A few months ago, on this blog, we introduced the concept of the MeshGridTM, a term coined to describe a future-state electricity ecosystem in which countless grid-enabled, responsive resources (GERRs) function in concert as a “superorganism”, continually reorienting and optimizing in ways that benefit both the individual GERR nodes and the entire ecosystem, simultaneously.
We use the term superorganism to describe the MeshGrid because the electricity system is much more than just a machine of wires, poles, generating stations and end users. Rather, it is a dynamic construct functioning as a complex adaptive system that weaves together all electrically connected, intelligent and communicative assets — acting like a fabric that flexes in response to various real-time conditions. If you are familiar with the Star Wars story, the MeshGrid is like “the force” that binds all electrical assets together.
Rethinking Electricity as Data
At a fundamental level, the electricity grid is a network. As with all networks, the net value of the electricity grid depends on the number of interconnections made by the system, as well as the system’s efficiency and how quickly exchanges occur throughout.
To illustrate this point, if you want to share some good news quickly with your friends, you probably would choose to share it via text message instead of sending each a handwritten letter. This is because the speed (and efficiency) of data networks is faster than snail mail.
Electricity and data networks have a lot in common. As a result, it is vital to shift the way we think about electricity to be more like the way we think about data. Ironically, a “bit” of data transmitted across the internet is nothing more than an electrical impulse created and interpreted by computers. And in fact, the primary input used by data centers to exchange all our modern day information is — you guessed it — electricity.
In short, data is energy and energy is data.
Uploading and Downloading Electricity
Expanding on this notion, what if instead of consuming or producing electricity, we simply download it from or upload it to the grid in a way similar to how we exchange photos in the cloud? What if any electrically connected device or asset with onboard computing and communications capability could download or upload energy?
As an example, when you plug a charger into your smart phone, the device becomes physically connected to the electric grid. Your smartphone also has onboard computing (microprocessor, memory, storage, software, etc.) and communications capabilities (cellular, wireless, Bluetooth, etc.) that give it some level of “intelligence”. Can you envision a day in the future when your phone determines the optimal time to download the electricity needed to charge its battery or perhaps uploads spare electricity in its battery to help stabilize the grid — and potentially reduce your charging cost in the process?
While it may sound futuristic, our world is becoming increasingly connected. Computing power, bandwidth and storage capabilities continue to grow exponentially while costs decline at the same pace. Microchips are now so small and low cost they are becoming embedded in almost everything around us. Even the LED lights in my home have tiny microchips that allow control from anywhere in the world just by interfacing with a smartphone app. How great of a stretch is it to imagine these light bulbs adjusting themselves automatically in response to an external signal or prompt?
The Internet of Things Is Here
This trend towards digitization and interconnectivity sits at the heart of the IoT revolution and is a primary reason we must think about energy in a different way.
Infosys Digital estimates there will be 100 billion connected devices by 2025, each with a dozen or more sensors collecting data leading to an estimated $19 trillion of newly created value.
This is a staggering statistic that merits critical thought. Is the electric grid we know today ready for that kind of diffuse interconnectivity? Can a centralized operator possibly hope to connect with, let alone assimilate and make control decisions on, all that information?
For many, the electricity meter on the outside of your home is read once a month.
What is the speed and efficiency of that information exchange? Could energy be uploaded to or downloaded from the grid like cloud-based data? Do we even need to be aware this is taking place? Do you understand how the energy management system in your laptop or car functions?
Innovation Will Only Accelerate
These questions and many others strain the boundaries of our current understanding of the grid.
Looking at industries ranging from technology to retail to transportation over the past five, ten, fifteen or certainly fifty years, we should not assume the power industry is immune to accelerating innovation.
Electricity price volatility is higher than that of any other commodity in the world. The primary reason is that electricity is difficult to store at scale, in a cost-efficient manner. However, energy technologies are improving. An ever-increasing amount of generation is created at the grid edge, while batteries (including electric vehicles) continue to become cheaper and more capable. This trend will only gather speed as IoT-enabled assets (nodes) become ubiquitous, and offer greater levels of functionality, interconnectivity, intelligence and autonomy.
The electricity grid of tomorrow will experience more change in the next 20 years than in the past 100 combined.
The future of the power industry will not take place in control rooms with knobs, dials and gauges that dispatch centralized generation to balance consumer demand. The future of the power industry will be localized generation at the grid edge coupled with billions of other GERRs downloading energy in bits and pieces from any number of peers to achieve the needed real time balance.
Achieving instantaneous balance will almost certainly leverage artificial intelligence to solve sophisticated optimization problems, much like the way GPS figures out the quickest route between points A and B, or perhaps the way a swarm of bees knows to adapt and attack as one unit even though it is made up of hundreds of individual and autonomous organisms.
The MeshGrid Is About You
At its core, the MeshGrid is about optimization. It seeks to meld emerging concepts like IoT, artificial intelligence, mesh networks, GERRs, and many others to create an ecosystem – a fabric – that flexes. The fabric of this ecosystem will be exceptionally efficient because it can suit a wide array of needs as it scales up or down seamlessly. By nature, this ecosystem will be highly secure as it would be difficult to compromise, or unravel, the millions of individual threads that comprise it. It is in this hyper-connected and highly efficient process that the net “utility” (economist speak for “value”) of the entire system increases.
At the end of the day, electricity should be like great design – invisible, subconscious even – the user benefits without realizing it. When I first piloted smart lighting in our home, energy efficiency was not the desired goal. The desired goal was to ensure my wife arrived to a well-lit home. As it turned out, energy efficiency was achieved, but as an invisible byproduct of my primary goal.
This simple example should serve as a stark reminder that, while often unintended, industries are disrupted not by purposeful strategies executed from within the core, but rather as a consequence of purposeful strategies executed from within an adjacent space.
Change in the power industry is inevitable. The question that remains is whether this change will be driven from within our industry or if our industry will be driven by the unintended consequence of the seismic shifts happening around us every day.
Contributed by Dominic Barbato, Strategy Director, Schneider Electric Energy & Sustainability Services
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