In 1992, we had pretty good telephone service. The phones worked reliably, and one could call everyone anyone wanted. Sure, we only had one carrier option, and long distance rates were astronomical. So what. It worked.
There was also this newfangled thing called the Internet. It sounded promising. But, the existing network wasn’t designed to handle information traffic. 9600 baud looked like the limits of information transfer. A lot of money was needed to upgrade the network to handle anything more. It was easy to say our communication network was “good enough”, and undersell the promise of the Internet. Non-action and “let’s study this more” were real, cost-driven viewpoints.
It was easy to say our communication network was “good enough”, and undersell the promise of the Internet. Non-action and “let’s study this more” were real, cost-driven viewpoints.
In retrospect, that looks nutty. The folks that held that view now seem small-minded and unimaginative. With the benefit of the history behind us, we see the massive progress, the quantum leap in capability and the incredible wealth that accompanied the transformation of our communications networks into the Internet.
With energy networks, we’re still at “9600 baud” stage.
With energy networks, we’re still at “9600 baud” stage. Renewables and distributed energy sound promising, but folks lament the growing cost of electricity to which these new technologies contribute. Utilities drive a narrative about unfair and uneconomic conditions forced upon them. Folks say we have “good enough”.
We don’t. We’re actually a far cry from good enough.
Below, I offer perspective on where our current grid falls short, and why we need investment in the next generation. Then we can address who the big winners will be. (Hint: consumers and utilities with delivery networks.)
Here’s where our grid falls woefully short.
- Cleanliness. Our current grid ain’t clean. It’s brown. Really brown. If we took truck loads of brown sludge equivalent to our CO2 emissions and just dumped it upstream in our rivers, you can bet that there’d be outrage. If you don’t believe in climate change, at least acknowledge we should clean up after ourselves and avert the health consequences of polluted air in our cities. We can do a lot better, be more responsible, and seed a healthier future for our children.
- Security. Our current grid is not secure. It’s a hacker’s dream. It’s amazing that we haven’t had a headline news story about hackers taking an entire grid down. The Ukraine has. We’ve seen evidence of minor security incursions in NY. I’d be amazed if our grid wasn’t a target by any enemies of consequence. Ted Koppel is worried enough about it that he wrote an entire book on that subject alone. Scary consequences when you consider the cost of a grid going down for a single hour and the chaos that it creates. We need grids that are significantly more hardened to cyberattacks.
- Design. As you drive around many suburbs, take a look at the utility poles and the wires. They’re terrible. Really unattractive and unsightly, and a clear reminder that the technology has not changed in well over 50 years. We’ve simply grown used to the visual blight; It has become wallpaper that we no longer see. Take a fresh look. We can make our communities look a lot better. It’s not just about hiding all the wires. We can take the opportunity to use design to inspire and unite public admiration for our grid.
- Resilience. Our grid is frail. Granted, we don’t have nationwide blackouts caused by errant monkeys, but anyone who lived through Hurricane Sandy in NY, knows that a few downed trees in the wrong place can take out entire regions of the grid. For weeks. In my neighborhood it took 12 days for power to come back. It’s a problem of reliance on centralized generation with a fragile network between there and here. NY REV and NYSERDA are starting to tackle the issue. Network redundancy, strategic microgridding and distributed generation can do a lot to solve resilience and recovery problem. Big storms will always impact a number of consumers, but it boils down to how many and how long. We can improve significantly on both fronts.
- Data. We’re operating blind. We have some data, but we need a lot more… real-time data on utility network health and consumption. When I say consumption, I mean meter data for power and energy consumption, but I also mean down to appliance data and more sophisticated derivative data. Many utilities like ConEd are moving to install smart meters, which is an important start. We need to make the output data available to trusted third parties who can drive new industries and innovation. Data will present a new and huge source of opportunity for advancement.
- Utility. Delivering electricity. That’s it. That’s all the current network supports. With all that deployed hardware, that’s all we get. The entire, massive deployed infrastructure called our electric grid basically does only that. Folks like Verizon are now piggybacking FIOS lines on the poles, but that’s not what I mean. Our deployed energy infrastructure should include generation, storage, lighting, communications and more in integrated ways that dynamically optimize our energy network, and in ways designed to manage and accelerate recovery during crises. We can and should expect a lot more services and service quality from that infrastructure.
- Growth. We have challenges today, with our existing electric needs. We’re not at all prepared for the explosion in electric demand that is on the horizon. We’re at the beginning of the Electrification of Everything. The coming demand will put enormous new strain on a network that is simply not equipped to handle it. We need to imagine past network that only supports 9600 baud to a day when we want to stream Netflix movies.
There are other shortcomings in our energy networks, but that’s a good list. Those are the major ones.
For those who think the above is an indictment of our current utilities, it’s not. It’s a roadmap of opportunity for those providers to grow their business, their role in our communities and their importance to our daily lives as the Enernet emerges… much in the same way that communications providers did with the maturation of the Internet.
There is a better way. Many businesses (old and new) stand to gain as energy networks become the next platform for growth. But mostly, consumers and communities will be the beneficiaries of this growth.
I can imagine a dynamic energy network that inspires, that ignites imagination and that serves as the foundation for an amazing future... A clean energy network that is beautiful, highly resilient to cyberattacks and natural catastrophes, that exposes data to drive deep innovation, and that ultimately rises to the energy challenge presented by new demand from EV charging and more.
It’s not just about a feel-good grid. It’s about jobs and economic growth. A recent Brink article by the former COO of CitiBank N.A. cited that one percent growth in spend on infrastructure would support 730,000 jobs in the U.S. and increase economic growth by 1.7 percent. Investment in the Enernet is worth getting behind.
- Wired: Inside the Cunning, Unprecedented Hack of Ukraine’s Power Grid
- NY Times: A Dam, Small and Unsung, Is Caught Up in an Iranian Hacking Case
- Ted Koppel: Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath
- Utility Dive: Con Edison prepares for major NYC smart meter rollout
- Andrew Beebe: The Electrification of Everything
- The Brink: How Investing in Infrastructure Lifts the Global Economy
- Forbes: America’s Smartest Power Grid Still Seems Pretty Stupid
- BBC: Kenya nationwide blackout caused by rogue monkey