Wednesday, 6 January 2010

What's the antidote to being over-connected?

I must be getting old and intolerant, or maybe I just got out of bed on the wrong side today, but I find the news that the UK National Grid (which distributes gas and electricity across the nation) has just issued its second ever "Gas Balancing Alert" rather depressing. Not so much about the immediate risks, but about what it implies about how we are organising ourselves.

We had a small amount of snow just before Christmas, and now it has snowed again. Not amazing amounts - just a foot or so. It's been slightly colder than normal, for slightly longer, in a "once every few years" kind of a way. Certainly not a "once in a lifetime" or "once in a millenium" kind of a way. And yet the nation's gas supplies have run low to the point where industrial users are told to stop consuming until we can import more gas from abroad, to preserve the gas for consumers - presumably so that grannies across the country don't die of hypothermia.

On the roads, there is concern about whether stores of grit and salt will last, and talk of whether "production will meet demand". Salt is just about the cheapest commodity there is. It doesn't go off. Why not stockpile mountains of the stuff in strategic locations around the country? Same with gas. I'm sure that building more gas storage would cost something, but as an insurance policy, surely a negligible amount per person compared to the human cost of running out - and probably the financial cost too.

It's almost as though it's a crime to save (sound familiar?). The "cost of capital" is king, and to hell with the risks. Put another way, we seem to be trying to run the country in a lean "just in time" kind of a way - which is no way to run a country, as the consequences of the whole nation's supply-chain failing are not just financial, they could be catastrophic for our society.

We're fortunate to live in a place and time where the three basic domestic services - electricity, gas and water - are extremely reliable. But that good-fortune has made us complacent. As individuals and communities, we expect and utterly depend on them, to the point of not thinking about them at all. Less than a hundred years ago, it was normal for local communities to have local stores of wood, coal, oil, and even acetylene (for lighting, before the electricity grid reached all parts of the country), and to plan ahead, managing those stores. But now, as a side-effect of nationalising our services, we have removed the local storage, and are dependent on whatever storage is available at a national level, on the grid. And that is a dangerous thing to do, because it makes the network very "brittle". If an event happens in just one part of the network, that's fine, the grid can rebalance. But if everyone across the national network experiences the same event (e.g. snow), then the entire network requires national-sized reserves to survive the shock. And the substantial failure of one network could quickly cause knock-on effects which bring down others, bringing civilisation to its knees. We now generate a lot of our electricity from gas, for example.

Stuart Kauffman, a founder of complexity theory, revealed how the "connectedness" of any network has profound effects on its overall behaviour. "Network" in this case can be any collection of things that work together: genes in an organism, computers on the internet - or individuals in a society. He found that although obviously a network needs some connectivity in order to function, there is such a thing as too much connectivity - with everything connected to everything else, everything starts behaving the same, and the network can "crystallise" into a single homogenous lump, losing many of the benefits that come from having looser connections. Our society has recently been increasing its connectivity at an amazing rate - and its time we thought about the consequences.

Buffering (local storage) is good. Diversity is good. Redundancy (having a spare) is good. These are qualities of an optimally-connected network, and they all contribute to the overall network's ability to survive adverse events. In an over-connected network you tend to lose these benefits, and that's where we seem to have got to today. We're all in the same boat, and we've carefully balanced it an inch above the water-line.

Energy security, like food security, is life-or-death stuff, it's not to be taken lightly. So what should we do to improve our resilience?

We should intentionally restore the qualities we have lost: Adding Buffering by placing sufficient storage, ideally spaced around the grid, and adding Diversity and Redundancy through moving to a mix of energy sources: wind, solar, hydro and (especially in the UK) tidal.

Another useful contribution (though not a panacea in its own right) is local generation, using domestic microCHP and solar PV to generate electricity. So it's interesting to see that feed-in tariffs are finally coming to the UK in April. The final terms are not yet public, but the government is going to guarantee that, for a fixed period (20 years?), all electricity generated will get paid-for at a rate which turns local generation into an attractive investment (e.g. 36p per unit instead of the current 5p) . "Better late than never" I say - we're more than a decade behind many other countries on this - even Iran already feed-in tariffs! This will certainly help accelerate the move towards grid-parity, which is where the cost of locally-generated electricity matches the cost of centrally-generated. And once we're there, then we'll be a lot more resilient against foreign oil prices, gas supply interruptions - and snow (free brush supplied with every installation!).

Another way to increase resilience is to devolve more of the responsibility for infrastructure out to local level, so that planning and storage is taken as a local responsibility, to avoid the "someone else's problem" effect. It's particularly interesting to see grass-roots examples of this springing-up, for example Transition Towns.