Only Connect- A renewable energy future for Small Island Developing States

This article is based on Zaheer’s keynote address this week to the United Nations Small Island Developing States Multi-Stakeholder & Partnership Dialogues on Sustainable Energy.


While the shift to renewable energy is becoming the obvious choice of the 21st century, as Small Island Developing States, we ourselves must shape our own energy future.

As the energy industry impacts climate change, modern energy practices need to be carefully thought on all scales to create truly efficient systems that emerge from localities, adapted to their specific needs. It is essential that in the rush to shift to renewable energy, we do not replicate a centralised model.

Taking into account the size of Small Island Developing States, it may be easier to install large scale power plants at strategic locations that would cater for the islands’ energy demand.

But history has taught us that centralisation of resources introduces structural vulnerabilities, reduces constructive participation, and compromises the resilience of the system.

Building in resilience by a network-based architecture

Recent events have taught us that a key characteristic of resilient and sustainable systems is their diversity and network redundancy. We must thus encourage a system that is not entirely dependent on any one locality or technology.

What happens if the technology fails in the future? What if we have a disruptive weather, tsunami or seismic event? Or what happens if there is an alternative technology that becomes available and our grid is ‘locked in’ to a centralised model? How fast can we adapt to change?

These are all important questions that we need to address in our system concept – rather than waiting for potential disaster to strike.

One of the common arguments for mainly driving a single technology and homogenous system comes from the logic of investment and finance. It is easier, on an administrative level, to tie our investments to a singular source and locality.

Thus in a frantic rush, one would tend to think that large scale renewable projects would provide the ‘silver bullet’ solution to our energy needs since they might offer a significant source of energy production. However, I think we must be wary of silver bullets.

Even if we assume we live in a world with no disruptions, such a proposal would only be beneficial and make economic sense in the local short term. There are more effective ways, long term – that is to say, sustainably – to invest and structure our network following basic principles of scale.

An energy platform that can adapt and innovate

Centralization of our energy production would imply tying all our investment in a single energy resource. We would have to reconcile ourselves to locking in our energy options for the next 20 years or so, until we can recover our investment. Meanwhile, the world will continue to innovate, and new improvements will pass us by.

A study into the recent trends of renewable energy and societal responses to the shift to green urbanism demonstrates that, while it may not be overtly noticeable, we are making rapid progress. Demand for renewable energy is on the rise and as such, pertaining costs is on the decline.

Moore’s law suggests that the size of transistors, as well as their cost, halves every 18 months or so. In the solar industry, a similar principle is at work – and it has brought the capital cost of solar energy down from $77$ to $0.7$ per watt over the last 40 years.

The same phenomenon seems to replicate through other fields of renewable resources in the last decade. As a power plant must operate for at least 20-25 years to justify its cost, we would risk a substantial economic loss if we invest in a single large scale plant, since renewable technologies are sure to undergo constant price reductions in the future.

This is where the theories of the physicist Nikos Salingaros shed light on our challenge. He argues that a sustainable and resilient system has a feature that he calls “coherence” – an internal connectivity that allows the exchange of information and adjustment to changes, including disruptive shocks.

A network of connections on many scales

Salingaros explains that for a city to possess coherence, “it must also have the ability to be plastic and accommodate the curvatures, extension and compression of its paths without disconnect. In order for this to be achieved, the urban fabric must be intricately linked on a minute scale and loosely connected on a large scale. Connectivity on all scales hence leads to urban coherence.”

This means that the critical parts of a city – like power plants – are distributed at a range of scales, and not concentrated too much at one large scale.

Following that model, our small island energy grids need to operate as a network of mostly small scale, distributed power plants, of various sizes and employing diverse technologies.

That way we are free to invest, flexibly, in newer and cheaper energy as our energy needs increase. It is therefore of critical importance to emphasize the need for mixed energy use and allow long term stability to depend upon emergent connections.

Taking into account the speed at which current technologies go obsolete, this progressive elaboration would be a safer way of investment rather than commit to a single technology for 20 years or more.

The pioneer of resilience theory on ecology, C. H. Holling, believes that for the last century we have been focussing on “engineered resilience”, as models work perfectly within their intended parameters but are limited in function.

When we take into account synergistic opportunities and externalities, we must work toward what Holling called “ecological resilience”, that is the resilience to the often-chaotic disruptions that ecological systems have to endure.

