Beta
×

Welcome to the Slashdot Beta site -- learn more here. Use the link in the footer or click here to return to the Classic version of Slashdot.

Thank you!

Before you choose to head back to the Classic look of the site, we'd appreciate it if you share your thoughts on the Beta; your feedback is what drives our ongoing development.

Beta is different and we value you taking the time to try it out. Please take a look at the changes we've made in Beta and  learn more about it. Thanks for reading, and for making the site better!

Building the Energy Internet

michael posted more than 10 years ago | from the batteries-not-included dept.

The Internet 197

Ant writes "This article talks about transforming today's dumb electricity grid into a smart, responsive and self-healing digital network--in short, an 'energy internet'."

cancel ×

197 comments

Sorry! There are no comments related to the filter you selected.

already /.ed? (-1, Offtopic)

simcop2387 (703011) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654718)

maybe its my connection but it seems like it is

Re:already /.ed? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#8654754)

Don't be daft. It's The Economist. They have real servers.

article text, in case you are correct (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#8654773)

Building the energy internet

Mar 11th 2004 From The Economist print edition

Energy: More and bigger blackouts lie ahead, unless today's dumb electricity grid can be transformed into a smart, responsive and self-healing digital network--in short, an "energy internet"

"TREES or terrorists, the power grid will go down again!" That chilling forecast comes not from some ill-informed gloom-monger or armchair pundit, but from Robert Schainker, a leading expert on the matter. He and his colleagues at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the official research arm of America's power utilities, are convinced that the big grid failures of 2003--such as the one that plunged some 50m Americans and Canadians into darkness in August, and another a few weeks later that blacked out all of Italy--were not flukes. Rather, they and other experts argue, they are harbingers of worse to come.

The chief reason for concern is not what the industry calls "poor vegetation management", even though both of last year's big power cuts were precipitated by mischievous trees. It will never be possible to prevent natural forces from affecting power lines. The real test of any network's resilience is how quickly and intelligently it can handle such disruptions. Think, for example, of the internet's ability to re-route packets of data swiftly and efficiently when a network link fails.

The analogy is not lost on the energy industry. Of course, the power grid will never quite become the internet--it is impossible to packet-switch power. Even so, transforming today's centralised, dumb power grid into something closer to a smart, distributed network will be necessary to provide a reliable power supply--and to make possible innovative new energy services. Energy visionaries imagine a "self-healing" grid with real-time sensors and "plug and play" software that can allow scattered generators or energy-storage devices to attach to it. In other words, an energy internet.

Flying blind

It sounds great. But in reality, most power grids are based on 1950s technology, with sketchy communications and antiquated control systems. The investigation into last year's North American blackout revealed that during the precious minutes following the first outages in Ohio, when action might have been taken to prevent the blackout spreading, the local utility's managers had to ask the regional system operator by phone what was happening on their own wires. Meanwhile, the failure cascaded to neighbouring regions. "They simply can't see the grid!" laments Clark Gelling of the EPRI.

Even if operators had smart sensors throughout the system, they could do little to halt problems from spreading, because they lack suitable control systems. Instead, essential bits of energy infrastructure are built to shut down at the first sign of trouble, spreading blackouts and increasing their economic impact. The North American blackout, for example, cost power users around $7 billion. Engineers have to spend hours or even days restarting power plants.

The good news is that technologies are now being developed in four areas that point the way towards the smart grid of the future. First, utilities are experimenting with ways to measure the behaviour of the grid in real time. Second, they are looking for ways to use that information to control the flow of power fast enough to avoid blackouts. Third, they are upgrading their networks in order to pump more juice through the grid safely. Finally, they are looking for ways to produce and store power close to consumers, to reduce the need to send so much power down those ageing transmission lines in the first place.

First, to the eyes and ears. With the exception of some simple sensors located at a minority of substations, there is little "intelligence" embedded in today's grid. But in America's Pacific north-west, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), a regional utility run by the federal government, has been experimenting with a wide-area monitoring system. Carson Taylor, BPA's chief transmission expert, explains that the impetus for this experiment was a big blackout in 1996. Sensors installed throughout the network send data about local grid conditions to a central computer, 30 times a second.

