Time for the Internet of Energy

How can the epicenter of technology be run on a 100-year-old grid tech?

Recently, San Francisco suffered a major power outage. Friday, March 21st, San Francisco came to a grinding halt. Over 88,000 customers were without power. Hospitals and schools switched over to backup power. Already congested city driving turned into gridlock as streetlights were out. Oddly, at the same time, Los Angeles and Boston were going through similar blackouts, although not as extensive as San Francisco’s outage.

The events while not directly related are a sign of the instability our power grid operates day in and day out. The aging electricity grid is comprised of over 300,000 miles of transmission lines that span the country. Over 30% of our power grid is past its end of the lifecycle. Like much of America’s infrastructure we continue putting pressure on our resources past their prime endangering the communities who rely on these services.

The Conventional Grid

Our large utility scale grids connect hundreds of thousands of customers providing safe energy. The sheer number of customers provides a consistent demand that allows for an even generation of energy from the current coal burning plants that make up the majority of our energy. Generating energy on this scale does not allow for flexibility, the systems cannot easily be turned on or off to respond to customer demand changes. Excess power in the system must be purged for fear of a blackout. If there is not enough power in the system brown-outs can occur with parts of the grid losing power supply. The grid must be expansive, providing energy to many customers thus ironing out irregularities in the system’s operation. The United States is composed of 3 main energy grids. They are not connected directly but span across our states connecting hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses. This is the scale our grids must be to provide reliable service.

Source: NERC Inerconnections

There is another way to ensure reliable energy — microgrids. While the electrical power lines in the grid haven’t changed much, energy hardware has matured over the last thirty years just hitting its stride recently. Solar offerings are on-track to be cost competitive with conventional power generation methods. The trifecta of smart meters, solar panels and batteries have made it possible for homeowners and businesses to become prosumers of energy. These prosumers are able to create microgrids that are energy independent.

The Internet as a metaphor

Imagine you are sitting at home flush with wifi watching YouTube videos. Your neighbor contacts you asking if they could pay you for wifi since they don’t have any internet. You have plenty of bandwidth to share. You being neighborly, agree to share your wifi. Consider this same scenario with energy in place of wifi. You generate more energy than your family needs and decide to sell energy to your neighbor. Let’s scale this peer-to-peer energy concept to a neighborhood microgrid. A community would be composed of energy generators and consumers supporting one-another in an energy ecosystem.

Grid connected solar or solar systems that are also tethered to the grid are able to share excess energy back into the utility grid. The utility allows excess energy to be added to the grid with their balance-of-system requirements. These are the standards that include converting DC solar power into AC. Energy at the appropriate frequency for the utility may then be sent into the grid. Existing transforms are able to send and receive energy.

Microgrids

Our conventional grids need help to be load-balanced. A sustainable energy future is not every citizen generating excess power and pushing it into the grid. The grid must maintain balance — it does not respond well to feast or famine.

We must be coordinated communities of informed prosumers. Knowing when to conserve energy or generate energy will be critical to keeping the lights on and stopping our dependence on polluting power sources. The electrical grid’s master controller will need more data to coordinate these micro-grids.

The master controller will be able to manage all these micro-grids together as one internet of energy. The master controller will be able to share public service announcements in real-time with smart homes to let them know times to pull or push energy into the grid. These messages can be customized by neighborhood or by type of energy needed such as ‘electric car charging’ or ‘peak usage after 8 pm’ user profiles. Profiling users based on energy usage will help the grid balance the grid. This high-level perspective of the grids health is the key role of the master controller. The micro-grids will be self managing within their neighborhoods. This would allow for energy demand to be dissipated avoiding large spikes.

The concept of a microgrid reminds me of the old adage of the early environmental movement, ‘think locally and act globally.’ Microgrids make it possible to generate clean energy and sell it to your neighbors. If we all live in communities that value saving money, supporting one another and not polluting we will be putting a dent in stopping global warming.

We will all need to work together and to reimagine our relationship to our energy its role in our communities. The sharing economy has forced us as a society to rethink our relationship to our resources, using them more efficiently. Our energy is no different, the coming energy revolution will bring about a more sustainable solution to living our lifestyles, but unlike today — not at the expense of our planets health.


Message me if you have ideas or experience with our energy or micro-grids. I’ll be sharing more of my research here on medium.