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Why New Daedalus?

Daedalus was the mythical great architect and artificer of the classical world. Today, embedded intelligence is enabling the most profound changes in the way we create and use buildings since his day.

Building Intelligence meets the Intelligent Building. The Intelligent Building negotiates with the Intelligent Grid. How will this transform how we interact with the physical world?

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« Smartgrid Basics: The Demand Side Problem | Whither Grid Standards »

Smartgrid Basics: The Supply Side Problem

Last week the Smartgrid-discuss group opened up within OASIS, introducing power grid technologies to the architects of e-commerce and internet security standards. Some of the latter are trying to understand the problem, and learn the jargon. I wrote this as one of a series of posts introduce the issues in a simplified, almost cartoon form.

The North American power grid is the world’s largest robot. It was imagined in the 30’s, designed in the 50’s and has been built out and patched ever since. Some very bright people have done extraordinary things to retrofit the system with digital descendants of the original analog controls. It is very much less stable than folks let on. It suffers from an instability condition that occurs periodically and has for years. This condition was occurring when a tree branch took a transmission line and thereby a third of North America on August 14, 2003. That underlying instability occurs an order of magnitude more frequently today than it did then. Something has to change.

The archetype for modern power markets was established 100 years ago in Chicago on April 1908. At that time, power demands were low, and electric metering consisted of pens on mechanical turntables that spun as power was used. These paper sheets were collected and read periodically. Modern power marketing was established a natural monopoly with regulated cost recovery, much as telecommunications used to be. The regulated cost recovery market is only slowing to take advantage of digital metering using two way communications. Many new installations are still being designed as asymmetric interfaces, with the demand side, i.e., the building inhabitant, excluded from direct communication. New business models must support transparency and symmetry.

The Carterphone law suit established that third party equipment could be attached directly to the phone system, and Judge Green tore down the natural monopolies. The model of 25 year depreciation of black handsets owned by the phone company began to erode. New business models, beginning with fax, continuing to modem-based communications began to arise. Today deep process interactions running through slow moving standards bodies prevent the attachment of new types of systems. Innovations must be approved as expenditures by 50 public utilities commissions. Today’s need for rapid innovation in energy generation, storage, and conversions demand more agile business models.

In 1908, there was no exchange of power between local markets. There was no dynamic pricing. Consumers still use power as if it were a static resource; wholesale prices oscillate though each day. In many parts of the country, power prices are actually negative at regular times each week. Most goods can stay in the warehouse overnight; electricity cannot. We can win great savings by smoothing power demand. Without price signals, end users in buildings and homes have no incentive to help.

The grid is built for peak capacity. 17% of the grid’s generating capacity is used for less than 110 hours a year. This capacity is the dirtiest and by far the most expensive generation. These plants may even be spun up but idle, ready to be called into use if needed. The system as a whole bears the cost of this very expensive peak load. If consumers in buildings, homes and industry could respond rapidly to signals that the grid was nearing the need to use these resources, it would greatly reduce costs, both monetary and environmental. The power industry calls this Demand-Response, and as of yet there are no standards. OpenADR is a good start.

Power Grid operation is like Windows 95. I say that as someone who considers Windows 95 one of the supreme engineering achievement in software. Windows 95 had to support every bit of software that had ever been written, including some horrible mistakes. Windows 95 had to create an environment that made it possible for new markets using 32 bit software to develop, while running all the old software. Windows 95 had to support old drivers and memory management based on the old 840K and 32K memory thunking, while switching to virtual memory management in mid-boot if no such drivers were found. Windows 95 was a shaky bridge built over a chasm, made entirely of bent toothpicks and wet tissue paper. It would be easier with structural steel and suspension materials, but that easier job was not the task. It was a wonder that Windows 95 could work at all. Today’s power grid, and SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) strategies, and system operations are like Windows 95, tied down to backward compatibility and hampered by the reasonable decisions of long ago. Perfecting Windows 95 led to the increasingly unwieldy Windows 98 and Windows ME. Sometimes it is better to do things that aren’t so hard.

In summary, inquiries about how it is done today are not always useful. Paving the cow paths to handle heavy traffic is not the best way forward. The GridWise effort is to find something new, and that something will support new markets that we do not today know or understand. It must do so while stabilizing the grid even as we add de-stabilizing new energy sources. It must promote better control even as we accept new players and more point sources of generation.

What is the model? If we do this right, that question will be like asking what the new economy would look like before the DotCom boom...

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