About simplicity and robustness

Albert Einstein was not the first person, and will also not be the last, to state that ‘If you cannot explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough’. At school and university, my fellow students often remarked that a teacher was probably too clever to make us understand what she or he meant. This indirectly meant that we were still too stupid to follow the professor’s reasoning. However, after many years in research, industry and teaching, I have learned that there is much truth in what Einstein said. A logical, stepwise explanation can reduce a complicated issue to something which can be easily understood. Working with well-defined steps also provides the opportunity to review the results before the whole task has been completed.

This does not mean that one has to look backwards all the time. When ploughing, looking forward is the best thing to do. However, at the end of the furrow, it is good to check if the work is correctly done. Stephen Covey, author of the well-known book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, urges us also to regularly sharpen the saw, or in this case the plough. By keepings things simple via a stepwise approach, and through regular feedback via checking of the tasks completed, robust results can be achieved. One sees the same thing with conference presentations and magazine articles. A proper layout and a split into well-defined paragraphs help the reader to follow the author’s reasoning. In some presentations, slides are overcrowded with illegible details so that the message is completely missed. Simplicity in this respect also helps to create robustness in articles and presentations.

I do not mean that simple decisions lead to robust solutions in the case of complicated issues. Politicians, economists and other decision-makers often simply extrapolate existing developments to find goals for the future. Many people think that if getting 20% of electric energy needs from volatile renewable sources is not creating substantial problems, an extension to 100% renewables is easily done. In such cases, however, the whole chain of energy supply and consumption must be analyzed in detail in a stepwise process before robust answers can be given. The proper result is, of course, that a mix of different decentralized energy solutions is necessary to produce a robust energy supply.

Another example of incorrectly simplified extrapolations is the discussion about pipeline gas quality. Politicians know that interconnecting the electricity transmission systems of neighbouring countries helps to increase reliability and security of supply. The transmission system operators only have to ensure that the frequency and voltage are properly matched. Very narrow limits exist for these quantities, and that is very good for the users’ equipment.

In Europe, the politicians have also decided that they want a free exchange of natural gas throughout the EU. They simply extrapolate their positive experience with electricity to natural gas. They forget, however, that the composition of natural gas varies from country to country. Gas-fuelled equipment can only have optimum performance for a narrow gas quality range, while European legislation prohibits gas TSOs to treat the gas in such a way that a close to constant quality results. Electricity TSOs have the means to match the narrow quality range for electric power. For gas, the customer is supposed to eat the gas that is offered, and he himself has to ensure that his equipment can cope with wide variations in quality.

We as the decentralized energy sector are responding in the following way: we try to explain to the decision-makers in a simple way that just extrapolating from existing cases will not lead to robust solutions.

Dr Jacob Klimstra, Managing Editor


No posts to display