Dr Taylor credits this system with preventing another big blackout in his region, and says his counterparts in America's north-east could have avoided last year's blackout if they had had such a system. He wishes his neighbours to the south, in power-starved California, who import hydroelectric power from Canada over BPA's transmission lines, would upgrade their networks too. If they did, he believes the entire western region could enjoy a more reliable power supply.

Real-time data is, of course, useless without the brains to process it and the brawn to act on it. For the brains, look to Roger Anderson and his colleagues at Columbia University and at the Texas Energy Centre. They are developing software to help grid managers make sense of all that real-time data, and even to forecast problems before they occur. They hope to use the Texas grid, which (fittingly, for the Lone Star state) stands alone from North America's eastern and western power grids, as a crucible for their reforms. ABB, a Swiss-Swedish engineering giant, has also developed brainy software that tracks grid flows several times a second and feeds the information to control systems that can respond within a minute or so. The firm claims it can make outages 100 times less likely. The real challenge is responding in real time. Today's electro-mechanical switches take tenths of seconds or longer to divert power--usually far too long to avoid a problem. But several firms have devised systems that can switch power in milliseconds. At the Marcy substation in upstate New York, the New York Power Authority and the EPRI are experimenting with a device that can instantaneously switch power between two transmission lines--one notoriously congested, the other usually not--that bring power into New York City.

Another bit of brawn comes in the shape of devices that can act as "shock absorbers" and smooth out fluctuations in the power supply. Greg Yurek, the head of American Superconductor and a former professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argues that recent trends have increased the instability of the grid and highlighted the need for this sort of technology. In America, deregulation of the wholesale power market means ever larger quantities of power are travelling greater distances, yet investment in the grid has halved since the 1970s.

Traditionally, grid operators used banks of capacitors, which store and release energy, to act as shock absorbers for the grid. But capacitor banks tend to be very large and hard to site near customers (who love to guzzle power but complain about new power lines or hardware in their neighbourhood). American Superconductor makes smarter devices known as D-VARs that fit into portable tractor-trailers and can be parked right next to existing substations. Clever software monitors the grid and responds in a matter of milliseconds if it detects fluctuations.

The third broad area of improvement involves squeezing more juice through existing power lines. It may not be necessary to lay thousands of miles of new copper cables to tackle this problem. Because of the current lack of real-time monitoring and controls, system operators often insist that utilities run just 50% of the maximum load through their wires. That safety margin is probably prudent today. But as the grid gets smarter in various ways, EPRI officials reckon that it may be possible to squeeze perhaps a third more juice through today's wires.

And if those copper wires were replaced with something better, even more power could be piped through the grid. One alternative is a cable that uses a combination of aluminium and carbon-glass fibre composite. Researchers at CTC, a cable-maker working with the University of Southern California, think this composite cable could carry twice as much power as a conventional one. Similarly, American Superconductor has come up with superconducting cables that can carry five times as much power as ordinary wires.

Back to the future

In the long run, however, the solution surely does not lie in building ever fatter pipes to supply ever more power from central power plants to distant consumers. Amory Lovins, head of the Rocky Mountain Institute, an environmental think-tank, explains why: "the more and bigger bulk power lines you build, the more and bigger blackouts are likely." A better answer is "micropower"--a large number of small power sources located near to end-users, rather than a small number of large sources located far away.

"The technology exists to enable a radical overhaul of the energy industry. Its effects could mirror the internet's impact on communications"

This sentiment is echoed by experts at America's Carnegie Mellon and Columbia universities, who have modelled the vulnerabilities (to trees or terrorists) of today's brittle power grid. Even the gurus at EPRI, which relies on funding from utilities that run big power plants, agree that moving to a distributed model, in conjunction with a smarter grid, will reduce blackouts. Look at Denmark, which gets around 20% of its power from scattered wind farms, for example. Sceptics argued that its reliance on micropower would cause more blackouts. It did not.

