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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.

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Monday
Dec302013

Smart Energy with a little bit of Seoul.

My visit to Seoul this month was fascinating. The country of Korea built its infrastructure essentially from scratch in the last 50 years, and in doing so was able to use modern technology to challenge some fundamental assumptions that we make in the USA. IP-based telephony predominates based on pervasive free Wi-Fi. Custom tailors use radical outsourcing mediated by IT to provide near-instant services. The National Virtual Power Plant (NVPP) is as up-to-date as any, while using big-data tools in ways not often seen here. There is a desire to embrace the new without fear that seems young and fresh in the way the US often does not. But somehow, the single observation that stays with me is how the use of IT to challenges our assumptions about natural monopolies.

The Seoul Metropolitan Subway system is by far the best I have been on. The signage is unusually good. Many stations have large interactive maps. Every car has digital signs that display the next station in multiple languages. Music plays on the platforms to warn of each impending arrival. In the winter, automatic seat warmers make even the ride itself pleasanter than expected.

The fare system is seamless. The system pioneered in Seoul is now used in many US systems: a card, a wave in, and a wave out, and a charge based on beginning and ending stations. The systems to add money to your fare card will tell you the remaining balance instantly, without inserting the card, or needing to punch buttons. Unlike in the US, every station has prominent stations on which to drop your card and get cash back. The $0.50 deposit on the card itself is just as easy to get back. There is even competition for these cards as three subway cards, one credit card, and several debit cards can be used interchangeably with your transit card. In short, it is customer focused, consumer friendly, and feels like anything but the bureaucratic experience it is in the US.

The high-tech experience extends into the amenities as well. Subways in the US are often dead zones. In Seoul, each line provides choices of digital connectivity: 4G, WiFi, DMB, and WiBro. This supports the widespread use of IP-telephony in Seoul; without the legacy commitment to lines, almost every smart phone uses the almost universal WiFi. (More on that later.)

All of this is supported by an easy to use App, one that puts the well-regarded BART App to shame. The free App, available for all the usual platforms, works out routes and provides station by station information with precise departure and arrival times. The cost for each route and stop is computed and displayed in advance. A potential rider always knows whether to rush, and when he will arrive.

In the US, this would all be delivered through a semi-private agency, a Transit Authority. In the Seoul, the nineteen subway lines are built and operated by ten separate companies. Some routes may have a higher cost per kilometer, or per station, but that information is readily available before your ride. Fares are automatically allocated to the different companies based on the same services that compute the entire fare. With appropriate use of IT, the multi-vendor service is provided as if through a single provider.

Regular readers may recognize that this is the model of Transactive Energy.

The Seoul Metropolitan Subway system tears down assumptions about how natural are our regulated natural monopolies. To someone who considers the smart grid, it stirs re-thinking of how we consider last mile distribution in a distributed energy world. Just as South Korean phones use the connectionless protocols of the internet to avoid considerable high-cost build out of telecommunications infrastructure, transactive energy and distributed energy can provide better service at lower costs.

To gain these advantages, we must embrace the distributed multi-supplier business models that enable them. Trust capitalism. Embrace minimal market design to limit friction when changing suppliers several times a day if desired. Use IT to smooth any bumps in transition. I’ve written about this in papers on microgrids and autonomous power nodes. It was nice to see it in the field.

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