Monday, October 24, 2011

A game-changing energy solution: The Laser Inertial Fusion Energy Project

50 years ago, people said fusion energy was 50 years away. John Post of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore thinks they were right. As he explained at our October Green Project Management Seminar, that means we’re on the brink of an exciting new chapter in energy generation.

And not a moment too soon. Energy demands are increasing as our supply of non-renewable energy sources is dwindling. And our current energy supply is about 90% carbon based. Renewables are important but for now a thin wedge of the power we’re using, and transmission and distribution are challenges.

Post feels that our solution to this energy situation needs to be:
  • Affordable
  • Environmentally clean, safe, sustainable
  • Nearly inexhaustible
  • Possible with technologies and materials available today
  • Non-geopolitical
  • Non-proliferant – that is, not conducive to creating and proliferating weapons
  • Compatible with the existing grid infrastructure
  • Timely enough to make a difference and meet the energy demands of 2030 – 2060
Sometimes, it turns out, the answer is right in front of you. Fusion is what powers the cosmos, so we know it works — it’s just a matter of getting it to work in the lab, a challenge akin to putting rubber bands around water.

How does this work? It involves taking some hydrogen from water, filtering out the heavy water (water with an extra neutron), baking it for a few billionths of a second at 200 million degrees F, and converting mass to energy. We’re talking a lot of energy -- one liter of heavy water has the energy of more than 2 million gallons of gas. Each fusion energy plant would prevent 7 million tons of CO2 from being released into the air.

To succeed, the NIF Laser Inertial Fusion Energy (LIFE) project has to get more energy out of the reaction than is put in – or achieve ignition. Currently the process is at the break-even stage. But Post believes we’re looking at NIF ignition in 2012, a first-of-a-kind plant in the early 2020s, and significant market penetration in the 2030s. Although it’s been a long road, and there have been some crackpots on the journey, Post is not alone in thinking we’re close to achieving the goal. In fact, some are starting to see the LIFE project as competition, a good sign. And Secretary of Energy Steven Chu says we will get to the goal and should be planning for that.

At the seminar, Post involved attendees in a lively discussion of the project’s challenges, many of which are familiar to project managers:
  • Perceptions and change management: Most people aren’t aware of fusion energy or how close we are to achieving it, especially since the LIFE project has been declassified for just a short time. Many people have negative associations with fusion energy and mistakenly compare it to our current nuclear energy. So public education and outreach will be important to the project.
  • Competition: We can mitigate this by working with other countries, as we have done with such projects as an international space station.
  • Cost of market entry and timeliness of commercial deployment: Post believes there’s an opportunity for public-private partnership, and while government sponsorship is important, fusion energy should not be funded by the government. The current economy is an issue, but only $5 - $8 billion is needed to build the first plant -- not a lot of money for this sort of endeavor. And we might be able to repurpose existing sites, such as Three Mile Island, which already has the necessary infrastructure and heat source and is nearing its end of life.
  • Stakeholder engagement and competing stakeholder interests: It’s important to determine what motivates different stakeholder populations and appeal to that to get their support for the project.
  • Staying within budget and on schedule -- an issue for any project.
The list goes on -- but being aware of challenges goes a long way toward addressing them, and the October seminar attendees were privileged to participate in helping identify potential issues for this project from a fresh perspective.

For more on the LIFE project, visit the LIFE website.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Sustainability exercise: Eliminating company-provided bottled water

One characteristic of our Green Project Management seminars that keeps them so engaging is that they all provide some level of interaction. At our September seminar, on Adobe’s journey to sustainability (more on that in the previous post), Global Sustainability Manager Meera Ramanathan presented the group with this exercise:

You are tasked with eliminating bottled water from your company’s campus in a year. Many employees are excited about the change, and an equal number are not. The CFO is not convinced of the cost benefits. How do you structure your project to ensure success?

Seminar attendees came up with these suggestions:
  • Do research, get feedback, engage people on ideas so that ideas can come from them.
  • Do a benchmark to see where you stand in relation to others, see if you’re the first or behind others and let employees know where the company stands.
  • Employees might mistakenly think the bottled water at the office is cleaner than their tap water at home. So it’s important to educate people that this is not the case -- and it could be a good idea to get deals for them on filters for their homes, so they don’t need to take home water bottles.
  • Provide alternatives: the company can provide filtered water, cups, and metal water bottles. Could provide pitchers for visitors, since some people might be concerned about how to get water to their visitors.
  • Compare costs of the alternatives to what you were spending on plastic bottles. Also think about recycling and trash costs.
  • Engage in consistent communication and education of stakeholders.
  • Think about how to roll out the elimination of bottled water. Could do it in phases, give employees metal bottles, make it a competition.
  • When the change has been made, go back to the CFO and show savings.
  • Ask for feedback from resisters.
In fact, seminar attendees noted, in many ways a project like this follows the same methodology as other projects -- but it may have a strong emotional aspect. So education and change management are especially crucial.

After we’d discussed our ideas, Ramanathan told us how was it done at Adobe:
  • One weekend, the company added water filtration systems, with a note on top of each filter communicating about their benefits.
  • Bottled water was concurrently reduced by 50%. Employees didn’t realize there had been a reduction, because they still saw some water. At the same time, there was constant messaging to let people know the change was coming. Each month, the amount of bottled water was reduced.
  • The company gave employees canisters and added cups in the break rooms. These could be used for guests and left for janitorial staff to deal with.
  • Messages were sent to all employees explaining what was being done, and feedback was solicited.
  • The company incentivized employees to make the change by stocking fresh fruit where bottled water had been. The caf├ęs provided fruit-flavored water.
  • And of course, the CFO was convinced of the benefit when he saw the savings that were realized from making this change.
Although there had been some resistance, by the first week of the program all but 15 – 20% of the naysayers were excited about it. Specific issues still had to be addressed -- for example, some people wanted only room temperature water, and the water from the filters could be a bit cold. These people were encouraged to simply wait till their water got warm enough. Before long, even they had adapted. And many employees appreciated that the company had responded to an issue that was brought up initially by employees.

An unexpected benefit was that this project led to looking at other ways to save more money in break rooms. The company is considering cutting down on sodas and is now buying bulk juices instead of individual bottles. And healthier options such as oatmeal and soups have been introduced. This is just one small example of how one sustainability project can engender others and lead to more benefits than originally expected.

Note: Although I am an Adobe employee, this posting is my own and doesn't necessarily represent the position, views, or opinions of Adobe.