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An impossible tangle of things we can’t understand?

Here’s an idea for a drinking game next time you find yourself at a conference on sustainability: take a sip whenever a presenter displays an image of “night lights” – a night-time satellite image of the world. The image clearly shows where there is light and where it is dark, reflecting the extent of electrification across the regions of the world.

A satellite image of the earth.

A satellite image of the earth. Image: WikiImages / Pixabay

Olle Olsson, Karina Barquet / Published on 22 March 2021

About this series

This is the first piece in a three-part series looking at the development of grid-based technologies in modern society.

Also in this series:

From this starting point, the presenter might go on to talk about electrification as a proxy for material prosperity, or how light pollution is a problem for migratory birds, or reflect on how South Korea and Nigeria had roughly the same GDP per capita in 1961 and why the two countries have taken different routes since then. In any case, the point is that you might find yourself taking quite a few sips, because so many people seem to think that night lights provide a neat and clear picture of the world. But do they?

Let’s explore the first potential topic of our hypothetical presenter, that of electrification as a proxy for material prosperity and, for lack of a better word, “development”. If we want to understand this issue better, we need to take a closer look. What is it that makes those shiny places so shiny?

“Well of course”, you might say, “lightbulbs!”.

Yes, sure, lightbulbs. But what makes those lightbulbs shine?

“Electricity! Power stations! Wind turbines! Nuclear!”

Yes, but how does the electricity get from the power station to the lightbulb? Let’s zoom in on Europe, where there seems to be plenty of lights on at night, and see if we can understand the electricity system a bit better.

Artist’s representation of the European high voltage transmission grid. Source data: Image: SEI.

Artist’s representation of the European high voltage transmission grid. Source data: Image: SEI.

So, apart from looking like tangled fishing lines, electricity systems seem to consist of a lot of lines on a map. Let’s zoom in a little closer – say, to the Netherlands, and see if things get clearer.

High-voltage grid map of The Netherlands. Copyright: TenneT

High-voltage grid map of The Netherlands. Copyright: TenneT

Hm. It seems zooming in did not do much to reduce the impression of tangled fishing lines. Let’s give it another try and see if we can find a nice view from, say, Rotterdam.

Rotterdam roundabout, Netherlands. Map data: ©2021 Google

A satellite image of the Rotterdam roundabout, Netherlands. Map data: ©2021 Google

That’s nice. Did we finally get rid of all those fishing lines?

Actually no. They’re still there, they just moved underground.

Rotterdam underground infrastructure. Credit: Municipality of Rotterdam

Rotterdam underground infrastructure. Credit: Municipality of Rotterdam

In doing so, the electricity wires and cables are now sharing the space under the streets of Rotterdam with sewage mains, drinking water piping, fibre optic cables and natural gas pipelines – all central components in enabling advanced industrial society.

So, while the night-time satellite photo of the world works as a good entry point into a discussion on the differences between world regions in terms of access to basic services like electricity, we have to take a closer look to understand things more thoroughly. And when we do zoom in and dig deeper, it turns out that quite a lot of the societal functions that many of us have become quite used to are in fact based on a host of cables, pipes and wires illustrated by different-colored lines on maps, and which go back and forth above our heads or beneath our feet. It all seems like, in the words of writer Scott Huler, “an impossible tangle of things we can’t understand”. Or can we?

Have-to-be grids and happen-to-be grids

Above, we observed that a key characteristic of wealthy industrialized societies is that they are criss-crossed by many kinds of things that look like lines on maps. We focused especially on the cables, wires, lines and pipes that tend to be buried under our feet and thus invisible to the naked eye, but still so very important for our ways of life. Of course, in addition and in contrast to the ones buried under our feet, plenty of other “map-line things” are very visible – roads, railroads, subways and tram tracks, as well large parts of the electricity grid, like the tall pylons that carry cables in the power transmission network (aka the “highways” of the electricity system).

Acknowledging that “map-line things” might not give off the professional air befitting a reputable research institute, we will instead bundle all the lines, cables, wires, roads and tracks under the term “grids”. So, then, what is it about all these grids that have made them such a ubiquitous part of industrialized societies?

In other words, why is modern society so full of grids?

To answer this question, we need to separate these different grids into two main categories: 1) grids where transportation is an inherent function of the service provided, and 2) all the others. We can call the first have-to-be grids, and the second happen-to-be grids.

Focusing on the have-to-be grids, notice how the whole raison d’être of roads, railroads, subway tracks, tram tracks and fibre-optic cables is to transport people, goods or information from one point to another. This means that these systems have to function in some kind of a network, with interconnected nodes – a telephone is completely useless if it is the only telephone in the world. Now of course, an “inherent transportation” network does not have to be a physical network – the global airline network is not linked through fixed physical connections but through airline routes – but it has to be a network.

The category of happen-to-be grids is a different animal altogether, even though the network structures may superficially look the same. If you think about each and every one of the systems in this category – i.e. the electricity grid, the gas grid, the district heating grid, the sewerage grid and the drinking water grid – the services provided by each could, technically speaking, be provided without the grid. Even 50 years ago, individual households could have got electricity from an onsite diesel-powered generator, heated their house using an onsite boiler or stove fired by heating oil or firewood, had their sewage end up in a septic tank and got their drinking water from an individual well. These are alternatives that do not rely on a physical grid infrastructure to function, yet they provide largely the same services as the grid-based options.

Note also that while an electricity generation technology like a solar PV rooftop may become more valuable by being connected to a wide electricity network, the solar PV system is not useless – as a telephone is – if it is only connected to one user.

So, why bother with all the grids? We explore this question in the second part of this series.

Next in this series

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