Editorial: Sustainable Energy, Complexity Science and the Smart Grid

By Rylatt, R. Mark; Allen, Peter M. | Emergence: Complexity and Organization, April 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Editorial: Sustainable Energy, Complexity Science and the Smart Grid


Rylatt, R. Mark, Allen, Peter M., Emergence: Complexity and Organization


This Special Issue arises mainly out of a Satellite Workshop of the European Conference on Complex Systems (ECCS) held in Brussels in September 2012. The organizers of this Workshop were Peter Allen and Liz Varga from Cranfield University, UK (Complex Systems Research Centre), Mark Rylatt, Rupert Gammon and Peter Boait from De Montfort University, UK (Institute of Energy and Sustainable Development) who are all members of the CASCADE Project. This satellite was also organized with Enrique Kremers from EIFER (European Institute for Energy Re-search - Karlsruhe Institute of Technology)

The overall rationale of the Workshop and of this Special Issue concerns the need for low carbon electricity generation in the future. The problem posed by the probable link between carbon emissions and climate change means that there is a vital need to change energy production from their current fossil fuel basis towards, renewables such as solar, wind and biomass and other less carbon intensive sources and means of generation.

The drivers of change vary in scale and intensity across national boundaries and some understanding of these is necessary to fully appreciate the issues. Aging infrastructure, capacity constraints and the need to reduce greenhouse gas and other emissions are the most obvious drivers but more complex issues have arisen from deregulation in many countries. This has resulted in a form of balkanisation that tends to cause additional stress to the legacy electricity grid, which has a structure based on centralised command and management of large scale generating plant, long-range high voltage transmission and local low voltage distribution networks. This structure implies expensive standby capacity; high capital cost and long lead-times for new plant; economic inefficiency due to deadweight losses, external costs and imperfect 'top-down' regulation; vulnerability to energy security threats of various kinds; and rigidity to beneficial change such as the increased exploitation of distributed energy resources (DERs) and the development of more flexible and sophisticated energy services that might lead to greater energy efficiency.

This leads on to questions of how to deal with the increased intermittency of supply that results when we move away from dispatchable energy generation. Moving away from the traditional model of centralized generation, by coal, gas or oil based power stations, implies adjustments to the electricity system to successfully deal with the distributed, more intermittent generation and possibly growing demand., including restructuring of the wholesale and retail energy markets and engagement with advances promised by the concept of the Smart Grid. What is of interest is the role of Complexity Science in allowing us to make progress in providing knowledge and support for the radical infrastructure changes that seem necessary between now and 2050 if the catastrophe of major climate change is to be averted.

The level of carbon emissions that we allow to continue is linked to the extent of future Climate Change that we are likely to face and to the possibility of massive disruption and disaster if we do not succeed in reducing our use of fossil fuels. By 2050 we are supposed to have reduced our carbon emissions by 80% of the 1990 level, and this will require an enormous scientific and technological effort. Of course we can try to reduce our energy requirements with better insulation, less travel etc. but this really will not achieve anything like the decrease in emissions that will be required. In the UK the ambitious plan is to make electricity the main energy carrier, to include transport and heating, and to generate what will be around three times the amount of electricity as today, but with only 20% of the emissions of 1990. The system is likely to become less 'top-down' and centralised in its organization and control towards something more distributed and self-organizing, which will have characteristics of a Complex Adaptive System.

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Editorial: Sustainable Energy, Complexity Science and the Smart Grid
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