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Energy Management, As Basic As It Gets

Paul Kando

Sunlight embraces a plant’s green leaves. They use the energy to combine carbon dioxide and water into sugar and free oxygen. Animals inhale the oxygen, eat the green plant and its sugar, and use the energy so gained for all the work it takes to move about, gather food, reproduce, create – in short, to live — releasing carbon dioxide and water. Behold the elegance of photosynthesis and cellular respiration, a cycle of nature in which nothing goes to waste!

Puerto Rico's grid after Hurricane Maria
photo credit: cnbc

After the grass has been grazed, it re-grows. Leaves lost due to high winds or moth-infestation do not kill a tree. Such damage must be extreme to be fatal. Some lizards even re-grow their own tail. How is this possible, I wonder on this gray day, looking at the devastation of a Puerto Rican hurricane, including hopelessly tangled wires criss-crossing the ground. No electricity means no running water, no refrigeration, no essential health services. People are dying. The central power plant is reported to be OK, yet there won’t be electricity for days, weeks, even months.

Unlike an electric power grid centered around a power plant, with each energy user connected to that plant through transmission and distribution lines, the energy system of a living organism is a decentralized network in which every cell is connected to every other cell in a number of ways. The centralized power grid is centrally managed. In contrast, living organisms – from the simplest to the most complex – are not under such central management. They are managed at the cell level, with each individual cell in charge of producing its own energy and managing its use. This is why grass regenerates, a damaged tree lives on, and a wounded animal heals. Because of the cell-level management, the entire system – from simple worms to complex human bodies – is less vulnerable, more resilient, and more adaptable to changing conditions.

So self-reliant are our individual cells that they literally re-create us. Over the course of 7 years or so, all the cells that form our bodies are routinely replaced. Not one of our cells is the same as it was in 2010, yet we remain unmistakably the same individuals. This is because each and every cell carries the same genetic code — our DNA — making it capable of replacing itself. Each of our cells also produces its own energy and stores it in reversible chemical reactions, just like a battery, for later use as needed.

What can we learn from all this? Should the wrecked power system of a Puerto Rico – or any other devastated place – be repeatedly re-built to be just like it was before the last disaster? Imagine making our power grid more resilient by rethinking it as an interactive network of microgrids! For that matter, imagine a society of the truly equal where, like self-managed yet interactive cells, individual citizens brought their best gifts and capabilities to bear on our common pursuit of life, liberty and happiness — instead of deferring to just a few at the top.