4 Steps for Applying the Systems Approach to Energy Engineering Projects

The engineer can apply the systems approach to a wide range of energy topics, ranging from specific energy projects (e.g., a gas-fired power plant or wind turbine farm) to broader energy programs (e.g., implementing a policy to subsidize energy efficiency and renewable energy investments). The following four steps are typical:

1. Determine stakeholders: Who are the individuals or groups of people who have a stake in how a project or program unfolds? Some possible answers are customers, employees, shareholders, community members, or government officials. What does each of the stakeholders want? Possible answers include a clean environment, a population with adequate access to energy, a return on financial investment, and so on.

2. Determine goals: Based on the stakeholders and their objectives, determine a list of goals, such as expected performance, cost, or environmental protection. Note that not all of the objectives of all the stakeholders need to be addressed by the goals chosen. The goals may be synergistic with each other, as is often the case with technical performance and environmental protection—technologies that perform the best often use fuel most efficiently and create the smallest waste stream. The goals may also be in conflict with each other, such as level of technical performance and cost, where a high-performing technology often costs more.

3. Determine scope and boundaries: In the planning stage, decide how deeply you will analyze the situation in planning a project or program. For example, for the economic benefits of a project, will you consider only direct savings from reduced fuel use, or will you also consider secondary economic benefits to the community of cleaner air stemming from your plant upgrade? It may be difficult to decide the scope and boundaries with certainty at the beginning of the project, and the engineer should be prepared to make revisions during the course of the project, if needed (see step 4).

4. Iterate and revise plans as project unfolds: Any approach to project or program management will usually incorporate basic steps such as initial high-level planning, detail planning, construction or deployment, and launch. For a large fixed asset such as a power plant, “launch” implies full-scale operation of the asset over its revenue lifetime; for a discrete product such as a microturbine or hybrid car, “launch” implies mass production. Specific to the systems approach is the deliberate effort to regularly evaluate progress at each stage and, if it is judged necessary, return to previous stages in order to make corrections that will help the project at the end. For example, difficulties encountered in the detail planning stage may reflect incorrect assumptions at the initial planning stage, so according to the systems approach one should revisit the work of the initial stage and make corrections before continuing. This type of feedback and iteration is key in the systems approach: in many cases, the extra commitment of time and financial resources in the early stages of the project is justified by the increased success in the operational or production stages of the life cycle.

This post is excerpted from Energy Systems Engineering, Third Edition, coauthored by Francis M. Vanek, Ph.D. You can download Dr. Vanek’s free white paper, An Orderly Transition to Renewable Energy.

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