Wednesday, April 22, 2015
One might think that only an MD (Medical Doctor) should be appointed as minister of health, that the minister of justice should be a graduate of law school, that an artist/writer should be the minister of culture, etc. In fact, others might say that this isn’t the case because, in the end, ministerial tasks are management tasks. Ministers should pick good managers and surround themselves with talented technical staffs consisting of knowledgeable individuals in order to make themselves more effective in exercising executive power. Thus, technical issues can resolved by qualified, experienced and educated people that possess the technical competence to come to an informed political decision.
This way of thinking is not true in the field of energy. We have learnt from past experiences that the energy minister should be an engineer. The minister needs to have been present in various power plants, have worked in their operation, and moreover, he or she must have worked in the investment phase. Preferably, the minister should speak foreign languages, English first and foremost but also Russian/ French/Arabic. If the minister holds a post-graduate degree in International Relations/Law, it is even better. Most importantly, the minister of energy should have taken courses on “thermodynamics” throughout his or her studies.
Our current Energy Minister will not participate in the 7 June 2015 General Elections because of his party’s regulation that none of their members of parliament may serve for more than three consecutive terms. I personally appreciate the technical competence of our Energy Minister, who is a graduate of the prestigious Istanbul Technical University and an experienced electrical engineer by profession. When I met him at a public meeting, I asked “Did you take a course on thermodynamics during your college education?”, to which he responded, “Yes, I took the course from one of the best, so to say, a legend at the department”. I was very pleased.
In the past such a technical prerequisite was not necessary for ministers of energy. Technical competence and professional experience were necessary only for the Undersecretary. Our public administration was built in this way. Formerly, if a new minister was appointed, the undersecretary would remain. The undersecretary was not a party member. Undersecretaries were the memory and brain of their respective ministries. Ministers came and left, but the undersecretary was there to stay. Politicians appointed as ministers were able to express their preferences as to whom they thought should become the undersecretary of their ministry, but they didn’t have much say in the end.
Nowadays, ministers have the appropriate amount of education and necessary experience, and when they are appointed, they try to learn everything related to the work of the ministry. Ministers should make every decision based on the commercial and political environment, taking the initiative wherever possible. However, this is not the case in Turkey, but it seems to be this way everywhere else. Public-bureaucrats prefer ministers that do not interfere, but this is not good for the energy markets.
The post of United States secretary of energy also experienced a similar development process as our own. At first, politicians with law degrees were appointed as the US secretary of energy. Now, the Obama administration appoints scientists from outside of politics to this position. Former US Energy Secretary Steven Chu has received the Nobel Prize in Physics and he was a professor at Stanford University. Current US Secretary of Energy Dr. Ernest Moniz is a professor of nuclear physics at MIT’s Energy Institute.
In Germany, the federal minister in charge of “Economy and Energy” is Sigmar Gabriel, who is also the chairman of the coalition partner SPD party. He is an elementary school teacher by profession. This post is based on political calculations for the coalition in the Bundestag. On the other hand, Chancellor Angela Merkel has a Ph.D. in “Quantum Chemistry” with her dissertation based on thermodynamic calculations. Could you imagine a prime minister with a Ph.D. degree in a scientific subject which mainly depends on thermodynamic calculations?
It is most likely very, very rare for an engineer to be appointed as “Minister of Health” or “Minister of Justice”. Such an individual cannot be expected to achieve success in such a post. Could you appoint a lawyer or a medical doctor as chairman of the Central Bank? No, because they would not possess the economic educational background that would enable them to understand the financial details associated with their field of work. But in the past, anyone could be appointed energy minister in our country.
Law School graduates have held the position of energy minister in the past, and nobody asked why. These individuals learned much of the energy problems facing our country during their tenure, but they made only limited contribution to the resolution thereof.
“Thermodynamics” is a mandatory course for undergraduates studying Mechanical and Metallurgical Engineering, Chemistry, and Environmental Sciences at our technical universities. Other engineering students may take it as an elective course.
It is thought to be a very difficult course, however, if the student works in a systematic way, consistently attending lectures, completing the daily homework and studying every day, it is not at all difficult. It is for certain that those who procrastinate, waiting to study until the day before the exam, will not be successful in such a course.
