What is an internet of energy?
Monday, June 28, 2010 at 11:09AM
Toby Considine in Background, Markets and Innovation, Smart Grid

In the political world, we often speak as if the smart grid will create and internet of energy. This sounds sexy, but it can be hard to noodle out what it means. I’m pretty sure that it does not mean that we will use smart meters to deliver porn. To find the internet of energy, we must acknowledge straight up the problems with our energy plans.

The internet was built around assumptions, scarcity of bandwidth and fragility of infrastructure, that clearly apply to today’s grid. Long distance transmission was expensive; email used to hop across the country on late-night phone connections to the next state. Every engineering decision was based on occasional connections, local management, and the knowledge that it was risky to rely on anything that was not controlled in-house.

Because we knew so little about what would happen next, we solved little problems. We did not make assumptions about how the next segment would handle our messages, or how reliable they would be. This allowed constant technological churn. Once we had TCP, IP began to drive out local protocols such as IPX and NetBIOS, and quickly supplanted top-down engineered protocols such as GOSIP and SNA.

On the infrastructure side, the churn was just as fast. I remember when X.25 was the future, and supported the first North American installation to supplement the banks of modems at CityNet. I remember when we signed up the Boston Choral Society, and gained users with perfect pitch, who bedeviled tech support by describing modem squawks by note. For ears, I telecommuted via dual ISDN lines back-fed out of Siler City, but tariffed as local connections. Each change of infrastructure was a minor blip for home and office communications.

Even the applications changed, always moving toward the simpler and less architected. Single purpose bulletin boards were replaced by Gopher servers and WAIS. Walled gardens such as AOL and Compuserve began to open up to the wider choices of today’s internet. Waves of push technologies failed and peer-to-peer regularly raised its transgressive disruptive hand against the top-down passive order.

Somehow, by planning for infinite scarcity, in every cell of networking, and in every switch and gateway, we found ourselves with unimaginable surplus, in which computers in our pockets are now network connected with greater bandwidth than used to connect supercomputing centers.

The key decisions of the smart energy are to reduce operating margins, to not build enough transmission and distribution, and to use intermittent power sources such as wind, sun, and tides. We are planning for the grid to provide lower quality service than it has in a hundred years. We have now forced ourselves into the corner in which network communications found themselves in the 70’s. We can only gain the same success by committing to the same principles.

The future of the grid will be based upon intermittently available energy distributed over inadequate and expensive wires. It will be too expensive, both in energy losses and in capacity management, to get our power from far away. We will have to make our energy decisions assuming occasional connections, local management of use, and the certain knowledge that it is risky to rely on anything that we do not manage in-house.

For a while, we will try to solve these problems with central decision-making and a hierarchical organization. Utility-based management of home and business use will make sense to traditional power engineers, just as SNA was briefly the networking strategy natural for mainframe users. This will fail under its own internal contradictions. The DOE envisions homes and businesses able regularly to operate off-grid for a week; it is unlikely that such remote energy management will work when the grid is down.

Each time we plan for unreliability, we can gain another level of reliability, accept another level of innovation. Homes that are indifferent to grid reliability can accept the local installation of self-contained, self maintain pocket power plants. Pocket power plants may be subject to longer outages through poor management, but their customers won’t care. Novel strategies of congestion pricing and load management may provide inconstant power to the neighborhood distribution, but the neighborhood will be relatively insensitive.

At each level, planning for scarcity and unpredictability will add resilience. Resilient systems will be better able to accept diversity; acceptance of diversity is a requirement for allowing innovation. As system that accepts innovation, in ways today’s static grid never will, will accept the creative destruction, the quick success or failure that draws venture capital and engineering ideas together.

The future quality of the grid is lousy; that’s the plan. Embrace its failures and unreliability, because that’s where markets will follow. That is how we will find an internet of energy.

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