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Chapter 2: What is systems thinking and why is it important?

Episode 4

Rather than seeking to simplify complex issues and problems by breaking them down into their component parts, systems thinking focuses more on the development of a holistic understanding as well as the relationships and interactions between elements within a system.

Our specification for the complex, first of a kind (FOAK) future net zero energy system is that it must be operable and reliable from the outset, as well as being implemented at lowest cost. Success of the individual elements alone will not necessarily lead to a successful system; success is only achieved if the individual elements when acting in combination deliver the desired outcome.

Therefore, the performance metrics used to evaluate the staged process of engineering an outcome from an initial concept through to implementation (whether using CVP or another a similar method) must focus on the way the various elements being proposed are anticipated to behave when combined as a system.

In practice, the process of delivering a net zero energy system will be even more challenging.

In addition to engineering a FOAK net zero energy system, our energy systems are Critical National Infrastructure, so we need to ensure that the operability and reliability of the legacy energy systems being converted to low carbon operations will be maintained throughout the transition process.

Successful delivery is complicated even further because over the same time period, the maturation and implementation of individual solutions and projects will be taking place over different timescales and at different rates.

An engineering plan

Increased complexity adds difficulty – resulting in increased risk, frequency of cost and/or schedule overruns and/or benefit shortfalls. As does introduction of bespoke, novel and/or FOAK requirements.

The Government’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, published in November 2020, identifies the anticipated key components of the UK’s future net zero energy system. The plan includes targets such as producing 40GW of offshore wind by 2030, but does not provide a blueprint which describes how such a future energy system might be realised.

It is no use implementing the Ten Point Plan to the letter if we get to 2050 and find that we haven’t achieved our primary objective – which is net zero.

It is perhaps more useful to consider the Ten Point Plan as being closer to a shopping list of ingredients. To turn that list of ingredients into a desired outcome, we need to understand how to select the correct quantities of ingredients as well as the process to be used in combining them.

Of course, the analogy can only stretch so far. In practice, we need to deliver an operable, reliable, lowest cost energy system which is also net zero by 2050. We must also maintain existing energy systems, which are operable, reliable, and ideally lowest cost throughout the transition period to 2050 as well!

Applying the systems approach

If we are to be successful, systems thinking must play an essential part in the energy transition and decarbonisation process which the UK faces.

This requires taking a designers’ perspective – prioritising the long‑term view to evaluate the process of solution development within the context of our ability to deliver against our stated objectives.

Debate across the industry is becoming increasingly polarised as the urgent need to take action to address climate change becomes ever clearer. We must employ an engineering framework which provides a means of evaluating the relative merits of technology solutions and end use applications both individually and collectively.

A combination of CVP and systems thinking will provide this; without it we lack a proven method which can be resolve the debate.

It is important to remember that all energy systems operate is different ways. Identifying the most efficacious way to meet the various types and characteristics of energy demand, within the context of achieving emissions reduction, will need a system designer to perform analysis of the types and characteristics of energy production solutions.

This energy system designer will also need to consider the energy system infrastructure which will act as the conduit to connect these two aspects and make the system function as a whole.

If we don’t have sufficient understanding of how a net zero energy system might be achieved in terms of activities within an engineering plan, and in sufficient detail, then the risk of failing to achieve net zero by 2050 at lowest cost is high (if not almost certain).

Much simpler projects can, and often do, go wrong.  Even if they are relatively well defined and have a clearly understood critical path. However, when considering the pathways we might need to employ to deliver a net zero energy system in the UK, we do not presently have anything approaching an understanding of what our critical path activities might look like.

An energy system integrator will be critical, in linking together the disparate parts of the puzzle and presenting an overall, UK-wide schematic.

Costain has taken on the de facto role of energy system designer in south Wales, but this is only a part of the broader picture. A national systems integrator must take a view on the broader macro picture; assimilating the clusters, the sources of new energy and everything in between.

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