At first glance, this shift toward micropower may seem like a return to electricity's roots over a century ago. Thomas Edison's original vision was to place many small power plants close to consumers. However, a complete return to that model would be folly, for it would rob both the grid and micropower plants of the chance to sell power when the other is in distress. Rather, the grid will be transformed into a digital network capable of handling complex, multi-directional flows of power. Micropower and megapower will then work together.

ABB foresees the emergence of "microgrids" made up of all sorts of distributed generators, including fuel cells (which combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity cleanly), wind and solar power. The University of California at Irvine is developing one now, as are some firms in Germany. "Virtual utilities" would then aggregate the micropower from various sources in real time--and sell it to the grid.

Energy-storage devices will be increasingly important too. Electricity, almost uniquely among commodities, cannot be stored efficiently (except as water in hydro-electric dams). That means grid operators must match supply and demand at all times to prevent blackouts. But if energy could be widely stored on the grid in a distributed fashion, and released cheaply and efficiently when needed, it would transform the reliability and security of the grid. According to Dr Schainker, the last few years have brought dramatic advances in this area. He reckons that several energy-storage technologies now look quite promising: advanced batteries, flywheels and superconducting devices known as SMES devices. But the most intriguing storage option involves hydrogen--which can be used as a medium to store energy from many different sources.

Most of the recent hoopla surrounding hydrogen has concentrated on its role in powering fuel-cell cars. However, its most dramatic impact may well come in power generation. That is because hydrogen could radically alter the economics of intermittent sources of green power. At the moment, much wind power is wasted because the wind blows when the grid does not need, or cannot safely take, all that power. If that wasted energy were instead stored as hydrogen (produced by using the electrical power to extract hydrogen from water), it could later be converted back to electricity in a fuel cell, to be sold when needed. Geoffrey Ballard of Canada's General Hydrogen, and the former head of Ballard, a leading fuel-cell-maker, sees hydrogen and electricity as so interchangeable on the power grid of the future that he calls them "hydricity".

Another benefit is that hydrogen could also be sold to allow passing fuel-cell-powered electric cars to refill their tanks. In time, those automobiles might themselves be plugged into the grid. Tim Vail of General Motors calculates that the power-generation capacity trapped under the hoods of the new cars sold in America each year is greater than all the country's nuclear, coal and gas power plants combined. Most cars are in use barely a tenth of the time. If even a few of them were plugged into the grid (in a car park, say), a "virtual utility" could tap their generating power, getting them to convert hydrogen into electricity and selling it on to the grid for a tidy profit during peak hours, when the grid approaches overload.

Brighter prospects?

So, given all of the environmental, economic and energy benefits of upgrading the power grid, will it really happen? Do not hold your breath. The EPRI reckons that building an energy internet could cost over $200 billion in America alone. Even so, the obstacle to progress, in America at least, is not really money. For even $200 billion is not an outrageous amount of money when spread over 20 or 30 years by an industry with revenues of over $250 billion.

The snag is politics: America's half-baked attempt at deregulation has drained the industry of all incentives for grid investment. America's power industry reinvests less than 1% of its turnover in research and development--less than any other big industry. While Britain is a notable exception, the picture is not much better in many parts of the world. The technology exists to enable a radical overhaul of the way in which energy is generated, distributed and consumed--an overhaul whose impact on the energy industry could match the internet's impact on communications. But unless regulators restore the economic incentives for investment, the future looks bleak. Time to stock up on candles and torches.

Copyright (C) 2004 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.

Re:already /.ed? (3, Funny)

chewtoy-11 (448560) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654797)

Are you using Internet over Power Lines technology?

My take on it (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#8654721)

A few colleagues and I investigated the Enegery Internet a couple months ago. I have to tell you that I was unimpressed, as there are more powerful and yet less expensive solutions which should be hitting the market soon.

