The Sustainability Singularity is a point which will be reached in the future, where business, economic, and engineering decisions can be based on full end-to-end lifecycle cost calculations. When comparing options, the most cost-effective choices will be determined accurately, regardless of the complexity of the systems being modelled, because cognitive computing and machine learning will account for interactions between all the digital twins of all systems’ components, and because all costs up and down the supply chain from cradle to grave will be known.
There is an urgent need for industry to decarbonize in response to the existential threat posed by climate change, but energy transition success depends on our ability to unleash more human ingenuity and cooperation by promoting greater understanding about our destination and about the complexity of the challenges we face. The Sustainability Singularity described in this Insight is the natural destination of a successful energy transition, enabled by advanced analytics and digital transformation.
For success in the energy transition, humanity requires a way to increase levels of cooperation as well as competition to spur great innovation. This in turn requires that we accelerate the spread of more accurate and widespread understanding of the complex issues involved with decarbonization, environmental impact reductions, and circular economy efforts. The Sustainability Singularity provides a framework to unleash a much-needed “can-do spirit” and sense of common purpose, by modeling our decarbonization destination and shedding light on key aspects of our energy transition.
In the realm of sustainability, a singularity occurs when the full environmental, economic, and social impacts of any decision or action can be calculated, because all equipment has an up-and-running accurate digital twin and full operations and maintenance and cradle-to-grave cost history, with full Scope 1, 2, and 3 accounting for everything. The Sustainability Singularity will be a major achievement. It will require that we leverage advanced analytics and digital transformation capabilities as part of a complete framework for Scope 1, 2, and 3 reporting, to enable industry and policy-makers to arrive at better decisions. The Sustainability Singularity is best understood by first taking a brief look back at an earlier era, as a lens through which some of the highly complex issues currently associated with the energy transition can be seen more clearly.
The Energy Transition, The Clean Air Act, and the Blue Efficiency Haze
It was in 1963 that the Clean Air Act was passed. The Clean Air Act was the first federal legislation regulating air pollution in the United States. Coincidentally, 1963 was also the year that construction began at the Ravenswood Generating Station in New York City, which included “Big Allis,” the largest steam-based electric generation plant in the world at the time.
After the provisions of the Clean Air Act went into effect, operational parameters at Big Allis had to be changed. It was mandated that the fans had to be adjusted to ensure more rapid airflow out of Big Allis’ smokestacks (which are more than five hundred feet high), to remove the so-called “blue efficiency haze.”
The 950 MW facility, which could run either on coal or on natural gas, was designed to get the greatest possible amount of energy out of the fuel being burned. It was a marvel of engineering, with massive and costly heat recovery systems that economically improved efficiency.
The original operating instructions for Big Allis stated that the point of maximum efficiency would be evident when a blue haze was visible, coming out of the smokestack. But to ensure compliance with the Clean Air Act requirements, the new adjustments meant that the flue gas would now come out of the smokestack faster—at more than eighty miles an hour. This eliminated the appearance of the blue efficiency haze, but it also reduced efficiency.
Engineers are great at optimizing designs to meet specific criteria. Big Allis was exquisitely designed to economically generate the most electricity out of a given amount of fuel. Avoiding the “blue efficiency haze” was not part of the design plan.
It is easy to see how some of the polarizing issues which are currently debated about the energy transition were part of the 1960s utility industry:
- Market inefficiencies due to mismatches between engineering and regulatory requirements.
- Reverse impacts which hinder achievement of policy goals.
- Misunderstandings stemming from a narrow point of view (e.g., optimizing a power plant’s efficiency in isolation from its overall economic impact on the wider community).
- The human tendency to settle upon an overly simplified explanation (e.g., saying The Clean Air Act was implemented poorly) which does not reflect the reality.
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Keywords: Advanced Analytics, Decarbonization, Digital Twins, Energy Transition, Engineering Economics, Scope 1, 2 and 3 Reporting, Singularity, Sustainability, ARC Advisory Group.