Not Enough New Scientists and Engineers Entering the Energy Industry

by |September 18, 2010

With the current emphasis of countries around the world on improving internal infrastructure by Smartening the Electric Grid, replacing hydrocarbons with Alternative Energy sources, repairing aging roads and bridges, and better securing our water systems, I’ve been thinking a lot about Rick Smalley of Rice University. He discovered the “Buckyball”, or Carbon Fullerene, and won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996. Then, his newly found freedom of thought took him on a crusade to convert the discovery into practical nanotechnologies to solve the world’s energy problems. Just as he was building a national consensus, he was struck down by cancer and died in 2005. In the midst of a global recession, his crusade to produce and transmit enough energy to satisfy the needs of everyone on the planet has been picked up not only by the United States, but by the European Union, and particularly, by China and Asia.

In his “remission years,” Rick was convinced that one of the biggest impediments to abundant and cheap energy for all was that there simply were not enough scientists and engineers choosing to work in the energy professions. Many more would be needed to invent the discoveries necessary to keep up with energy growth, let alone produce the abundance that would free the planet from hunger, disease, and yes he believed, even war.

When the oil price collapsed from $25 to $12 per barrel at the end of the 1990’s, energy industry management slashed their engineering and scientific staffs. These cuts were on top of the merger-mania layoffs of the 1980’s. They were so extreme that when the companies finally began, belatedly, to hire again in 2005 (when oil passed $40 a barrel), entire generations of knowledge-workers had been lost, leaving the industry technically shorthanded. The result has been that oil companies have fired more scientists and engineers than have been hired by all the alternative energy efforts across the globe.

Even after the heart-stopping peak in oil price of $147 per barrel in July of 2008, energy companies have not been able to keep up with retirements of their graying workforces. Even with economic stimulus efforts, too few new scientists and engineers are entering the energy profession. And that includes electric utilities and service companies as well as oil and gas companies. Right up to the day he died, Rick was crying out that the failure to train and hire the world’s “best-and-brightest” could be devastating to the continued development of the energy industry.

Back in 1998, I wrote an article called “Oil Production in the 21st Century” for a special issue of Scientific American on the “End of Cheap Oil.” I was feeling optimistic about the ability of technologies to keep up with international demand for more and more energy. Unfortunately, short-sighted executive decisions to merge many giant oil companies into few, and then fire more than half of the total workforce were decidedly not logical. Consequently, the technologies that once offered such great promise were developed with hardly a thought given to safe operations for the life of these newly invented assets. Rick would be very sad indeed, but not only because of the worst blowout ever, or coastal wetlands fouled, or seafood unsafe to eat. He would have connected the blowout to mining catastrophes, fouled drinking water, pipeline explosions, refinery fires, tanker spills, and so many people killed. He would have linked that to the loss of several generations of new minds that might have guided the energy industry more strongly to alternative energies, to less pollution, and to safer working conditions.

Which brings us to BP and the Great Blowout. At the turn of the 21st century, my group at Columbia tried to convince BP that Lean Systems Engineering was required for optimal Life-Cycle Management of these new billion dollar, deep water oil and gas facilities being built for the Gulf of Mexico. We even brought in Boeing to demonstrate that more systems integration skills would be required than just outsourcing more and more to independent contractors. However, that required that even more money must be spent upfront in order to create safe and long lasting systems in the long run, which turned out to be a hard lesson to learn for energy industry executives. Only systems-engineering-up-front that is very expensive prevents disasters later in the life of critical assets. Ask the aerospace and automotive industries.

Energy is not an easy business to manage safely. Whether it is oil, gas, electricity, or renewable energy sources, the energy industry requires long-term, massive investments in not only inter-dependent, heavyweight infrastructures, but also in bright people. Perhaps the world now realizes that we really need all those smart new knowledge workers to convert the Energy Industry into the lean, green, post hydrocarbon world of the future.

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