Friday, July 17, 2009

disruptive power tech?

I was thinking about what it'd take to put me out of a job and am not too worried.

The electric utility industry exists to take advantage of the efficiencies of large scale energy production. Small scale household or neighborhood based production could certainly have a future, but a fairly disruptive technology would have to be invented to make it worthwhile.

No domestic option today is remotely competitive on a cost basis, even with all of the state and federal tax credits. With enough unrealistically optimistic assumptions (like zero maintenance, rapidly escalating utility energy costs, and a 30 year service life), cost inefficient technologies like household solar panels can be sold. But even the vast majority of these systems require being connected to the power system in order to work.

I expect that one day some kind of combined cycle natural gas fuel cell plus solar panel plus batteries system could approach cost parity with the power system, but so what? Most people don't go to the trouble of having that kind of thing installed in order to achieve zero savings.

And I can't think of a system that would require less than two disruptive technologies in order to completely obviate a connection to the power system. The one I think of requires 1) virtually free truly maintenance-free solar panels and 2) ideal energy storage and conversion system(no fumes, no maintenance, no acids, no fire risk, minimal noise, 30 year lifetime, predictable failure).

The other possible source of job loss for me is if some clever exec decides to move my work overseas. The best reason why this is unlikely to happen is that the cost of engineering staff is minuscule compared to the cost of a mistake. I do projects where my time is 5-7% of the project cost. If the project were outsourced, the total project cost might be reduced by 2-3%. But if any mistakes are made and the project construction gets held up by a day or a piece of equipment fails prematurely because it was incorrectly specced or designed, any savings on engineering time would be greatly overcome by construction and maintenance cost overruns.

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