One thing is sure in an energy crisis – despite fuel scarcity, there will be no shortage of proposed solutions. Today is no different, with opinions on the implications of recent energy developments ranging from: “we now need more gas and nuclear,” to “we should rid ourselves of gas and nuclear forever”.
My own view is that what we need to think about are not pre-ordained paths and solutions – the future is too uncertain for that. Instead, we must consider how to create sustainable energy systems in three key dimensions: risk management, information flows, and innovation.
Energy is organised as a network, a complex web that adapts over time to the many demands put on it. When it stops working, more or less everything else falls apart. Can nature help us as we think about how to devise a sustainable energy nexus that is robust to macroeconomic and societal shocks, including recession, inflation and war? The answer is yes, and closer to home than we might think – in our own heads!
The brain is a network divided into two hemispheres, but they are not twins. Each side attends to the world in a unique way; the left scrutinises things with a torch-light focus, the right searches out into the unknown with a broadening beam. Their collusion and synthesis determines our ‘take’ on the world.
The brain does not appear to have a ‘least cost’ structure – it has aspects that might be considered inefficient, and others flawed or even redundant. Yet, all in all, this system, with power consumption close to that of a small electric bulb, is the nerve centre that allows us to survive and thrive as individuals. It embeds important clues on how energy networks can best be designed.
Firstly, in risk management terms, dual structures bring huge advantages, as anyone who has been unfortunate enough to have a stroke will confirm. Each hemisphere of the brain is strong enough to support consciousness on its own. In energy, it is delusionary to consider ‘electron only’ (electrification) or ‘molecule only’ (hydrogen or fossil fuel) solutions to our energy needs. If only for basic survival, a diversified energy system is safer, as recent events in Europe show only too clearly.
In fact, diversification has various dimensions. There are compelling reasons for policy to promote both local and main grid solutions in both electricity and gas. This can allow different technologies that have subtle comparative advantages to flourish over time in different niches. As politicians are apt to overlook diversification to focus instead on their own pet projects, there is a rationale to embed societal diversification needs into the laws of the land.
Building a sustainable society means embracing diversity. Energy is not that different. A robust energy market combines the old with the new, the high-tech with the basic, the large with the small.
Secondly, information flows are critical in any complex network to ensure its operation. Here, my main proposition may appear counter-intuitive, but experience bears it out – embrace uncertainty! Our brains thrive on it, especially when we create ‘safe spaces’ where we allow ourselves time to think. The read-through for energy policy is to encourage markets to evolve, rather than distorting or destroying them with authoritarian plans. All energy markets, from car-boot sales of oil for Victorian lamps to capacity auctions in carbon and power markets, yield nuggets of information on demand and costs. They are a wonderful way to synthesize information.
Thirdly, energy systems are not static. They evolve, sometimes smoothly, at other times disruptively. Energy policy should free the imagination by encouraging competitive investment in R&D, to ensure openness to new ideas and thinking. In most technology-led markets, of which energy is just one, the pace of change makes a mockery of most forecasts or plans, often in a matter of a few years. That is one reason why public investment in energy should be targeted at earlier-stage development and commercialisation, rather than supporting the lobbyists.
Building a sustainable society means embracing diversity. Energy is not that different. A robust energy market combines the old with the new, the high-tech with the basic, the large with the small. It tolerates apparently strange solutions and encourages innovation. Above all, it ignores the zealots, who probably represent the single biggest risk to our energy future.
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