Complex Systems and the Energy Commons
In this article, we look at the future of the Energy Commons, and how using a complex adaptive systems lens can lead to effective solutions. As an example, I’m going to demonstrate how this method can lead us to a solution I call “swarm micro-solar.”
Complex adaptive systems as a lens tells us that the dynamic energy solution of the future should:
- be made up of many small components
- be fluid and flexible, utilizing component diversity
- be aware of and respond to its environment, by being mobile
From a complex systems perspective, we can predict the properties of a future solution even though we do not yet know the details. We can know that a marble in a bowl will settle at the bottom even when we cannot predict the specific path it will take. We can know that a percentage of a population will become adults even when we cannot know which ones will survive.
Similarly, we can understand that “small pieces loosely joined” should be more efficient even though we do not yet know precisely how. The reason this works is because all complex systems exhibit instances of deeper patterns found in the universe.
Disaggregate the Solar Panel
Our first understanding above was:
1. be made up of many small components
So, take, for instance, the solar panel. A single solar panel converts solar energy into usable electricity but suffers from the loss of some of that energy as heat. Solar panels don’t work when they exceed their tolerance thresholds for heat buildup.
Heat radiation occurs on the edges of the solar panel, so more edge length means more radiation and a cooler system. It just so happens that an array of smaller panels:
- covers nearly the same area, and so generates about the same amount of energy, and
- has significantly more edge length and so radiates heat more effectively and can run for longer.
In addition, these smaller pieces can be individually enabled not only to produce energy but also to store it, using individual mechanisms (such as batteries). Energy could be “uploaded” into larger storage networks when the individual units are in range of an upstream connection to the Energy Commons. Since the swarm components are connected horizontally, only one component would have to be in range in order for the entire system to communicate upstream.
Decenter the Solar Array
Our second understanding above was:
2. be fluid and flexible, utilizing component diversity
So the next step would be to detach the entire solar array from it’s “center” and instead connect the parts directly to each other. There are two ways to operationalize this:
- connect them together physically into a “mesh” or “net”
- connect them together virtually into an information network
Physically connecting them could be advantageous if you needed them to exist as a single unit for some reason. More useful however would be to connect them digitally into a “swarm.” A swarm of panels could communicate information about the sunlight they are converting, local conditions, etc. Moreover, you could even have the units send energy to one another to balance the energy storage. In other words, a unit that has more storage available could store energy for one that has less storage available.
The effect of horizontal connectivity is to make the entire system function like a brain. The swarm could essentially “rewire” itself by monitoring inequalities in the system and balancing its members’ behavior accordingly.
Detach the Swarm
Our third understanding was:
3. be aware of and respond to its environment, by being mobile
Solar panels need sunlight. The earth rotates. The complex adaptive systems lens suggests that the system should be able to perceive its environment and adjust its collective behavior accordingly. For example, slime molds exist as individual cells, but when changes in resource conditions demand, those cells come together to form a multi-cellular organism, which is mobile, and can move elsewhere to a better resource environment.
So, too, can our solar array. If it is a flying drone array, then it could be positioned in the sky as an actual swarm.
- It could move away from clouds or other obstacles, and even orbit the planet in order to avoid ever being on the dark side. A swarm of swarms, all autonomous but capable of cooperation and communication, could effectively perceive their environment and adjust accordingly to target better environments.
- Also, the diversity of the units would enable them to behave differently as individuals. Each unit could angle itself into the sun, or adjust to wind conditions, etc. Because every component adjusts its own behavior in response to every other component, individual behaviors would create systemic effects. Just as a swarm can fly around obstacles without a leader, so, too, could a micro-solar swarm dynamically adjust to changes in its environment.
D-words and Micro-Solar Swarms
This article has demonstrated how using complex adaptive systems as a lens can lead to an innovative solution in the Energy Commons. We focused on a language of:
There are many other facets to a fully-developed and organically evolving Energy Commons. There are other solutions, and there are also other commons (food, things, etc.).
We gain a significant advantage when we realize that solutions across these commons exhibit the patterns seen in complex adaptive systems, and when we focus on a “pattern language” for those future solutions.
I hope this article contributes to that effort in some small way.