Networks and neurons - using our brains to reach Net Zero
Complex networks pervade our lives, from social media to energy systems. Net Zero requires us to rebuild the latter. What sort of energy network do we need for the future? The answer may lie closer to home than we think – by examining the structure of another mind-boggling network – the human brain.
The brain has evolved into a weird and wonderful structure, one that is full of paradox. It divides into two hemispheres. They work together, but they are far from twins. The precise shape of each is different. Each perceives the world in different ways, something that becomes more obvious when examining an individual who has suffered a left-side or right-side stroke. Intriguingly, the main interconnector between them, the corpus callosum, has inhibitory capabilities, exactly the opposite of what one might expect. There are myriad other differences and apparent contradictions.
Nature has decreed that this apparently hare-brained network is the best to help us through life. It does not appear to be a "least-cost" structure – it has built-in aspects that might be considered inefficient and some even redundant. Yet, all in all, this system drives our integrated and unique "take" on the world. It can appreciate maths and music, solve differential equations and create fugues. It helps us to survive danger, yet thrive when safe. Life without it is, quite literally, unimaginable.
Might it have something to tell us about how energy networks can best be designed? I suspect the answer is yes. At the simplest level, a dual structure, with limited not excessive interconnections, provides system benefits when things go badly wrong – a defence mechanism against total failure. More positively, it allows us a diversified platform to meet a range of needs where different "technologies" may have subtle comparative advantages. Less evidently, it keeps open the option that a wider range of future technologies, today’s R&D, might one day integrate effectively into the network. 1+1 = 3 in system thinking.
Today’s UK energy system has developed into a triad covering transport (oil), heating (gas) and gadgets (electricity). To a large degree, the networks evolved independently. Fossil fuels drive the first two directly, and indirectly the third (gas-fired power). It has evolved in strange ways for well over a century, as "molecule" and "electron" solutions were shown to work better in specific situations, with varied "quality" features in terms of flexibility, storage, and robustness inter alia. It combines the old with the new, the high-tech with the basic, the large with the small.
To decarbonise this system requires change. Today, zealots promote unique solutions to the challenge (phrases such as "full electrification" or "the hydrogen economy"). This fundamentalism is dangerous. Our society will be weakened and fragile without a robust and flexible energy system meeting a wide spectrum of future consumer and producer needs, some of which are unknown to us today.
To create a low-carbon diverse energy network, remembering how our brains work provides useful clues. Consider parallel systems, create options, eschew mere efficiency, integrate the primitive and advanced, embrace paradox and uncertainty, leave room for creativity. After all, these are well-tried principles in our own minds.
The main sine qua non to allow this is to put a clear price on the atmospheric emissions we are trying to eradicate from the existing system – above all, carbon dioxide. After that, let the system evolve naturally, driven by consumer needs and market signals. That is the easiest way to silence fundamentalism – the greatest of all illusions, in energy as elsewhere.
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