Yesterday, Germany announced plans to shut down all of its nuclear power plants by 2022. In bold fashion, the world’s fourth largest economy has committed to closing 17 nuclear facilities that account for 40% of the nation’s energy supply in just 11 years. However, Germany didn’t stop there. Germany’s announcement is even bolder. Germany’s Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen said “We don’t only want to renounce nuclear energy by 2022, we also want to reduce our CO2 emissions by 40 percent and double our share of renewable energies, from about 17 percent today to then 35 percent.”
In the coming days and weeks, much will be written on Germany’s decision. Is it economically feasible to convert such a significant portion of a nation’s energy infrastructure at a time of economic instability? Is it technologically possible given the relative uncertainty of renewable resources that are still unproven on a grand and long term scale? Will Germany become a net energy importer, driving energy prices higher to the detriment of other EU nations? Are enough technologies available to replace the lost energy output and are any of them ultimately safer than nuclear energy? These are all good questions that can, and will, be discussed at length. However, Germany’s announcement caused my mind to go in another direction.
As graduation season is upon us, I am stuck wondering about our nation’s graduating engineers. This spring, thousands of engineers will walk onto a stage and receive a diploma. A diploma that is the result of devoting many years and much money to become a highly trained and skilled engineer. They will eagerly enter the work force and many of them will begin working towards becoming a Professional Engineer. As they begin this journey, how must they feel about our nation’s commitment to utilizing the skills they have just spent years obtaining.
It may be many years before we can answer the questions raised by Germany’s announcement. It may be decades before we know whether Germany’s announcement was wise. However, there is a more important question that we should be asking ourselves:
Do we as a nation have the courage to take on bold initiatives?
I imagine that fifty years ago engineering students graduated and wondered if they would help build the next Golden Gate Bridge. They may have dreamed of the next nationwide project that would rival the interstate highway system.
Today, I imagine that engineering students graduate and wonder why our nation is falling behind the rest of the world. As a nation that has the world’s greatest higher education system, are we fully able to capitalize on the students that are graduating from that system?
In the United States, expenditures on infrastructure have fallen to just 2.4 percent of GDP; in contrast Europe invests 5 percent of its GDP on infrastructure and China 9 percent. In the World Economic Forum’s 2010 league table, America now ranks 23rd for overall infrastructure quality, between Spain and Chile.
The world’s tallest buildings? Not in New York or Chicago, but Dubai, Taipei, Shanghai, and Kuala Lumpur. The world’s fastest trains? Not the Acela, which averages 70 mph and only travels between Washington and Boston, but rather the French TGV traveling at an average speed of 140 mph. The world’s longest bridge? That can be found in China and is nearly five times longer than the U.S.’s longest bridge. Something to ponder next time you are on the Staten Island Ferry.
There are many reasons for the United States to reverse its current trend and begin re-investing in infrastructure. Perhaps, not the least significant reason is to inspire the engineers that have devoted their lives to building that infrastructure.