Discussion: Can our grids behave like living systems?

Sensemaking / Discussion: Can our grids behave like living systems?

Scaling up living energy solutions is challenging. While specific initiatives might be successful, creating a shift in the way in which we obtain and use energy will require systems change

By Alisha Bhagat / 26 Apr 2016

When you think about the energy that powers our world, what is the first thing you think of? Many would think of coal or an iconic image of an oil well pumping. Certainly, fossil fuels have powered the world for a long time. However, as people and societies realize that reliance on fossil fuels is not sustainable in the long term, they are looking towards alternatives. One such alternative is viewing energy as part of living system.

In the first article Giles Bristow writes about biomimicry and a shift towards looking at the design principles that nature presents. We can emulate natural designs, such as natural heating systems inspired by the shape of termite mounds. Such “living energy” systems meet human needs but in a way that is nature-inspired and sustainable.

Solutions around living energy are needed on a range of levels. This month we look at several areas of intervention: companies, small and medium enterprises, cities, households, and among individuals.

Companies have a part to play in the shift towards living energy. Alex Duff talks to Jeremy Parsons of Kingfisher, an international home improvement business, to discuss how the company aims to shift its 1,200 stores to be either zero carbon or surplus energy generators.

Three Ashden award winning projects highlight the importance of small and medium enterprises in adopting and tailoring energy solutions. Hydroelectric and solar energy generation in projects in Indonesia, Costa Rica, and Wales demonstrate the ability of pioneering organizations to make a difference.

To describe this on the city level, Madhumitha Ardhanari looks at the Indian city of Lavasa, the first privately built and governed city. Lavasa intended to be water neutral and reliant on renewable energy, the implementation was a bit trickier than anticipated.

On the household level, the internet of things is often lauded as one possible solution to the energy crisis. If only people could monitor and regulate their energy use through “smart” devices at home, surely then there would be more efficient usage and less waste. Scott Smith brings more nuance to this argument by describing how the IoT needs to be more widely distributed if it is to create change among the greater population.

The Signals of Change describe specific innovations that use data to improve energy generation and access. GE’s “digital windfarms” will generate power and collect data. Google will help homeowners make decisions about solar panels. Finally, mobile phones will improve access to solar energy in Kenya.

Yet scaling up living energy solutions is challenging. While specific initiatives might be successful, creating a shift in the way in which we obtain and use energy will require systems change.

What could help shift our energy system towards a living system? What would that look like on a national or global scale? Please share with us your insights and join the discussion.

Related project:

A group of visionary organisations have launched the Living Grid, a movement to create an energy network that takes inspiration from nature to deliver, store and use electricity in the most optimal way possible. 

The first phase connects organisations to smart technology that allows equipment to continuously adjust electricity consumption to balance out peaks and troughs in supply and demand. When electricity demand is high, they consume less to free up energy for other users. When supply peaks, they power up to consume excess where it’s available. This creates a self-balancing system that is much more compatible with renewable sources of energy.

The Living Grid aims to create 200MW of flexible power across the UK – enough to power 100,000 kettles – by 2020.

Related articles from Living Energy in The Long View:

[OPINION] We need to draw our energy from a living system

[OPINION] Smart systems must learn the ways of the world

Indonesia, Costa Rica, Wales: three tailor-made energy schemes

Lavasa: Lessons in building cities from scratch

What Kingfisher learned about investing in renewables

Related signals of change:

These signals show how smart our environments are becoming. Can they help connect our energy needs with the healthy lives we want to lead?

Header art by Rachel Pimm

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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