Bees and termites inspire solutions for 21st century energy grids

Sensemaking / Bees and termites inspire solutions for 21st century energy grids

How lessons from social insects and other living systems can help us redesign the energy grid.

By Michael Pawlyn / 02 May 2017

This article has been published on the Futures Centre as part of the Living Grid Explorer. You’re invited to take part from now till 12th May 2017, to discuss how we can create an interactive, self-balancing and adaptive energy ecosystem that’s inspired by nature.​ 

Humans have achieved some truly remarkable things, like modern medicine and the digital revolution. However, when one sees some of the extraordinary adaptations that have evolved in natural organisms, it is hard not to feel a sense of humility about how much we still have to learn. Nature is replete with examples that could inspire more efficient industrial processes, buildings and cities that are integrated with natural systems, and that restore them, rather than undermining them.

Social insects have evolved to thrive by following relatively simple rules for the individuals which can result in complex behaviour at a group level. This is the means by which termites have built sophisticated mounds with solar powered air-conditioning and sustainable agriculture. This behaviour is known as ‘emergent’ and the means of control is sometimes referred to as ‘swarm logic’. One example of a technology inspired by social insects is Encycle, which uses inter-communicating controls on each piece of electrical equipment in a building that ‘cooperate’ to reduce peak loads and increase efficiency.

Perhaps the best way of describing the potential of Encycle is to imagine a complex building like a hospital in which each piece of equipment has its own rules and all communicate with each other. The rule for life support equipment would be ‘don’t ever switch me off’, for a cold store the rule might be ‘you can switch me off for long periods as long as my temperature doesn’t rise above 5oC, and when energy is cheap you might as well cool me down to 1oC’, and for something non-critical like carpark lighting the rule could be ‘generally keep me on between dusk and dawn but if you have to dim me down to low levels that’s no problem’. Through communication and cooperation this approach can substantially reduce peak loads as well as overall energy consumption.

The example of a complex building is not wildly different to a whole geographical region of interconnected energy producers and consumers. What else might we learn from biological systems to help us rethink our existing approach to energy?

Humans tend to tackle problems head-on whereas living organisms, through the process of evolution, have tended to change a problem before resolving it. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of energy. We have tried to meet our ever-evolving needs by using and generating more and more energy rather than thinking about how we could develop solutions that, just as in nature, need far less energy in the first place.

It is worth comparing the characteristics of conventional human-made systems with ecosystems as shown in the table below:

Conventional human-made systems   

Ecological systems

Linear flow of resources Closed loop / feedback-rich flows of resources [1] 
Often centralised Distributed and diverse
Robust / resistant to change Resilient / adapted to constant change
Wasteful Everything is nutrient
Persistent toxins frequently used No persistent toxins [2]
Hierarchically controlled Panarchically self-regulating [3]
Fossil-fuel dependent Run on current solar income
Engineered to maximise one goal Optimised as a whole system
Extractive Regenerative

 

Our conventional energy systems sit firmly in the left-hand column. Prior to the development of smart metering there was very little in the way of feedback between producers and consumers other than the grid operators trying to monitor and match total consumption. Large, centralised power stations still dominate and the paradigm has been one of robustness – trying to build enough generating capacity to deal with the largest foreseeable load. This approach can be very wasteful in distribution losses, through maintaining ‘spinning reserve’ to deal with short-term fluctuations and from occasional periods of excess renewable energy that can’t be used.

Humans tend to tackle problems head-on whereas living organisms, through the process of evolution, have tended to change a problem before resolving it. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of energy

The idea of the Living Grid aspires to many of the characteristics of the right-hand column – those of ecological systems – finding inspiration from them. In this approach there would be a high degree of feedback through smart-metering and price-signalling to deliver the same kind of reductions in peak consumption that were described for the hospital example above. Instead of robustness the aim will be resilience achieved through a distributed and diverse system of thousands of small to medium sized producers (including domestic-scale PV arrays and utility-scale solar farms and wind farms). The system can be backed up with forms of energy storage such as batteries, heat stores and 'things that go pump in the night’ (Amory Lovins’ endearing way of referring to pump storage schemes). There are relatively few examples of electricity storage in biology – electric eels being one obvious example – but many examples of energy being stored in other forms such as sugar, starch or fat. Perhaps it’s no accident that the form of energy storage emerging as the most promising solution for inter-seasonal storage is not electrical energy but synthetic liquid fuels. Similar to the fat reserves in animals it is argued that only solid or liquid forms of energy storage will provide the stability (not sure this is quite the right word – what I mean is storing energy in a form that does not decay over time) to cope with the difference (in temperate climates like the UK) between abundant solar energy in summer and much less in winter.

