Skip main navigation

Forward to a Robust Energy System

An article exploring the different ways in which society can move forward to a more robust energy system
© University of Groningen
If we are uncertain of how the future will look like and if a shift towards a more sustainable energy system is also a highly uncertain process, identifying what exactly needs to be done is also problematic. Nevertheless, there are a few key ideas that do help us structure both our vision for the future and the process of governing to get there.
Robust and flexible
In the face of an uncertain future, planners and policy scientists have begun to discuss and work with governance systems possible of adapting to new information and ongoing changes (e.g. Duit et al. 2010; Folke et al. 2005; Folke & Carpenter 2010). Already during the 1970s Holling (1978) explained how structural changes in ecosystems and their related limited predictability urged for more ‘adaptive’ approaches for assessing and managing them. For developing a more sustainable energy system, such a more flexible approach indeed suggests that goals are not necessarily considered fixed end states to achieve, but rather become directions to pursue that might well change over the course of time (Kemp & Loorbach 2006; Loorbach 2007). Adaptive governance emphasizes a flexible, experimental and adaptive process of governance, rather than a rigid structure of actions and implementation to achieve predetermined solutions (Holling 1978; Lee 1999; Duit et al. 2010). Experimenting, evaluating and learning-by-doing are the basis to gradually move into the desired direction, without pinpointing exactly where we will go.
An adaptive approach demands flexibility. In the sense of physical space, flexibility implies that we experiment and work with new means of energy production and distribution. Examples of bio digesters, new ways of constructing energy neutral buildings, geothermal projects or heat networks might all be examples of such experiments. Also, the electricity grid itself needs more flexibility. Instead of relying on a centralised energy system where an electricity plant stands on ‘top’ and distributes energy in one direction to the consumers at the ‘bottom’, the network will be much more diverse. There will be many small scale individual units of production, be it wind turbines, solar panels or biomass plants. In addition, many consumers will also become partly producers. Individual households also use solar panels for producing energy, while companies with more potential roof space might do so to a level where they become small ‘energy plants’. The existing electricity grid will have to adapt; most notably by becoming more flexible. But next to such physical changes, also institutionally there is a need for flexibility. Existing regulations, contracts and plans should allow for innovation and experimentation and leave options open. Also, contracts and regulations need to cope with the many individual consumers that also become producers of energy. Are individual households and companies allowed to put electricity back on the grid and, if so, under what kind of conditions? Also, what defines and energy company, can there be multiple grids, who pays who, how do we effectively distribute energy and what and who is responsible for what? Clearly: a lot of flexibility is needed to accommodate the many possible answers to these questions. But flexibility, however important, is not the only thing we need.
Robustness is also crucial. Institutionally, issues such as legal rights and protection, legitimate decision making, fair and binding contracts or clarity on the distribution of responsibilities are crucial. They are the kind of examples that show a need for robust regulations and institutions that provide stability to the energy system. Although some flexibility is clearly needed, energy is too big and too important to go without such a stable set of regulations and institutions. This immediately shows us why the so called ‘regime’ does not change easily. It continuously seeks for stability of the existing system. So even if we aim to change such an existing system, within the time of change we will need to be very careful not to destroy regulations, contracts and agreements that help us to provide this stability. Clearly: flexibility is meant to help us learn not just about what new innovations seem attractive, but also about how we can make them possible while continuing to protect issues such as legal rights, a stable and secure provision of energy and the legitimacy of decisions.
Robustness also involves the physical system. Especially if we face growing numbers of renewables the issue of energy security becomes crucial. Currently, large amounts of renewables rely on hydro power, wind and solar energy. These also depend on climatic and weather conditions. This implies that there are variations in how much energy can be produced at a certain moment. The associated instability of production puts pressure on balancing production and consumption demands that, apart from large financial consequences, also threaten energy security. To help this balancing issue, the buffering of energy is a possible solution. Such buffering can take place in for example the storage of excess wind or solar energy in hydrogen or methane, a technology called Power2Gas. When there is a lack of wind or sun, the gas is a basis for again producing energy. Other options are on a smaller scale, for example in heat and cold storage on the scale of buildings or the use of batteries in houses or cars. A spatial dimension, obviously, is also crucial. The allocation and size of units for buffering and the creation of linkages between networks on a local, regional and international scale and key activities that have such a spatial dimension.
In the midst of a search for answers for how to balance energy production and consumption, however, it is also evident that fossil fuel networks will remain. That is: there are pipelines, power stations, gas fields, fuel stations, electricity plugs and electricity wires. Apart from needs to alter this system in response to the physical changes associated with smaller scale individual production units, this existing fossil fuel based system can also provide a robust basis to support a more sustainable energy system. Natural gas can be a good example of a fuel helping us to create the kind of buffering capacity needed. The existing gas network might well be the kind of system helping for an international system providing stability to a system based more on renewables. For spatial planning, this implies that we also need to look at how we can combine the emerging pattern of smaller scale production units with the existing system that can help provide stability.
Finally, it is important to keep remembering that a shift towards a more sustainable energy system does not imply that the age of fossil fuels is over soon. More sustainable implies increasing the share of renewables and making the use of energy and fossil fuel more efficient. It will certainly take time before such an increase will even take over fossil fuels as the main energy resources. Despite ambitious policies in many world regions such as the European Union, policy agendas also discuss time frames of decades to even more. In addition, if the worlds energy consumption keeps increasing, even reducing the share of fossil fuel in the energy used does not necessarily mean a rapid decrease in absolute numbers of joules and watts needed from fossil fuel resources. That is: fossil fuels will remain crucial for at least quite a while. Hence, also the current energy system with its pipelines, wells, tankers, fuel stations, coal fired power plants and its multinationals, state companies, regulations and contracts will simply continue to exist and be needed. Adding more renewable resources to the energy system, therefore, will also demand matching with this existing system. The existing infrastructures and existing companies and governments are clearly also playing a key role there. They are also among the forces providing stability. Even when such stability would from an ideological perspective be criticized for protecting the ‘status quo’, the counterargument remains: we as a world society still need the system of energy production and distribution based on fossil fuels.
