Thinking about Thinking about Turkey Point
Sunday, March 2, 2008 at 10:19AM
Toby Considine in Enterprise Interaction, Markets and Innovation, Microgrids and Distributed Systems, System Architecture

Last week five power plants in Florida went off line following a problem in a substation. Active discussion ensued in the blogosphere. One of the first headlines was “Terrorist attack not suspected in plant failures” One of the first comments I saw was on the lines of “Great. Now the IT guys will all come on-line and tell us how we should have done it”.

I’m not going to do that. I have nothing useful to say on the design of any power plants, let alone nuclear plants. All systems were performing as designed. In the belts and suspenders world of nuclear plants, the entire grid is one of the redundant power sources for the cooling systems. The plants were supposed to shut down one of the safety systems lost redundancy. What we saw in Florida was carefully designed systems doing what they were designed to do. If every one of my ideas were fully implemented in the grid, in the building systems, and in building design, these plants would, and should, still have shut down.

If the grid as a whole were re-built as interoperable services with economic interfaces (prices), the blackouts in Florida would not have been as far reaching in their effects. The service oriented grid will enable an ecosystem of local reliability and storage. That ecosystem will support innovation and technology diversity at the distribution and building level. (Note: In power, transmission refers to the long distance transport of energy, the high voltage towers marching to the horizon; distribution refers the lower voltage movement of power around neighborhoods). That market will create islands of reliability wherever it is worthwhile.

The key element is informational interoperability. In engineered systems, interoperability usually means “we can get some signal of some kind between systems”. That signal is data oriented, meaning it is a raw fact that is neither actionable nor useful on its own. Someone with deep domain knowledge program the interactions around those facts. This leads to over-integration between systems.

Very good systematic thinkers tend to extend their systems beyond the domain in which they are skilled. Power engineers tend to build a single giant robot covering continent-sized territories. Faced with the diversity forced upon it by scale, this robot becomes more and more brittle. The only response within the paradigm is for the engineer to become more and more controlling, which ameliorates the systems but makes the long-term problem worse.

Bad systems interfaces hide information about scarcity and value; good systems expose such information. Power systems hide information about scarcity, value, and reliability in systems without interfaces. Utility regulators simplify system interfaces to support historical practice rather than innovation.

The best system interactions are defined around reusable informational interfaces. The most accepted and best understood reusable informational interface is money. Money provides actionable information about scarcity and value. Monetary interfaces are highly re-useable and interoperable.

If we had good informationally interoperable interfaces including a substantial monetary component between each system in the power grid, the plants at Turkey Point would still have shut down. They are well designed systems engineered for safety and long-term reliability. What would be different is that their customers would not rely solely on the fragile power robot. What would change are the local markets in reliability that would spring up. Local markets would let new classes of innovators seek profits in providing new value.

Article originally appeared on New Daedalus (http://www.newdaedalus.com/).
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