Monday, January 29, 2007

Cooking with Oscar

Garbage in, garbage out? Sort of.

The twisted wire gates of the power plant facility provided a detailed look of the grounds. To my left, railroad containers were stacked like colourful LEGO blocks 5 rows across, 4 rows up, and about 15 in length. Height restrictions limit the steel stacks, yet almost 3000 of these boxes are spread on any available space. In the centre, the skyline is dominated by several stacks joined together like a multi barrel gatling gun, spewing the days thermal plume and CO2 into the fragile sky. The large building underneath held offices and several back-up boiler systems waiting for winter's frigid fingers to beckon them to life. So far, the temperature has been easy enough that the primary boiler systems can keep the local city warm.

A combined heat and power boiler is the main staple of the facility. Burning peat, a biomass substance found in swamp-like areas, produces electricity and heat for the sleepy city. This peat is transported by a train system delivering the raw materials in briquette form. Each "LEGO block" container holds about 20 tonnes of the stuff, sorted into stacks like old Christmas fruit cakes. The cakes (briquettes) are then crushed and fed into the hot hell of the furnace to produce steam for heating and electricity generation.

To complement this boiler system, the very innovative concept of garbage incineration for heat production decorates the right side of the grounds. Since all members of the European Union are obligated to find garbage incineration opportunities, a resurgence in garbage to energy concepts are growing. The plant, I toured, was built less than 5 years ago and it showed how smart design can make these things look beautiful. The system was rather easy, as garbage is dumped into a trough where a hungry claw transports it into the boiler. The hot flames consume the household wastes at 850 degrees, until it comes out the other end as clumps of sand and shards of metal. The flue gas heats up the water and converts it into low level steam and continues through a maze of incredible cleaning systems eventually ending out the stack. The emission levels from this plant are low, way below Sweden's environmental limits. Of course, this is due to the cleaning system which is quite a piece of work and, mind you, only accounts for a 1/3 of the plants total cost. Best yet, the fuel (garbage), is sold to the plant, meaning they receive cash for burning kitchen scraps and all.

One key item that impressed me the most, is the detail of education the owners of the system express. The new plant has posters explaining a point of interest within the plant as if we are touring some historical site. Each significant piece of equipment was easy to approach and to understand the role it played. The tour could have practically been self guided. I will also not forget, that our tour guide had each of us wear special wireless headphones, where he would speak into a microphone and we could hear him clearly over the rumbles of the power production equipment.

Monday, January 22, 2007

See the Light Together

When it comes to creating, a group of people can be effective to achieve results. A melding of minds dedicated to find a solution or to process a problem seems to work for us humans. The crowd is efficient, resourceful, and ingenious. The mob is ruthless, cunning, and effective.

We label our groups with so many names: a task force to solve a specific problem; a committee to look at a bigger picture; a study group to answer a difficult question; a design team to look at the past; and a working group to hash out a future. Whatever the name, a collection of humans are busy at a given task striving to reach a common goal.

As we all know, it is naive to think that a roundtable of stake holders will reach consensus, or that a council will all vote the same way. The internal conflicts within a gathering can slow the process down and even hinder it from becoming effective. We excel at throwing wrenches into the cogs. Sometimes our interests or convictions clash with those around us, but usually some compromise is found since, after all, you are part of a crew dealing with the same objective.

To realize the potential of the cluster, is to understand each individual who makes up the pieces. If we look closely, we can see the backgrounds, strengths, weaknesses, and abilities of the members. Even the reasons why they chose or are participating in the party is clear information to assess the effectiveness of the group. Each member can contribute something to make the assembly move forward into a desired direction. Realizing each potential can be difficult, but it is necessary if any goal is to be reached.

If you pause to think of the last time you were in a company of people who understood what you were contributing, you could probably say that it was exciting to work with these people. The team flowed together and the list of accomplishments grew. Think back now to an experience where the clique did not work out. Finding the faults is easy, personalities clashing, miscommunication rampant, leadership non-existent and failing results. What is difficult is to take this degenerate faction and try to solve the organizational issues before any work is ready to be tackled. Disbanding can be an option, but the problem or issue at hand still needs a solution. Therefore, complete understanding of the members is needed to find work arounds.

As I start off a new round of projects and assignments, these concerns will be front and centre. A body of enthusiastic students, together thinking and designing sustainability can only lead to good results, yet strife is never too far way.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Welcome Two Double O Seven

Happy New Year everyone. It has been awhile since I was last hacking away at the keyboard to bring you this weekly blog. I have returned from my hiatus after spending a wonderful time with family and friends.

While away, I missed the darkest days of the year in Stockholm. The light is returning to the 59th parallel and the days are growing. This, of course, is good since the darkness can get a bit depressing. I am looking forward to long summer days. The one thing to note, though, is the weather has been quite mild. Not too much rain or snow, but it usually all melts or drys up the next day. Good enough for me!

So school is going to start again this week. I am quite excited for the line up of courses I am taking. I will continue with the Energy Management course from last year, except this semester I will be working in a group to redesign a Stockholm neighbourhood to be a sustainable society. The overall goal is having each person living in the neighbourhood use on average 2 kW of energy per year. To put this number into perspective, an average Canadian home for four people is rated at 2-3 kW of electricity per year. This will be quite interesting to figure out, as well, we will be working with architects from our sister department to come up with a plan on how to achieve our goal in 10-15 years.

Another course that I am taking is a business management course, titled Language of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. This is an extra course that I added to my work load to get some experience in business management. I will be required to come up with an innovation and design a business plan around the idea. I will be working with many other disciplines which should diversify my learning.

Apart from these courses, the new engineering courses will be just as challenging as last semester courses. I did, by the way, pass all my first semester courses with good grades. This semester's biggest course is the design project course. A large energy corporation has asked for help to evaluate and redesign its fuel preparation unit at a waste-to-energy plant. The plant burns biomass and municipal waste to produce heat and power to a community 2 hours north of Stockholm. My expectations are very high for this project and so I hope to learn a lot from the design work. Fuel preparation is a very important topic when it comes to waste-to-energy (see posting below called Gritty City...Dirty Fuel).

The remaining courses are studies on the implications of energy production and the environment. I will learn in greater detail more about energy production and how these plants function. The environmental course will dive deep into public policy and the European experience of dealing with carbon dioxide emissions. I have read that there is interest in Canada to use the European model of dealing with CO2 emissions, so I will make sure to pay extra attention and take extra notes in this class.

Happy New Year again and come back next week to read more of my adventures.