Systems thinking in the energy system

Published: 26 November 2019

Introduction

Systems Thinking is a broad and multi-disciplinary approach to complex problem solving. Energy Systems Catapult believes it is a vital component of the energy revolution because it offers a means to reduce the risk of unintended consequences when we modify things, while simultaneously providing the opportunity to deliver positive changes that satisfy requirements.

The complex nature of the energy system and how its various elements (heat, power, transport) interact mean that simple or gradual solutions won’t be sufficient to achieve the required outcomes. Whole System thinking can help us uncover how changes in individual energy system elements, or the relationships between them, will affect wider system behaviour.
Population growth, changing demographics, new and disruptive technologies, and changing patterns of energy use will affect our energy needs – the energy system will need to be flexible, efficient and secure, to respond to future demands whilst meeting carbon targets.

Systems thinking in the energy system is a working document and is intended to help stakeholders enter a ‘Systems Thinking’ mindset and be able to communicate in Systems Thinking terms, and with that in mind we are sharing this working document to gather feedback so that we may establish a common understanding of Systems Thinking in an energy context. We have also included a working glossary towards the end of the document to help define a standard language that will support and facilitate complex problem solving in the energy revolution. It is not intended as a methodology or a how-to guide.

Key points

This document introduces Systems Thinking, explores its application in the energy system, and starts to develop a shared language for discussing whole energy system thinking.

  • Systems thinking requires the 5 C’s: curiosity, clarity, compassion, choice, and courage to see a situation fully. Recognising that elements are interrelated and acknowledging that there are often multiple options to solving a problem is important, along with championing interventions that may not be universally popular.
  • A ‘system‘ is a collection of different elements that together produce results not obtainable by each element on its own. The elements may represent people, hardware, software, facilities, policies, and documents. True value is created through the relationship between the elements and how they are interconnected.
  • A ‘system of systems‘ brings together a set of systems for a task that none of the systems can accomplish on its own. Each constituent system keeps its own management, goals, and resources while coordinating within the system of systems and adapting to meet overall goals
  • Systems engineering integrates multiple disciplines and speciality groups into a team effort forming a structured development process.
  • Systems integration is the process of bringing together different systems and elements into one system, or system of systems, to deliver the overarching purpose.
  • Systems architecture is the process of using a structured approach to develop the potential future conditions of a system. It enables the system to be broken down into a number of interacting perspectives such as information, processes, technology, and people.
  • Interoperability is the ability of different elements of a system, or complex system of systems, to work with each other to create an outcome that is greater than the individual operating on its own. Each system can operate independently, and integrate together, in a way that doesn’t detrimentally affect the Whole System function.
  • Not all behaviour can be predicted. Emergent behaviour cannot be exhibited through its individual elements, only through the relationships between them.
  • The whole systems view of the energy system does not just concentrate on generation, networks or services provided to consumers; it is also not simply confined to energy vectors such as electricity or gas, heating, industry or transport. It is all these things and more. The future of the energy system is likely to be cross-vector (electricity, heat and transport interdependently linked), more distributed (local, regional, national and international networks), flexible (on-demand, service driven) and smart (dynamic, and automatically controlled).
  • Systems Thinking can help promote optimisation, that can occur at many points throughout the energy system landscape.
  • This document introduce a set of definitions to explain what we mean by the whole energy system.