We need to draw our future energy from a living system
Nature may be the most obvious place to look for design principles for future grids, says Giles Bristow, Director of Programmes at Forum for the Future.
We have come to depend on the global energy system for our very survival – keeping populations wherever they are in the world at temperatures that sustain life and feeding them with a carbon-hungry, intensive agricultural production system. But this necessary life-support system is becoming ever more complex and divorced from its negative impacts on individuals, society and the environment – acutely demonstrated through a rapidly changing climate. Quite simply, this manufactured ‘human system’, created to enable modern life, is, by its very operation, directly and massively undermining the health of the planet and future of the people who live on it.
For a while now at Forum for the Future, we have been taking a systems approach to creating change and, in particular, in energy. We recognise that energy systems underpin and drive the global economy, which in turn nests within a social world that cannot be extruded from the environment. In other words, all human systems are part of the larger ecological system.
We have been designing a strategy for multiple interventions in these systems – looking for ways to create or encourage ambitious shifts so that energy generation, transmission and consumption all become more sustainable, quickly! Our vision is a system that is powered by non-polluting renewables, and that provides people at home and in their work with equal and affordable access to the energy they use in a super-efficient manner.
We are increasingly coming across emerging technologies and process innovations that have been inspired by nature: wind turbine blades shaped like humpback whale dorsal fins to keep spinning momentum in lulls; natural ventilation and heating systems inspired by the shape and design of termite mounds; solar photovoltaic cells designed on leaf patterns and mosaics. Product designers, architects and engineers are increasingly adopting innovation methods of biomimicry – the emulation of strategies and design by nature – to come up with incredible solutions.
As architect Michael Pawlyn puts it, “You could look at nature as being like a catalogue of products [which have all] benefited from a 3.8 billion year research and development period. Given that level of investment, it makes sense to use it!”
But what if we move on from thinking about individual solutions inspired by nature to entire energy systems drawing on the principles of living systems to meet human needs? Let’s adopt the seventh UN Sustainable Development Goal, ‘universal affordable clean energy’, as the challenge, and use biomimicry to rethink the system from scratch. This means taking the boundaries of the energy system as ‘the environment’, and then designing within it.
How would such a ‘living energy system’ look and operate? What innovative technologies would be required? What businesses and supply chains would be needed to deliver it? And how would the global economy reconfigure and adjust as a result?
If we take as our starting point the six ‘Life’s Principles’ put forward by leading consultancy Biomimicry 3.8, an energy system should be:
> Adaptable, for instance in the face of climate change and resource scarcity.
> Dynamic and so able to evolve, rather than locked into any one technology (crucial given the rate of technological advancement and the plummeting cost of renewables).
> Locally attuned: responsive and resilient.
> Life-friendly in its chemistry and not polluting.
> Resource efficient in both material and energy needs.
> Self-organising, so that it can develop and grow from the bottom up.
A picture emerges of a system that is radically different. If we assume that the critical outputs needed by humans are still heat, light and power (including for movement) – and now add digital computation – then it is how such a system delivers these vital services and its impacts on the environment and society that must change, to complement or even enhance natural processes.
Going a step further, might it be possible that the very existence of such a ‘living energy system’ will be the impetus for the rebalancing of our relationship with nature? How? Because the values and design principles that the system is based on will, in turn, be reflected in other socio-economic systems: global food production and consumption repurposed to provide sustainable nutrition, industrial ecology driving resource efficiency, property construction and city development to support intensive human habitation nested within (and not designing out) nature, and so on.
Each energy revolution has quite literally powered a paradigm shift in the global economy and has delivered (or perhaps been shaped by) new norms in the way our values are expressed at a global level. We have seen this each time, as we moved from total reliance on biomass, to coke, to coal, to the advent of electricity and liquid fuels …
What might be different this time is that we are under enormous pressure to accelerate the next shift in the energy system for our survival, and while there isn’t a toolkit for this, nature could well be the most appropriate and learned guide.
So, I would like to invite you to join us in this exercise of imagining what an energy system designed on biomimicry principles might look like and how we might usher it in.
We have started with a project at Forum for the Future called The Living Grid. Not wishing to bite off more than we could chew, we are limiting our thinking to just the UK’s electricity transmission system and have decided to focus on taking inspiration from nature to design a more flexible, responsive, low-carbon grid.
We are working with Open Energi’s technology and the physical assets of Sainsbury’s, Aggregate Industries, Tarmac and United Utilities to create a system that very subtly flexes its demand for electricity to help balance the grid. This avoids the need to fire up standby fossil fuel generation when demand and supply are out of step, perhaps because of a lull in offshore wind, or because a riveting episode of East Enders has come to an end. Flexibility and dynamism are key characteristics not valued in our current energy system, but crucial to the security in the dynamic equilibrium achieved by ecosystems.
We want to show that there are new ways of solving system issues, such as balancing demand and providing flexibility (cheaply), but also raise the bigger question that it might be the principles and values upon which the system has been created that need to shift. That perhaps nature – with 3.8 billion years of evolutionary practice and the most complex of all systems – may be the most obvious place to look for system design principles.
This article was first published in The Long View 2016 chapter Living Energy.