Sunday, February 1, 2009

Not easy building green

It's hard to stop using fossil fuel.

Not impossible, just difficult. It requires a considerable amount of hard work of different kinds, but primarily engineering design, math, economic thinking, and old-fashioned tradesmanship or craftsmanship. All of which are in exceedingly short supply in this silly, foolish, communications-and-spin oriented world of ours.

Take our old farmhouse, for example. Despite being more or less completely gutted, refitted with new equipment, and being about as well managed as a building can be when its owners work 60 hour weeks for three-quarters of the year, it still uses a hundred gallons of heat oil a year. (This is in addition to several cords of wood and several hundred KWH of electric heat.) This year, with the cold, it's been more like a hundred and fifty.

So even with many tens of thousands of dollars of retrofit, all my skills and brainpower and several summers of work, we still don't have a carbon neutral dwelling. What will it take in the end? Probably the addition of a new exterior envelope of thick foam board all around the main part of the house, plus the installation of another electric baseboard heater, running on Maine hydropower or wind power bought through the grid. At least another five and possibly ten thousand dollars.

Luckily, it's all tax-deductible. But not easy.

Then take the high school's wind turbine. So far it's taken the donated hours of eight or ten excellent professionals with expertise in everything from wind assessment to economics, from companies like NRG Systems to non-profits like CEI, not to mention small armies of Unity students. And nothing has been built yet. This is just the planning phase. How many years of education and experience were needed just to outfit this one small school with a turbine? Even then, the numbers may not crunch at today's turbine prices and power prices.

So when I think about all the college students busy in both of my countries, the US and UK, trying to lobby the government to come up with a better climate-and-energy policy, I wonder if they really realize how much work there is to do after the lobbying is done, to get the renewable energy and energy efficiency equipment actually installed and running.

Eventually we'll get done with the political phase of climate and energy leadership. Eventually the proper regulatory, tax and subsidy regime will be in place, the one that makes it expensive to use oil and coal, particularly expensive to waste the energy that results, and cheap to use renewables and efficiency measures. Since this is really a matter of switching a subsidy from damaging sources of energy to clean ones, and of switching a regulatory regime designed to control regional pollutants like sulfur dioxide to one that can control global ones like carbon dioxide, it shouldn't be as difficult as it currently is, but lots of people have rice bowls that depend on the older forms of energy.

Then what will we need?

*Planners who understand energy.
*Engineers who understand planning and economics.
*Tradesmen and women, who can do difficult installations and solve difficult on the ground engineering problems.
*The trades supervisors, managers and business people who will keep them working
*Government officials who understand all of the above
*Leaders in business and government who must take difficult decisions to establish the government and private for-profit operations to make and install all this equipment
*The last of the world's oil and gas to provide the energy to make and install all of the equipment

I'm not sure how many of our young people involved in the lobbying and activism quite understand what different skills and knowledge and dispositions are required for this second phase. So different, in fact, that it may not even be the same people who do the work. At Unity College, our climate activists are not studying energy, engineering, economics, or business. And the students who are, are, for the most part, not climate activists.

Climate activism is about communications and about the marketing of ideas. It requires professional skills, but different ones. There's even a revolving door with green business.

And business is in a bad way. For two or three decades or more, it has been more profitable for a bright young person to immerse themselves in the glamorous world of communications and marketing -- to the point where much of business has become just communications and marketing -- than it has been to learn how to make the actual products that are being marketed.

The current recession is really the collapse of this massive bubble of spin, in which we collectively believed all our own spin about how valuable the different new financial products and bits of paper and heavily marketed electronic junk was, and bid up the prices of all this spin, paper, and junk, until it all came crashing down one day.

This in the two countries, Britain and America, that respectively began the industrial revolution and took it to the next level of sophistication and productivity. Countries that could make anything we wanted. But we chose to make junk and spin and paper instead of useful things.

Likewise, climate activism right now, in its current phase, from top to bottom, is mostly just communications and marketing. It's very useful communications and marketing, much more so than the normal kinds of for-profit marketing.

But we're going to need a bit more than that.

I think it high time we went back to our industrial roots, and relearned some other old fashioned-but-newfangled skills: how to fabricate from raw materials, metal, wood, plastic; how to shape parts; how to assemble, test, fit, install; how to plan, study, economize; how to analyze and use logic -- in short how to get things built or fixed, an how to run large scale programs that get things built or fixed.

These are the skills we'll need to finish the job, and they're not found in marketing classes.

As an ex-RAF aircraft engine fitter, I was privileged to have what must have been one of the world's last traditional engineering educations, back in the day at the former No 1 Technical Training School, RAF Halton, Buckinghamshire. Let me explain what that was like, so you can see how developed a tradition it was, and how far removed from marketing and activism.

Grease plus swarf plus snot plus attitude equals RAF engine fitter, AKA "sumpy," the world's most responsible, highly trained and independent minded military technicians.

(We even had our own language.)

Back then, Halton was a massive facility built by German WWI POWs, in which row after row of football field-sized worksheds with gleaming concete floors and hundreds of pieces of fabrication equipment vied for space with rows of aircraft, jet and piston engines, cranes, lifts, jacks, workbenches, and the like. This was your world. You started with a whole month of filing. No kidding. You had to learn to file metal to micrometer precision. The idea was to learn hand tool skills, which most of us adult entrant fitters already had since we mostly came from northern industrial cities, and to learn to be precise.

