On the 14th June 2017, SmartestEnergy and Forum for the Future hosted an event to explore how our energy grid can become more interactive and able to flex in response to the ebbs and flows of renewable energy. We focused in particular on one element of corporate leadership in the energy transition: demand-side management. One of our guest speakers, Ben Haggard, helped to wrap up the event with his views on the value of regeneration to our future energy systems, and how we can cultivate a regenerative mindset. Here are some of his reflections.
1. A larger enquiry: How do we place questions about energy within the larger context of the regeneration of social and economic systems and the ecological systems they inhabit? This requires opening our inquiry to such topics as the role of human beings on our planet, and the kind of future we aspire to create. Without this, the conversation continues to be unconsciously framed by the beliefs and aims of the existing “legacy” energy system.
2. Living language: One of the legacies is that we think of the system as mechanistic. Related metaphors sneak into our language and limit our ability to think about the energy grid as a living system. For example, “best practices” and “scalability” assume that the best way to work on energy is to demonstrate an approach or solution in one place and then roll it out across the nation or world. Although this has been a powerful model, it has also led to many of unintended consequences. What if we called best practices “differentiated practices” or “indigenous practices”? Could this encourage a proliferation of uniquely local solutions, based on local resources, identity, and relationships?
3. Life beyond the loop: One potentially problematic metaphor is the “closed loop.” Although it is proposed as a systemic alternative to the idea of linear, source-to-sink processes, it fails to adequately describe living systems, which are never static and might more accurately be characterized as “open loops”/ In other words, in a living system, energy and nutrients are cycled and recycled in order to evolve or elaborate the expression of life. Life creates the conditions for more life. Why not aspire to have our energy systems achieve the same?
4. Abundant energy flows: We have unnecessarily limited our thinking by assuming that we need to reduce our demand for energy, because the cost of supplying it is too destructive to planetary systems. However, if energy systems were designed to improve ecosystems and local economies, while drawing down atmospheric carbon, the logic would shift. Energy production and consumption would become a driver for a whole cascade of other ecological and social benefits. We would want more of it, not less of it.
5. Resources or by-products? Industrial agriculture uses far more energy to produce food than the energy embodied in the food itself. Regenerative agriculture, on the other hand, yields multiple streams of products, habitat, restored watersheds, carbon sequestration, and other ecological services while fostering local business development. Food, in other words, is a by-product of growing a healthy system.
Life, that is to say, creates the conditions for more life. Why not aspire to have our energy systems achieve the same?
6. Energy independence: Bio-fuel projects that operate on a regenerative model are being designed and built to serve as instruments for carbon drawdown. By growing forests as the feedstock for a host of small industries, including energy production, these projects are returning a degree of economic agency and energy independence to small communities. This is very different from the conventional model whereby small, developing communities and nations are turned into resource colonies and consumers.
7. Energy in ecology: If we make energy production an inextricable aspect of ecological and social regeneration, it is possible to bring far more creativity to questions of energy supply. But we can also bring more creativity to questions of demand. What might it mean to educate demand—changing over time the purposes for which energy is used?
Here's a simple framework I generated to describe what a living and regenerative grid might entail, followed by some explanations:
7. Differentiated potential: How do we create an energy grid that can support the differing situations of diverse communities, rather than favouring one-size-fits-all solutions? How do we anchor this differentiation process in the authentic identities of place, and the potential for contribution that arises from these authentic identities? Can each place foster local innovations, from new energy sources or technologies to new political, social, or economic arrangements?
8. Capability and capacity development: It will require dedicated effort to build the capability and capacity that communities, industries, and businesses need to pursue a living grid. How could governmental agencies and educational institutions support this? What value can energy companies add? Can they make themselves indispensible to customers and distributed suppliers by growing their ability to participate in the emerging living grid?
9. Inspiring vocation: Any transformation as fundamental as the one being described here requires willpower (both personal and political): how can this willpower be sourced and sustained? To some extent, players will be driven to participate by rapid changes already occurring in the market. Larger issues, such as the need to address global climate change, are also a potential goad to action. Interestingly, the concept of place-sourced participation in a locally meaningful energy system may in itself be a powerful source of political will. Local places have the advantage of being both intelligible and generally beloved by local citizens. If the emergence of a living energy grid can contribute to the regeneration of local communities and ecosystems, it will gain a broad, built-in constituency of a very different nature than the usual players in energy debates.
How do we create an energy grid that fosters the qualities that differentiate communities, rather than favoring one-size-fits-all solutions?
10. Harnessing human energy: In conversations about energy, we divorce the term from its larger context and meaning. Energy, after all, is ubiquitous, binding atoms into molecules and getting us out of bed in the morning. All of the changes we are talking about here will be driven by the energies of creativity, invention, and political will. Perhaps the best way to increase the abundance of electrical power and the intelligence with which it is generated and deployed, is to harness human energies. Or in other words, it’s not enough to work on how we manage energy if we don’t also work on how we think about managing energy.