Confessions of a Naïve Engineer

Author photo: Peter Manos
ByPeter Manos
Industry Trends

Back when I was working as an engineer at Con Edison in the mid 1980s, the acclaimed poet Allen Ginsberg selected a poem of mine as the winner at a workshop competition at Walt Whitman’s birthplace. He thought the way I viewed Confessions of a Naïve Engineerthe power plant as being part of nature was “very Whitmanesque,” and added “and what a set!” 

In 2011, I worked the poem into a blog where I naïvely mused about what it would be like if we “were forced to factor into our decisions the full true costs of every source of energy.” 

Completing my second year at ARC Advisory Group, in this blog I look back at my naïve 2011 confession. It no longer seems so naïve, given how the most recent breakthroughs with digital twins and generative AI are making these types of dreams into realities. 

The Hindrance of Ignorance

Another thing became starkly clear when I looked back at my old ideas—the ability of the general public and policymakers to approve of key energy transition technologies is hindered by ignorance about what fossil-fueled infrastructure has already accomplished in relation to energy efficiency and economic utilization of heat exchangers and other O&M and design accomplishments. Ignorance is a hindrance because it will make it difficult to get full scale approvals of key technologies such as green gas, green hydrogen and carbon capture.

All those decades ago I wrote “Stop and see what your electric bill is paying for—they owe you a tour” in the middle of my poem, “The Power Plant,” but so few people have toured and learned to appreciate what their electric has been paying for, for many years.  There was plenty of "wow" factor in our industry 100 years ago, rightly so, but the hurdles our industry has surmounted in recent decades should have also been the source of similar appreciation, but have not.  And this holds true for most industries that use a significant amount of fossil fuel, with the exception, perhaps, of the appreciation of certain high tech sectors, such as NASA.

What is your Industry’s “Tang?” 

Industrial leaders need to do more to reposition their industry’s accomplishments. Such repositioning can go along lines similar to NASA’s so-called space spinoffs which tout how medical, IT, and other tech “spin-offs” from NASA’s R&D helped other industries. Absent this and related forms of appreciation, a lot of the counterproductive pushback against sustainability initiatives is a byproduct of not filling in the void of unknowing with good understanding. Even if, for example, you view as now silly the 1960’s-era “golly gee wiz this is great” view of a product like Tang (which still exists today) as not being the most healthy type of food, the fact that it was developed for the Apollo mission and led to a non-aerospace product that still exists today, is a net positive for the NASA R&D spend in most people’s way of thinking.

What ETIS Challenges Excite You?

What energy transition and industrial sustainability challenges and opportunities are you most excited about? What impossible dreams have you had about improvements in your organization’s world and in your wider circles, which may now become positively-fulfilled realities?

The remainder of this blog was originally published as a McDonnell Group blog on 21 July 2011 and is reprinted with the permission of Don McDonnell.

What word comes to mind when you think of an oil-fired power plant? You’d never expect the answer to be “beautiful."  That is, unless you were me, in the late 1980’s. I recently dusted off a poem I wrote back then, when I was working as an engineer at Con Edison. I believed the distinction we make between technology and nature is in our minds. “Doesn’t everything come from the earth?” I’d ask.

Along with “beautiful,” another word that does not come to mind for most people when talking about fossil-fueled power plants is “efficient.” But fossil-fired power plants were designed to get as much energy out of the fuel as possible. For example, after the steam runs through the turbines, it passes through a cascading series of heat exchangers, to pre-heat the water on its way back to the boilers. Similarly, the hot gasses coming out of the smoke stack pass through a heat exchanger to pre-heat the cooler air going to the boiler.

Was it environmental benevolence that made engineers include these enormous, expensive heat exchangers in their design? No, it was pure economics. It saves money.

In this way, ultimately, economics could be the driving force for environmentally sound decisions. If only we knew--and were forced to factor into our decisions--the full true costs of every source of energy!

I know it is certainly in our capability as a civilization to harm the environment if we don’t make good decisions, so I realize I was naïve to think of nature and technology as being the same thing. But as I re-read my old poem I still wonder…We have two different words for them, because nature and technology are two different things. But what, after all, would the distinction between them be, if we sincerely tried to apply all our technology in ways that were in accord with nature?

While that’s being decided, all these years later I’d like to celebrate this power plant. Again.


The Power Plant

I. The Astoria Generating Station

Five pairs of smokestacks rise
out of the ten-story brick building.
Each is connected to a boiler
120 feet high and 50 feet square at the base.

The walls of each boiler are inch-wide pipes
where water turns to steam
to then turn the turbines.

Oil or natural gas burn in the dual-fuel boilers
from nozzles pointing in from the corners
making four 4-story high jets of flame.

I’ve opened the portholes
and gazed at the man-made suns.

The turbines that run off the steam
all hum a steady low “A” hmmmm
whipping the generator rotors around
at 60 cycles per second
where electric and magnetic fields dance
in eternal perpendicularity
inside the house-sized housings
on the Turbine Room floor.

You can fit dozens of gymnasiums
in the Turbine Room
and a crane 200 tons strong
rides on its ceiling beams.

Through these sizes and numbers of structures here
d’you realize how humbled and struck with fear
seeing the guts of this city leaves you?

It made my feet quake.  At first.

Now I stand in its midst
as the voice of a massive organism
with bones of rock and steel
and veins of electricity and steam.

Stop and see what your electric bill is paying for. 
They owe you a tour.

We take the elevator to the top floor
where the floor is a metal grating
you can look through
to see ten levels filled with pipes and pumps,
and up in front of you
the frames supporting the ten enormous boilers
hang freely on an army of compressed springs
with coils thick as your wrist, coiled tall as a person
standing on crossbeams, aligned at acttention
in a perched formation from which each detached stanchion
faces less excessive stress from heat expansion.

You may see contortions in the distance
rough waved heat distortions that dance this dance
in the starkness of the hall’s long view
with the steadiness of the general roar.

II.  The Tunnel House

The best stark long view came through
when I went to the Tunnel House
alongside the plant
where electric lines cross under the river.

Putting on my hardhat
I went over and met the foreman
who led me into the skeletal elevator cage
closed its accordion door,
and told me about how the tunnel
was the eighth wonder of the modern world
when they finished it in 1915.

When we reached the bottom,
260 feet down
below the rock under the river,
looking across to the Bronx
I could see a perfect vanishing point
so straight was the mile-long run
of large black pipes inside the tunnel.

But there was no bedrock for me to see
because the tunnel’s walls
were all lined with concrete.

Then as we turned to go back up
I saw a large cavern
carved into the bedrock.

“They started building
a tunnel to Manhattan back then,”
the foreman said, “then they gave up.”

I had only a moment
standing there awestruck
before this tomb or womb of naked rock
to secretly whisper a blessing
before the foreman and I went back up.

As I stepped out of the tunnel house
squinting in the sunlight
quick as you’d flick a switch
the power quaking through my feet sank in the dirt.

Planting my roots, I thanked Mother Earth.


Engage with ARC Advisory Group

Representative End User Clients
Representative Automation Clients
Representative Software Clients