Figure 6.1: Using heat and cold storage for buffering energy Using heat and cold storage for buffering energy Source:
Upscaling and multiple scales
In the face of the need to combine flexibility and robustness, a spatial perspective does offer some assistance. That is: the idea of using area-based conditions as an inspiration for developing and implementing renewable energy projects might also be helpful in combining flexibility and robustness. This can be viewed on different spatial scales.
On the level of the energy initiative itself, the fact that the initiative is linked to a wider set of interests in the area contributes to the viability of the energy system. An area-based initiative is often based on overlapping interests, which gives the initiative a multi-functional purpose. For example, farmers use bio digesters to reduce their need to export manure, to generate heat, produce gas and produce humus (Muller 2009). Even if the profit from bio gas or heat reduces, the other benefits are sufficient enough to continue with the project. In an economic sense, this means that there is more capacity to adapt to market change. Furthermore, its linkages to other interests provide more funding options. For example, solar panels on the roof of a large distribution centre could be funded by the company itself, an energy company or even individual users. Moreover, the embedding of the initiative in the local economy gives trust and support. Local commitment may open up possibilities for extra investments in innovations, or for bridging difficult periods with regional support. Hence, a spreading of risk is achieved. From a societal perspective, local involvement will also stimulate learning about the costs and benefits of local energy production, allowing for more public support for innovation of the energy system. Moreover, the fact that energy initiatives emerge from local society allows for closer consideration of the physical impact of energy production on the landscape, enabling them to stay within perceptual boundaries of visual attractiveness. In fact, this may prevent the risk of NIMBYism (Wüstenhagen et al. 2007).
On a regional scale, we find that initiatives can form robust networks together, which in turn contributes to robustness of the energy system. Robustness can be understood as resistance to change, brought about by circumstance and shock. For instance, a heat network can become robust when multiple sites with residual heat are connected to multiple housing areas with heat demand (Broersma et al. 2011). In that case, the exit of a single industry with heat supply will not lead to the collapse of the whole heat network. Another type of robust network can be achieved when several biomass streams are connected to one bioenergy plant, which makes it less dependent on one biomass supplier (Kooistra et al. 2011, Jenssen et al. 2012).
On an inter-regional level, we argue that an area-based approach can stimulate local and regional diversification in energy systems. Local and regional diversification emerges from the fact that area-based energy initiatives draw on regional qualities for energy production. Initiatives make use of regional advantages, leading to a regional specialisation in energy production. Some regions or localities will be specialised in solar energy, others in wind power or geothermal heat, and others in energy from biomass, etc. This will lead to spatial diversification, which can be employed to stimulate the creation of a viable energy system on a higher level. Instead of a country relying strongly on only one source of renewables, spatial diversification spreads the risks between regions. This avoids path-dependency (Martin, Simmie 2008) and allows for the possibility to shift to a different technology (if local supply fails or is ineffective) because other areas and regions have used other technologies. This will make the overall system less vulnerable. It also makes it more robust by preventing the emergence of a mono-culture. For example, when the system is completely dependent on wind, a windless period puts high demands on installed energy storage capacity (Mitchell et al. 2005). If it is based on multiple sources of energy, these can compensate each other reducing the need for buffers.
Figure 6.2: Differentiation of energy sources in Europe Differentiation of energy sources in Europe Source: Roadmap 2050 (by European Climate Foundation)
Hybrid systems; concluding remarks
It should be evident: the answer for how we might create a new robust energy system that is sustainable does not exist. Rather, we are confronted as a world society with many questions, many stakes and many ambitions. There are new and attractive technologies available. There are new ideas and ambitions expressed. There are experiments and exciting successes. The desire to move to a more sustainable energy system, hence, is a real ambition, supported by many people and governments and that is currently starting to show results. Nevertheless, it is an uncertain process surrounded by many questions.
The notion of transitions has helped us better understand why it is so uncertain and how we might – in a more abstract way – go about governing such a shift towards a more sustainable energy system. But we have also seen that ownership of this shift is fragmented, spread and seems impossible to fully identify, other than with the hardly useful answer that it is the ‘world society’ owning the problem. In the face of such a fragmentation, ‘who’ does the governing will not have clear cut answers. Rather, we face a hybrid network of (inter)national governments, multinationals, non-governmental organisations on the one hand, and many individual entrepreneurs, enthusiasts, skeptics and just many ordinary companies and people that are involved on the other hand. It is exactly in understanding that both groups are involved that a spatial perspective helps. After all: a spatial perspective shifts our focus to the places where actual changes occur. These are the places where changes become visible and where we see who is involved. We can see who gains and who loses, we can see which combinations between socio-economic activities are made or forgotten, we can see the changing landscape and we can see how the international networks of power grids, pipelines, contracts, regulations and money flows interact with people’s daily lives.
What this week especially means to ensure is that you have also seen the vast spatial consequences of integrated renewable energy in the energy system. That these consequences urge us to be aware of how renewable energy sources link in with specific regional or local circumstances. But also, that you have understood the conditioning role of area-based conditions for altering energy systems and energy initiatives and, for influencing their likelihood for success or failure. That is, the idea is that you can now explain that there is not just an important spatial dimension to a shift towards a more sustainable energy system, but also that taking a spatial perspective can help us in supporting this shift. That is: that you can explain why the energy transition needs a place.
© University of Groningen
This article is from the free online

Solving the Energy Puzzle: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Energy Transition

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education