John Robb recently pointed to an article from Wired (Jul 2001 issue) which outlined an alternate vision for the electrical grid of the future: “Every node in the power network of the future will be awake, responsive, adaptive, price-smart, eco-sensitive, real-time, flexible, humming – and interconnected with everything else.”
The smarter energy network of the future, EPRI believes, will incorporate a diversified pool of resources located closer to the consumer, pumping out low- or zero-emissions power in backyards, driveways, downscaled local power stations, and even in automobiles, while giving electricity users the option to become energy vendors. The front end of this new system will be managed by third-party “virtual utilities,” which will bundle electricity, gas, Internet access, broadband entertainment, and other customized energy services. (This vision is reminiscent of Edison’s original ambition for the industry, which was not to sell lightbulbs, but to create a network of technologies and services that provided illumination.)
Now, the digital networks will be called upon to remake the grid in their own image. By embedding sensors, solid-state controllers, and intelligent agents throughout this new supply chain, the meter and the monthly bill will be swapped out for something more robust, adaptive, interconnected, and alive: a humming, real-time, interactive energy marketplace.
Meeting the energy needs of the next century, the Roadmap’s creators suggest, will require a substantial overhaul in how we think about electricity. The industry’s most basic assumptions will have to be put on the table, including the hub-and-spoke hierarchy of the existing grid – based on huge central power stations with long distance transmission lines radiating outward – which has been the backbone of the business since Edison’s avaricious protg, Samuel Insull, became the first utility tycoon in the 1920s.
“In periods of profound change, the most dangerous thing is to incrementalize yourself into the future,” says Yeager. “Our society is changing more broadly and more rapidly than at any time since Edison’s day. The current power infrastructure is as incompatible with the future as horse trails were to automobiles.”
The impending marriage of the engineering marvel of the late 19th century with one of the most resonant innovations of the late 20th – the distributed network – hasn’t been named yet. In incubators of our energy future like the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Bonneville Power Administration, however, researchers are starting to describe the new system with phrases like the intelligent grid, the energy net, and the Energy Web.
Considering the problems we have with power in India, it would be good to see discussion and initiatives on how we can build the next-generation energy platform.