The recent United Nations COP26 Summit in Glasgow, Scotland, is a fresh call for everyone to consider what steps we can take in response to climate change. Individual engineers play a significant role in shaping and designing the world around them, which means we each have the opportunity to help create a more sustainable world. Following the lead of the Institute for Civil Engineers’ guide for engineers to make practical change, here are five messages for engineers who want to take action.

1. Think Differently, Act Urgently

We can’t continue to do what we have always done. The problems presented by the shifting climate provide an opportunity for civil engineers to take a more creative, collaborative and holistic approach. For substation projects, we need to encourage project stakeholders to consider reducing the footprint of the project or opting for a no-build solution, where feasible, to reduce carbon emissions.

Modular substations offer increased efficiency and flexibility compared to conventional substation solutions. Civil engineers are using precast/preassembled foundation components, constructed off-site, which can be quickly and easily deployed for a faster construction schedule. These foundations also can be quickly disassembled and moved to new sites for future reuse.

2. Carbon Should Be Part of Every Conversation

For projects using engineer-procure-construct (EPC) delivery, it is never too late to put carbon on the agenda, irrespective of the status of the design. If a project is too far along to influence design, we should look again at implementation, operation or usage to see where carbon savings can be made. Radical carbon savings can be generated through fresh thinking about routine practices that may be surprisingly easy to change.

Civil engineers should work with stakeholders to propose alternatives to conventional concrete usage in areas such as reinforced concrete, foundations and paving concrete. We can propose use of recycled aggregates and low-carbon cement replacements to reduce embodied carbon by up to 80% compared to standard concrete mixes whilst also increasing durability. Early engagement with supply chain partners and their material suppliers will continue to be essential to success in this key area of sustainability.

3. Influence Your Stakeholders

People can be nudged to change their habits if new behaviours are easy, attractive, social and timely — a framework, known as EAST, that was developed by the Behavioural Insights Team. The more engineers and other infrastructure professionals create an environment in which lower-carbon options are available, simple, desirable, familiar and normal, the more end users will adopt lower-carbon behaviours.

Civil engineers can propose alternate reduced-carbon solutions in collaborative meetings with clients. For example, finding alternatives to concrete paths and foundations in substation projects — using more sustainable alternatives such as chippings and helical piles — can have a significant environmental benefit. (The equipment used to install helical piles is also typically smaller and requires less power than is needed to install traditional concrete foundations.) As well as being more sustainable, these techniques have other benefits: They are cost-effective and produce relatively little disruption or noise.

4. Put Outcomes Before Outputs

To achieve lower-carbon infrastructure, civil engineers need to shift their thinking from what infrastructure is to what infrastructure does. We should be asking the project stakeholders, “What is this for?” This outcome focus is central to the Project 13 principles, which advocate an enterprise approach to project delivery that brings together owners, partners, advisers and suppliers, working in more integrated and collaborative arrangements that are underpinned by long-term relationships.

Civil engineers should query, for example, requirements for a building for gas-insulated switchgear (GIS) at a substation. GIS has been installed outdoors with touchup painting according to a maintenance programme set by some original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). There will be substantial savings in carbon and project cost if GIS buildings and their foundations do not need to be installed.

5. Be Creative

Committing to a zero-carbon future means investigating alternative scenarios that involve reuse, adaptation and behaviour change that would radically reduce users’ need for the asset. Civil engineers can affect outcomes by building nothing — instead adapting existing infrastructure or changing the way we use it. People with diverse mindsets bring their experiences to problem-solving and creative solutions.

Where possible, civil engineers should propose to use existing permanent civil, structural and building engineering assets on any substation site with due justification of its use, including carrying out design risk assessments. A project team should be challenged to modify routing of any services such as cables to use the full capacity of existing infrastructure. Design should seek out opportunities to retain and repurpose buildings instead of demolishing and replacing.

Designs should involve the least material use while retaining safety, buildability and 100% utilisation. Designs should also consider future strengthening processes as a viable way to futureproof instead of overdesigning.

Civil engineers can use building information modeling (BIM) to help project stakeholders make better-informed decisions as they evaluate opportunities to use more sustainable materials throughout the project life cycle.

Believe You Can Make a Difference

A combination of different thinking, stakeholder influence and creative solutions can make a substantial difference in driving real and sustainable changes. As the world pursues solutions to tackle climate change, your team can make a difference on the ground, too. Never underestimate the role individual engineers can play.


Sustainability is an increasingly key feature of business, projects and supply chains. Here are five questions substation engineers should be asking on each project.

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