The Challenge of Complexity


(Image: Sellafield)

Complexity is intrinsic to the energy sector (oil, gas, clean coal, nuclear, offshore wind), especially in a period of energy transition. By virtue of the size and duration of energy projects, the amount of capital employed (about €6B for an EPR, and almost as much for a sea-based oil production and storage unit), the extent of the technological innovations to be implemented, the multiplicity of stakeholders and rules governing respect for the environment, these projects require a fully-fledged systems approach.

From automotive and aerospace to energy, every high technology enterprise has to rise to the challenge of complexity. For example, the new and highly complex offshore wind power industry is now spreading its wings in Europe. Three consortia made bids for the French government tender for  installation of five offshore wind farms with a total capacity of 3 gigawatts (GW); four 2 GW sites were selected. Unlike onshore wind power, the offshore sector is both technology and capital-intensive, each manufacturer will focus on its own industrial segment and costs.

This challenge also means that the requirements of the contractors have to be balanced against industrial constraints by controlling time and costs, and providing the best technology in a well-adjusted framework. There must also be practical and reliable responses to risk management requirements covering everyone from the general public to industry and government.

We have reached a new stage of complexity ever since governments, elected officials and community service groups decided to promote sustainable development agendas involving a more comprehensive treatment of major urban issues (clean energy, prudent water management, clean public transport, waste recovery and recycling). Large French companies such as Veolia Environnement, Suez Environnement, EDF, GDF Suez and the Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations are all working in this area.

This kind of circular, comprehensive eco-system compared to the more linear economy inevitably requires help from engineering. Assystem has noted with interest European Union support for the development of twenty or so “smart cities” by 2020. This will ensure that the Old Continent will not lag behind the new energy technologies and grids emerging in China or the Middle East, who are also developing “eco-cities” (e.g. Masdar City)

These cities will be extremely complex. Large electricity suppliers (Siemens, Schneider Electric, ABB) are in the running to provide equipment and solutions. But nobody is capable yet of choosing between the different technologies on offer, or integrating them into these “smart cities”.

Engineering companies are the most qualified players to play the role of technology architect for our cities and our territories in the service of major contractors, be they local authorities or manufacturers.


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