My PhD – redesigning the electricity grid

Almost a year has flown by and I haven’t announced my PhD formally. That’s because its taken me a long time to wrap my head around what I’m doing and which parts of it are going to provide the ‘original contribution to knowledge’ that a PhD demands.

But I’m starting to get some clarity so here’s a snapshot under a full title of:

Redesigning the electricity system with microgrids

hierarchy vs network

We’re in the middle of an energy transition.

Energy is one of those systems that is so closely linked to the way our society works that changing it is really difficult and involves a whole mess of decision makers.

We have an electricity system that relies on a few centralised, power stations powered by coal or gas and we need a system that can run solely on renewables like wind and sunshine. We are stumbling forward, and each step of progress seems to come with evermore problems.

Many experts around the world are working on our energy transition and they tend to fall into two camps.

The technical experts are busy designing their little part of the system, fixing problems but rarely pushing back on the whole system to change. We need all these engineers, economists and lawyers for their detailed knowledge, but not only them.

Meanwhile social scientists and other big picture types are telling us we need to think about the whole system at once, and we need to bring all the right expertise together. I agree and have just collated a rather long blog on some of my reflections over the past five years about generating systems change.

So we are moving away from our hierarchy of energy and we could move toward a network of smaller systems where each town or suburb is a microgrid, a micro-electricity system, that works well with all the solar panels on people’s rooftops and uses its neighbours for top up and support.

My research aims to design this new system.

It won’t stop at the work of the engineers looking at how the electricity flows. It will include the work of the economists so that how the money flows matches the new system and the work of the lawyers too so the rules match as well. And importantly, it will include one more expert that I haven’t mentioned yet – people like you, the householder and the business owner because this is the only reason we build electricity systems and if we don’t look carefully at how the value flows, then we won’t build the right system.

Together, these experts and I will design electricity systems for three communities. Without our design, each community would get the traditional investment – a transformer upgrade, reinforcing the old system. With my design we can explore better options, Options that start building our future system – and because they’ve been part of the design team the engineers, the economists and the lawyers will start to agree on what that future system looks like.

Einstein famously said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Our society urgently needs to become better at responding to difficult and messy problems. My research will add a powerful design tool to our toolkit for change.

Want more detail? Here’s my research proposal but like any good PhD this is evolving.

The research question is an important part of any PhD – spend more time getting it right and you’re halfway to your answer already. For now, my research questions is:

Can a co-design method and a systems approach deliver microgrid designs that integrate competing stakeholder values effectively and offer a pathway toward the redesign of the electricity system?


About Heather

I am an energy and climate change specialist with a background in industrial energy efficiency and climate change policy.
This entry was posted in Bright Ideas, Changemaking, energy transition, PhD and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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