In the past five years, Bechtel delivered three world-class solar projects powering approximately 275,000 homes in California. The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, an engineering feat in California’s Mojave Desert, uses 173,500 computer-controlled mirrors to follow the sun’s trajectory. In operation for about a year, Ivanpah has nearly doubled the amount of solar electricity in the United States. Photo by: Bechtel

Access to reliable energy and the infrastructure systems that enable it will be a critical part of the United Nations post-2015 sustainable development goals being launched later this year. The potential impacts and implications of rising urbanization, changes in climate and intense natural disasters have brought renewed attention to the importance of building resiliency into the world’s energy systems.  

Amos Avidan, senior vice president and manager of corporate engineering and technology at Bechtel, offers a promising opportunity to address this global issue. A well-respected leader in his field, Avidan spoke to Devex about how smart, data-centric, technology-driven engineering and design can revolutionize how the world advances sustainable development.  

How can engineering address a problem as complex as energy and development?

Engineering has always been the key to designing resilient and sustainable energy systems. Energy affects everything because everything we do needs energy — energy means power, of course, but it also means clean water, sewage treatment, food production, transportation, cellphones, communications and the Internet. Energy is foundational to global development.

Yet, this connectivity can also be a source of risk. For example, if you lose electrical power because of a severe weather event, you might also lose communications and access to information systems if it is all connected to the same energy source. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, families and businesses in some northeastern areas of the United States did not have access to electrical power. We saw private and public transportation grind to a halt — as gas stations without backup generators could not pump gas. This impacted more than travel; it limited access to vital services, such as emergency response and care.

Our engineering challenge — our opportunity — is to design an energy infrastructure with a systems approach. This allows us to connect parts of the system to increase efficiencies or cut down on redundancies, as well as be able to smartly disconnect them in the event of an extreme weather situation or other disruptive major event.

We are able to do more now than ever before thanks to truly revolutionary information technologies at our disposal. Today, we have so much more information we can use, taken from multiple sources. It’s big data; and just like how people in social media or in the fast food industry use big data to make their companies more productive, we are using big data in engineering to design better and more resilient energy infrastructure systems.

What are some examples of these technologies and how are they helping to build smarter cities?

There are different levels of smart cities, but the term itself essentially means cities that use vast amounts of digital technologies to become more efficient, protected, and sustainable. We can design an energy infrastructure system to transport more people with less energy, power homes with less carbon emissions, or sustain people with less water use.

Satellites, drones, and sensors are all providing historical and predictive data — such as weather patterns, integrity of existing infrastructure, population movements, traffic patterns, erosion, and more. All of this shapes how infrastructure is planned, engineered, designed and managed over time.

We also design these cities to be resilient. We cannot prevent events such as cyclones, earthquakes, or cyber-attacks, but we can design these cities to be prepared and to more effectively absorb these shocks and then quickly recover and rehabilitate. A quick recovery, or a “non-event” is perhaps  the best measure of success.

How does this work link to the broader goals of resiliency and sustainability?

At Bechtel we teach our early career engineers about the overall impact of their work, not only on economies and communities, but also on the planet. We are excited about the emerging field of “development engineering” that combines the traditional disciplines of engineering with sustainable development.

For example, we have a special partnership with the government of Gabon in West Africa where we developed a master plan for Libreville, the capital, and much of the surrounding area. Geographic information systems are using satellite data to show us where the infrastructure is and where people are living. With that we can model scenarios such as what would happen if the sea level rose by a certain percentage or if there is a flood. Then we take that data and use it in our design to make sure we are protecting the energy infrastructure against such an event.

What will happen if the global community fails to build the necessary resilience into the world’s energy infrastructure systems?

If we fail in our efforts, much of society may be far more susceptible to interruptions in our normal lives caused by extreme weather, terrorism, cyber-attacks or other shocks. We will see more parts of the world spending weeks, even months, without power, without functioning gas stations, without clean water. These impacts will worsen as the global population becomes more urbanized.

But there are reasons to be optimistic. Today, we understand these issues better than ever before, and we have the data, technologies and know-how to plan for these disruptive events and manage energy systems more efficiently and with more predictable results.

Personally, I think we are living in a revolutionary time. What we are seeing on an engineering level today is much bigger than the change that happened when computers were introduced in our industry. The age of information is here, and it is a great opportunity for all of us.

Natural disasters, resource constraints and new patterns of development require companies and governments to plan for energy and other related infrastructure to be both resilient and sustainable. During this monthlong series brought to you by Devex and Bechtel, we’ll explore strategies for deploying sustainable resilient infrastructure to help advance global development. Visit the campaign site Engineering the Next 100 Years and join the conversation using #build100.

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About the author

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    Anna Dirksen

    Anna is a strategic communications consultant working with a variety of health and environment organizations. Previously, she led the communications and outreach strategy at the U.N. University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability, with a focus on education for sustainable development. She has also worked as deputy director of communications for the global health organization PSI in Washington, D.C., with the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, at the U.N. Secretariat in New York, and in Rwanda with a global health not-for-profit. She earned her M.S. degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and began her career as a television host, reporter and producer in Canada.