Some of the instructors were WW2 veterans, and had worked on Lancasters or Spitfires when it really mattered. They treated us snotty kids with pure amused disdain.

A piece of metal is either an inch thick, to a tolerance of one "thou," or it's out of tolerance. It either is, or it isn't. No spin or communications can make it within tolerance if it's not. You either do the job right or you don't do it at all. We might spend a week trying to get one measurement right, then get told to do it all over again, not good enough. Out of tolerance.

Then the engines and their systems. We learned to assemble and dis-assemble half a dozen different types of engine. We learned physics in the classroom: aerodynamics, mechanics, electricity, math through calculus. We learned to use cranes and lfting equipment to remove and replace engines. A Rolls-Royce Spey engine weighs 4,000 pounds and is about fifteen feet long, without the afterburner. Speys went in Buccaneers and Phantoms, the Vietnam era F4 fighter. I worked on Phantoms, among other types. I was trained as a jet engine technician, intended to be a junior leader working with teams of mechanics to service aircraft, on the fast promotion track to be an engineering shop supervisor, which I later became, running engine bays and flight lines while still in my early 20s. It was even a Halton graduate that invented the jet engine, Frank Whittle. Later I took another course, the piston engine course, and specialized in that for a few years. The RAF still had a half-dozen types of piston engine in the late seventies and early eighties, and we were trained to work on beasts like the Shackleton bomber, the last flying derivative of the famous Lancaster, with the massive v12 Griffon engine.

Now that was a real "derivative," not the kind that needs a bailout.

There was a sense of purpose and disciple to the training, and an idea that you were doing something useful for society. This notion was heightened for me by the Falklands war of 1982, and the IRA bombing campaign, for which we had to fortify our airfields with sandbags and barbed wire. It completely evaporated when Maggie Thatcher invaded the north country with swarms of thuggish southern police to break the miner's strike in 1983-85, and I had to leave the "Mob" then, and joined the environmental movement and came to America.

The social and industrial changes that resulted from Reaganism and Thatcherism broke the heart of British and American engineering prowess for a generation. Experienced machinists and toolmakers, men who could make anything out of metal, were out of work in both Sheffield and Pittsburgh. Plenty who lost their jobs while in their fifties never worked again.

Much of our equipment and knowlege fled to China. I expect other important engineering disciplines in Britain and America went into the same decline that the RAF then entered, which lasted for a dozen years with job cuts and a weakening of standards. And so, after eighty years of engineering history, RAF Halton is no more, and even the colours were transferred to Cosford.

The Halton colours are the only ones in the British military that are always carried by a non-commissioned officer, a testament to the importance of engineering in air power.

What I would like to be involved in now, is a process whereby we recover some of this prowess and spirit, temper it with more up-to-date ideas from ecological economics and conservation biology, recover the western spirit of can-do leadership, and implement a resoundingly successful solution to the linked energy and climate problems. This thing is starting to move. But we'll need a lot more people with this rare combination of difficult problem solving skills and engineering know-how.

We need to train a whole new generation of skilled personnel for this field.

That's what I think I'm trying to do each day I go to work these days. And I really feel like a whole person again. If you can use a crane to put a jet engine in a plane, or a massive piston engine in its nacelle, and do it without breaking something or hurting someone, then you can put a wind turbine together too. It's the same engineering. And more and more, as I make connections with managers, engineers, technicians, planners, and professors around the country, I'm starting to feel like I'm a part of something again.

I have begun, however, to lose touch with the climate lobbying and activism movement.

Which I think is fine. It will do great without me. I'm happier with the black-and-white of engineering and economics, where it either works or it doesn't. When I gave up engineering all those years ago to study the environment, the move didn't sit that well with me, and I was always tinkering with something on the side.

Now I'm going home, and can feel it.


Ron Priest said...

Hi Mick, was searching for something else about Halton and found your article. A good read. I was 207 entry 1966, graduated as a JT electrician.
I live in the Midlands near the National Memorial Arboretum, a fairly new place for commemorating the forces etc. We have Halton Grove, a garden dedicated to ex apprentices. The centrepiece is a 15m diameter apprentice wheel in green hedging. If you use google maps go to post code DE13 7AR and look for the 'wheel'. I now manage the garden as a volunteer. Its nice having a green prop nowadays. Instead of oil, swarfega and grease I dirty my hands weeding and pruning. Blisters from gardening are less painful than those from filing blocks of metal. Very therapeutic. Good luck with your project. What entry were you?
best wishes, Ron Priest

Mick said...

Hi Ron, just found your comment, six months after you posted it! Sorry for that.

I was APD 34, direct entry fitter, graduated December 1979. I still use all those skills, even the filing, in my work with renewable energy. It amazes me, actually, how well the training has held up. I have a hard time explaining to computer-age students why the RAF thought it was a good use of my time as a fitter trainee to spend a whole month in the filing room scratching away at tiny blocks of metal.

Ozzy Osborn said...

Hi Mick,
I came across your site by accident whilst updating one of my own sites, I was in the 210th Entry at RAF Halton, my other site
I read your post with interest and would like to put a copy of the time you were at RAF Halton on my website if I may? Could you please put a link on your site from my sites too if possible. I will put a link to your site on whatever I copy and if you do not like it I will of course amend or delete it as required.

David "Ozzy" Osborn 210th Entry RAF Halton.

Mick said...

Ozzy, please feel free to go right ahead. When you get done, send me a link at