much about whether it makes sense as a whole. The roadmap promises an exciting future of technology leadership yet without any stated intention to actually commit to a clean economy.

Rather than the exciting possibility of becoming world leaders in future low emissions technologies, the path to a low emissions future will actually be mostly made up of existing, proven, cheap… some might say boring technologies like wind and solar energy. Will we continue to squander our significant natural advantage in renewable energy resources? Or will we commit fully to a clean economy that includes both leadership in future low emissions technologies for the hard-to-abate sectors together with mainstream renewables for the bulk of emissions reduction? Where Australia ends up between these two options will depend on the extent to which we choose rational thinking and risk management over ideology and the status quo. …

For the last eight years I have been working in the wind energy industry, designing wind turbine blades. A lot of people I talk to ask me questions about wind energy, and by far the most common of these is: “why do wind turbines have three blades?”

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It is an interesting question because there is actually a lot of disagreement amongst engineers about what the reason is. If you ask five engineers in the wind industry, you’ll probably get five different answers. And the reason for that is that there is no single reason why wind turbines have three blades. …

Maybe a year ago I decided to do something about my negotiation skills.

I needed better outcomes distributing tasks and resources for my teams at work, and I certainly wasn’t great at negotiating pay rises. As women, it seems, we often hold back at such times — and that doesn’t help with the gender pay gap, does it?

I started in on some reading, and found five great books, books that gave me the confidence I needed to navigate my own negotiations. I also completed an 8 week negotiation training course, Wies Bratby’s Women In Negotiation. …


Rosemary Barnes

PhD in engineering. Passionate about renewable energy, new technology and engineering communication. Engineering with Rosie on YouTube: https://bit.ly/3hVkrLb

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