A pragmatic, resilient, and interconnected network with built-in redundancy answers the questions of what happens when the centralised grid, or technology, fails due to a disruption. It also addresses the common problem of reducing energy transmission and distribution losses.

Never lose sight of the big picture

While renewable energies are becoming the obvious choice for the 21st century, the global industry should not only focus on performance. Of course, a better efficiency means a larger electricity output which, in itself, ensures a favourable economic return. But it can also have a perverse effect, in actually encouraging consumption.

This problem is known as ‘Jevons’ Paradox': as efficiency goes up, costs tend to go down, and consumption also goes up. So it is important to find other ways of reducing costs, while also managing consumption. This effort must range from the manufacturing process to the end of the products life.

If we look at the life cycle assessment of energy technologies specifically, we find out that the manufacturing process itself comprises a significant percentage of energy produced over the life of the unit. Much of this energy now comes from the burning of coal, which is unfortunately associated with significant emissions and toxic wastes.

Additional problems are created by production logistics: a panel manufactured in one country normally has to go several trips, back and forth, to another before finally labelled ‘ready’ for market distribution. We need to start thinking of decentralising the industry, so that we not only reduce energy in manufacturing but also subsequently lessen pollution associated to transport and distribution.

Another aspect of the renewable industry we urgently need to think about is that of waste. In 12 years, we are going to find ourselves with 5.8 million tons of photovoltaic or PV waste in Europe alone. While efforts have recently been made to gather PV waste, only one tenth has been recycled in the EU.

This is also happening in the wind energy industry as well where we are suddenly finding ourselves with non-operational 30 year old wind turbines. We must be thinking about those pressing issues now, at the design phase, to be ready for when they manifest.

Strength in localism, diversity, adaptive systems

We need to employ new smart manufacturing technologies, which also rely on decentralisation, networked systems, and other inherently more efficient approaches based on complex adaptive systems.

In order to build a truly resilient structure, we not only need to think on framing a sustainable local technology network, but also comprehend its implications on a much larger scale.

Urban context is equally important in this equation as well, on a nation-wide scale. Thinking of the urban fabric as a whole and not focussing on isolated systems or projects thus allows us to look at energy as an integral part of that urban fabric. This will help us to focus on the interconnectivity that is crucial to efficiency.

The key issue here is the ability of our urban systems to ‘learn’ and to improve, and that in turn relies upon an ability to find and adopt models that show evidence of working.

If we broaden our focus and look at historical models that seem to work around the world, we can notice that a society is made up of different patterns, and some patterns can be seen replicated in various cultures or countries without necessarily being in communication.

Societal, ecological and cultural needs

Here the work of Salingaros together with that of urbanist Michael Mehaffy can also be helpful. Drawing on work by the architect Christopher Alexander, they argue that these“patterns” and their “pattern languages” are not isolated elements, but system-wide relational features that provide more complete information about the performance of the system and its desirable elements.

These insights have already been applied successfully to an entire new class of software called ‘design patterns’, and to the creation of wiki technology, used in Wikipedia and other well-known peer-to-peer technologies.

How would this approach apply to cities, and to their energy systems? As an example let’s say if we analysed localities and noticed different levels of information relating to energy modelling, which may be related to efficiency, investment schemes, politics, culture, society, urban morphology, etc.

Some of those can be seen to be similar to a certain level across different countries, like efficiency, investment schemes and so on, but there are still other layers like culture, society, climate, that are particular to the area that are not taken into consideration if partnerships are only copied and pasted.

Implementing models that work elsewhere blindly may achieve the opposite of what was originally intended. We need to calibrate patterns according to local resources, needs, culture and society. As such, there is a need to understand and foster contextual knowledge to substitute remaining levels of information that helps anchor projects to localities.

We require, more broadly, the development of an inter-connected system that involves careful and minute attention to details, on an inter-industrial level, and factoring in societal and ecological needs.

Under our guidance, this system must evolve into a living fabric where functionality culminates in societal satisfaction. This is difficult, but it can be done.

Indeed it must be done for the renewable technologies to play their part in the future of Small Island States and beyond, without repeating the failures of our fossil-fuelled past.


Acknowledgement: I am indebted to Florence Pignolet-Tardan from Université de la reunion, Khalil Elahee from the University of Mauritius, and Michael Mehaffy from the Sustasis Foundation & from Christopher Alexandre’s Centre for Environmental Structure for reviewing the ideas discussed above.

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