The highest public office responsible for energy should be occupied by somebody who has taken thermodynamics courses during their undergraduate university education. Public office is not a place to receive an education. If a politician is appointed to head such a ministry, that politician should have achieved a sufficient level of university education and have gathered a significant amount of professional experience, both in advance.
It is not our responsibility to teach each newcomer to the energy market that a “volt” is not a “watt”, that there is no such concept as “teravolt” or that a “megabyte” is not a “megawatt”. We should not have to teach them the differences between thermal power plants and renewable energy resources, nor should we have to inform them of the details of the Kyoto Protocol. A stadium “tribune” and steam “turbine” are not the same thing.
Newcomers should know the current EIA criteria before coming taking this public office. Public decisions should not ignore environmental sensitivities. Wind and solar energy cannot replace base-load electricity generation in the long-term as they have intermittent production, and they need new specialized and expensive high-voltage transmission line investments that utilize expensive “Pumped-Storage Hydro Electricity (PSHE)” for load balancing. They should know that these specialized state-of-the art investments and their operations are not so cheap.
Nuclear power plants are basically thermal power plants. Our local market has not managed to build a nuclear power plant or a thermal power plant for over the last 50 years. Basic design and the fabrication of major parts for these facilities have always been curtailed due to the lack of local finance. Here, we are forced to buy obsolete, old technology to equip inefficient thermal power plants with low availability as they are financed by Eastern European or East Asian suppliers and supported by their export-import banks.
Our new minister of energy should know about global warming and environmental impact assessment norms and should take care to not build fossil fuel-firing thermal power plants on agricultural land, forests, land with olive trees, ancient archeological sites, or in the close proximity of touristic regions. Our minister of energy should realize that that environmentalist/popular slogans such as “Wind- solar energy is enough for us”, “Nuclear energy solves all our energy needs, if we could have started construction in 1970s then we would be building our own plants by ourselves by now”, “There is oil in our land, but foreigners are preventing us from exploring and utilizing it”, “Shale gas reserves will solve our energy needs within the next 5 years”, or “We found oil off our shores in the Black Sea”, are all urban legends with no applicable practical or technical basis whatsoever. We must build fossil fuel firing thermal power plants by ourselves completely, covering basic-detail designs, fabrication and site installation domestically. We are suffering from unemployment, yet we allow semi-qualified foreign workers, convicts and soldiers to construct power plants within our borders.
EIA reports are to be prepared in detail, submitted properly and evaluated carefully. In order to have the EIA reports approved and certified for their new power plants, investors commit and promise everything to the local people, whether employment, prosperity, low emissions, or no water, land, or air pollution, but when they receive approval, they forget their promises. This is not a problem specific to Turkey, it happens all over the world. Investment control mechanisms should be continuous, not only enforced by public servants, but also by local NGOs. From time to time, we notice political pressure being exerted for positive EIA results so that investments can be approved and commenced. Yet, how should we approve the ever increasing amount of requests to build new imported fossil fuel-firing thermal power plants, when they are expensive, their prices are floating, the fuel price remains unreliable, and they increase our current account deficit (CAD), which is already at intolerable levels. How can we just give investors the license to proceed?
Energy’s role in economic policy is a serious and crucial business. Energy investments, energy studies, petroleum explorations, pipeline constructions, domestic coal production, scientific and economic exploitation of domestic fuel sources, finding finance, and finding jobs are all very serious issues. To ensure our country’s prosperity we need to have experienced well-educated ministers with tested public staffs.
Haluk Direskeneli is a graduate of METU’s Mechanical Engineering Department (1973). He has worked in public and private enterprises, US-Turkish JV companies (B&W, CSWI, AEP, Entergy), and in fabrication, basic/detail design, marketing, sales, and in project management of thermal power plants. He is currently working as a freelance consultant/energy analyst of thermal power plants, and utilizing his basic/detail design software expertise for private engineering companies, investors, universities, and research institutions. He is a member of METU Alumni and the Chamber of Turkish Mechanical Engineers Energy Working Group.
Ankara, 21 April 2015