Some other parallels with biology are worth exploring. For instance, in ecosystems organisms have evolved to fill every imaginable niche so that there are no wasted resources. The equivalent to this would be a Living Grid that creates the right price signals to produce an array of ‘waste entrepreneurs’. This new category of enterprising species will emerge to take advantage of cheap energy, or even negatively priced energy (ie. you are paid to use it!), that will result as intermittent renewables become a steadily bigger part of the grid. Apart from synthesising liquid fuels there may be many other business opportunities that arise to fill these new niches.

Biomimicry – design inspired by the way functional challenges have been solved in biology – has also been used to design better renewable energy technologies: learning from humpback whales to design wind turbines that maintain operation in slow wind speeds, from razor clams to develop low cost ways to sink foundations into the seabed and from palm trees to propose mag-wind (vertical axes) turbines that can survive hurricanes. Janine Benyus has commented on the way that natural systems are regenerative and generally grow towards greater abundance and diversity – something she neatly encapsulates by saying that ‘life creates conditions conducive to life’. It’s possible for renewable energy generation to have this effect. Solar farms in hot regions facilitate plant growth in the shade they create. Grazing animals also benefit from the shade as, in most cases, their natural habitats would have included partial tree cover, and they in turn can build the fertility of the soil. Tidal lagoons and offshore wind farms increase biodiversity by creating more colonisable surfaces for plants and small molluscs which then support organisms higher up the food chain.

For instance, in ecosystems organisms have evolved to fill every imaginable niche so that there are no wasted resources. The equivalent to this would be a Living Grid that creates the right price signals to produce an array of ‘waste entrepreneurs’

By reducing energy consumption, evening out peaks and troughs, encouraging waste entrepreneurs and adding renewable generation it should be possible for the Living Grid to steadily retire large fossilfuel power plants and move our economies towards being fully supplied by renewable energy. Should we be optimists or pessimists when looking to the future? Hans Rosling argues that we should be neither as both of those positions imply inevitability. What we should be, he says, is ‘possibilists’[4]. We should decide on the future we want and then set about creating it. In ‘Biomimicry in Architecture’, I argue that a solar economy that halts the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now a clear enough destination to aim for - and biomimicry is one of the best sources of solutions to get us there.

 

Michael Pawlyn is an architect and public speaker focused on biomimicry and innovation.

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Footnotes

[1] To clarify this summary: flows of energy are, as dictated by laws of thermodynamics, always linear. 1 Flows of other resources such as carbon, nitrogen, water, etc. are mostly closed loop in ecosystems although there are some limited exceptions to this.Arguably fossil fuels are an example of waste and it could be seen as ironic that we are currently getting ourselves into difficulties as a direct result of using waste from ancient ecosystems. Similarly, the carbon cycle involves some flows between atmosphere, hydrosphere and lithosphere that are linear in the short-term but closed loop over a geological timescale. ‘Feedback-rich’ is an observation from Ken Webster at The Ellen MacArthur Foundation which is intended to convey the idea that flows of resources in ecosystems effectively involve information flows as well in the sense that they influence the numbers of predators and prey in a dynamic relationship.

[2] Some biological organisms have evolved to use toxins but only for a specific purpose and all the toxins break down after use to harmless constituents

[3] Panarchy is a term used by systems theorists as an antithesis to hierarchy.

[4] Rosling, H.(2010) “Hans Rosling on global population growth” TED talk, filmed June 2010, posted July 2010 http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_on_global_population_growth.html

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