A model of an electrical grid: A vision

Many people seem to view the electrical grid of the future being much like the present one. I think a lot about networks, because of my job. And I especially think a lot about network topologies, although primarily concerning the Internet.

Presently, most utilities’ electrical grids are hub-and-spoke topologies, like Boston’s somewhat wanting subway system, where there is a center, and distribution is fed from it, and generation feeds it from an array of generators who are paid for the privilege and bid to do so. It is overseen by ISOs like ISO-NE. Sometimes there isn’t enough generation and one ISO needs to borrow from the next, but that’s rare and, in this market-based system, expensive. Bidding is done day-ahead.

What I envision is a completely different topology.

The equilibrium state of such a grid or network would consist of spatially separated clusters, roughly proportional to population, with some cleaving along political boundaries. Each cluster would have its own generation sources — wind, solar, storage — and, of course, its own demand. Roughly half the time (or more!) each cluster gets all the power it needs from its own generation. The rest of the time, the cluster draws power from available power in nearby clusters, coordinated as a super-cluster. The great majority of the time, say 90+%, each super-cluster is completely self-sufficient. There may be community wind or solar generation at the super-cluster level which ties. It is entirely possible that the distribution lines and substations at the super-cluster are owned by an entity not associated with what we would identify as a “utility”. At best (or worst) it would be like a municipal utility or energy cooperative. (These already exist in Massachusetts.) They maintain the distribution network. While they are a kind of monopoly, like utilities, they have a smaller population to serve and, accordingly, need to answer for the level of service they do or not provide. Their board might even be elected.

When a super-cluster fails to provide for its own energy, it can either request it from neighboring super-clusters, or it can approach what is the vestige of the present utility, the vestige of a hub or grid. Such an entity would be economically much smaller than today, having sold off most of its assets to super-clusters, but its role would remain, albeit much smaller than that of today. Its political influence would also be accordingly smaller.

There is also a much reduced need for an ISO in this model. Rather than a centrally planned and centrally controlled manager of energy, the clusters system can be mathematically designed and implemented via control theory to be self-balanced and self-regulating. Accordingly, there is little need for command decisions, although there continues to be a need for monitoring and reporting to national authorities and agencies.

Naturally, transitioning from the present central system to such a clustered approach will have its bumps and pitfalls. I think this will be technology and price driven, and there will be entrepreneurs who will create the local storage and digital energy overlay networks to make this happen. It would probably go easier if there were an oversight agency or agencies. New York State appears to be trying to do something like that, but I’m skeptical that Massachusetts, for instance, can, since its governance is tied up and torn between a number of fierce vested interests.

I bet New York will get there first, and I bet New York’s economy will be much the better for it, at least than that of Massachusetts.

Finally, such a system, hierarchically decomposed, will be far more robust and resilient than the present one, if much less profitable, because it depends less upon extended supply chains. Its price volatility will be a fraction of the volatility in the present system, offering less reward for arbitrage. It will also be vastly more efficient in its use of energy. There will be no need for natural gas pipelines. These are good.

This is the kind of “grid defection” or, rather, grid transformation most policy leaders don’t imagine.

(Below, some gratuitously included clips from the Canettes Blues Band, literally, a group of LHC physicists who play the blues.)

About ecoquant

See https://wordpress.com/view/667-per-cm.net/ Retired data scientist and statistician. Now working projects in quantitative ecology and, specifically, phenology of Bryophyta and technical methods for their study.
This entry was posted in abstraction, American Meteorological Association, anomaly detection, Anthropocene, Bloomberg New Energy Finance, BNEF, Boston, bridge to somewhere, Buckminster Fuller, Canettes Blues Band, clean disruption, climate business, climate economics, complex systems, corporate supply chains, decentralized electric power generation, decentralized energy, demand-side solutions, differential equations, distributed generation, efficiency, EIA, electricity, electricity markets, energy, energy reduction, energy storage, energy utilities, engineering, extended supply chains, green tech, grid defection, Hermann Scheer, Hyper Anthropocene, investment in wind and solar energy, ISO-NE, Kalman filter, kriging, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, leaving fossil fuels in the ground, Lenny Smith, local generation, marginal energy sources, Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, Mathematics and Climate Research Network, mesh models, meteorology, microgrids, networks, New England, New York State, open data, organizational failures, pipelines, planning, prediction markets, public utility commissions, PUCs, rate of return regulation, rationality, reason, reasonableness, regime shifts, regulatory capture, resiliency, risk, Sankey diagram, smart data, solar domination, solar energy, solar power, Spaceship Earth, spatial statistics, state-space models, statistical dependence, statistics, stochastic algorithms, stochastics, stranded assets, supply chains, sustainability, the energy of the people, the green century, the value of financial assets, thermodynamics, time series, Tony Seba, utility company death spiral, wave equations, wind energy, wind power, zero carbon. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a reply. Commenting standards are described in the About section linked from banner.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.