Defining Example: The Global Energy System
System: The Global Energy System (GES) encompasses the physical components of the atmosphere, lithosphere, and hydrosphere, as well as the components of the biosphere which prominently include human economic and socio-political activities, in addition to energy generation, storage, control, and interdependent global distribution networks. For humans, the most important function of the GES is its contribution to the sustenance of life on Earth.
Environment: The boundary of the GES has often be drawn at the interface between human-created energy systems and natural systems; however, ignoring natural systems has proven short-sighted, e.g., greenhouse emissions. A more encompassing boundary considers all sources and sinks for energy, natural or man-made, and their effects in both physical and social realms (for example, the economy, air and water quality, war, etc); the environment includes the physical world beyond, as well as aspects of human life that aren’t work-energy related.
System of Systems. Each of the components is a system in its own right; many are poorly understood. For example, weather prediction (atmosphere) is extraordinarily difficult, and weather events have powerful and poorly understood influences on the other components of the GES.
Complex: Each component system constituting the GES can exhibit complex or chaotic behavior. Interactions between these component systems are subtle and pervasive. Extreme variations in temporal scales (effects from nanoseconds to eons) and spatial scales (effects from microscopic to solar system) add to the intricacy of interactions. Large numbers of interactions at many different scales guarantee complex behavior for the GES.
Adaptive: The physical components of the GES are constantly changing: solar activity, continental drift, volcanic activity, climate, ocean levels, constituency of water and air, weather phenomena. Species evolve within this changing environment and, at shorter time scales, so do human civilization and needs. All of these changes impact our ability to extract energy from the environment and put it to use. In response, we adapt/evolve our designed energy systems and our lifestyles.
Aspirations: Our nation and others require secure, reliable, sustainable, and cost effective supplies of energy to support economic development and to maintain a high standard of living. At present we have high-CO2 emissions, dependence on foreign petroleum for many critical activities (e.g., transportation fuels), and inadequate investment in energy source diversification. All of these consequences are now a threat to national as well as global security. Aspirations focus on rectifying this situation to build a robust and resilient energy policy with supporting infrastructure that is global in scope.
Approaches: Potential responses range within the socioeconomic-technical realm from the socioeconomic (e.g., negotiation of global and national targets for CO2 emissions, incentives/restrictions, technology and fund transfer, war) to the technical (e.g., renewable energy sources, next generation distributed energy grids, energy storage systems, new transportation fuels, CO2 capture and storage).
Attainability: The GES is one of the largest, most complex, and most interdependent CASoS. Opinion differs widely on what the problems are, how big the problems are, and how to go about solving them. Defining problems that have feasible solutions, that can be shown to be robust, and that can be actualized to enable system resilience within the GES will be a huge challenge due to its combined technical, economic, social, and political realms.