Adaptability and flexibility were not capabilities that were built into industrial age systems of organization and technology, they were designed to operate in stable, predictable environments with the main aim being economics of scale, they achieved this through standardization and centralized mass production, the aim was to remove or reduce variation and fluctuations in order to maintain a predictable operating environment.
In the energy sector then, whether we are talking about the policy institutions or the business models or the technology, they were all designed for a relatively stable environment, it is an energy sector that was designed for large-scale projects driven by centralized utilities. You could design your hydroelectric dam project for a one hundred-year flood and you knew that it would be a 100 years before that flood happened again, but now those 100 year floods are happening in fifty years or twenty years. If we look at some of the climate changes that are happening, climate induced catastrophic events are happening faster and more furiously but our energy systems, in terms of regulation policies, institutions and technology are all still slow to respond. What they need – given this new context – is greater adaptive capacity, agility and resiliency.
Resilience is the ability to absorb shocks while continuing to function, the capacity for a system to return to functionality after a disturbance. It is important to note that resiliency is different from robustness, as robustness implies the ability to withstand perturbations, when we design or manage a system for robustness we are trying to build up its strength in order to deflect any alteration, which is what we used to do. But designing for robustness – complete fault tolerance – is not always possible or advisable when dealing with more volatile environments.
It will never be possible to prevent natural forces from affecting something like power lines. The real test of any network’s resilience is how quickly and intelligently it can handle such disruptions. Think, for example, of the Internet’s ability to reroute packets of data swiftly and efficiently when a network link fails. This makes the Internet very resilient, even though it fails often it is able to quickly recover from that failure. This is how the grid needs to be in order to avoid major disasters, a grid the does not attempt to be impervious to all failures but instead designed for resilience.