Therefore I believe the Enegery Internet is overrated and I would recommend against it. Just my two cents.

Transforming... (3, Funny)

pacman on prozac (448607) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654736)

Transforming the electricity grid into the worlds largest human microwave.

Re:Transforming... (-1, Offtopic)

Ninja_Josh (764918) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654859)

Smors anybody?

Got shocked (1)

ospirata (565063) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655249)

Arrrg!!! I've just got shocked by a new SCO memo!

Oblig (5, Funny)

bbrazil (729534) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654738)

Re:Oblig (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#8654800)

Hmm... So if we combine this with the Transmission of IP Datagrams on Avian Carriers [ietf.org] ...

Re:Oblig (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#8654863)

Then we have dinner!

Don't do this! (4, Funny)

Doomrat (615771) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654742)

Don't do this. Seriously. Building adapting, sentient networks of energy always ends in the Universe being destroted. I KNOW BECAUSE IT HAPPENED TO ME.

Re:Don't do this! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#8654942)

How can you destrot the universe?

Re:Don't do this! (4, Funny)

Doomrat (615771) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655590)

By removing its strots.

self healing (3, Insightful)

tklive (755607) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654747)

...internet..self healing...? well, tolerant to a nice degree in most instances..but healing ?

Re:self healing (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#8654886)

The internet is self destructive in it's current
form given the number of idiots willing to
abuse the freedom of access. Not a good model
for electricity supply imho

wonderful... (5, Funny)

Perdition (208487) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654749)

Now my lamps and appliances can get spammed too. Progress.

Re:wonderful... (2, Insightful)

Calydor (739835) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654894)

Wow. Imagine waking up in the middle of the night because your alarm clock starts broadcasting a Security Int. commercial, or going to the fridge for a cold one, and the light morse-blinks an ad for milk, or ... Oh, the possibilities for spamming this way. And across the Energy Internet you might say .. All power to the spammers. ;)

Re:wonderful... (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#8655355)

well, it wouldn't happen if your lamps and appliances didn't buy from the spammers.

I remember when... (5, Insightful)

Ratface (21117) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654751)

People used to say that when the Internet becomes as invisible as the electricity grid we'll know it has succeeded in becoming an invaluable part of our lives.

Now people are wanting to turn the electricity grid into an "internet". Does this mean that it will suffer from the same problems in reliability, be difficult to install and that early adopters will bost about "having electricity use at home"?? ;-)

Re:I remember when... (3, Interesting)

millahtime (710421) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654781)

There is actually a powere grid out there that already does this. i wish I could find the article on it. It was setup in the 90s. It can sense changes in the grid and if it can be fixed before there is a problem than it is and if not then they can reroute power.

It doesn't work quite like the internet but that's the concept power folks work with. The idea of bringing it up to tech isn't quite like the internet as we picture it but it has a lot of the same networked concepts.

Re:I remember when... (1)

mrjackson2000 (733829) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655069)

if your talking about the north east US, it works prety good, but not perfect. remember the blackout last year? 1 'node' went down and took the rest of the grid with it

Re:I remember when... (2, Informative)

Genom (3868) | more than 10 years ago | (#8656180)

Indeed. IIRC the problem is that when a node goes down, the "lines" it feeds are rerouted to the working "lines" of the neighbor nodes -- but because everything is run at, or very, very close to capacity, the resulting surge in demand causes the neighbor nodes to trip...and thus it cascades down the line.

The entire system was designed around the notion that each node would have a signifigant surplus of available power, and would thus be able to "take over" for a faulty neighbor-node. Since the power companies, in an effort to maximize profit, simply used the existing surplus power to feed increased demand, instead of upgrading and/or adding new nodes (an expensive process, I'm sure), the system doesn't work as well as it should. That's how that debacle in NYC last year happened, IIRC.

Move over hax0rs (4, Interesting)

Underholdning (758194) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654752)

So basically they want to be able to "route" electricity in different directions in case of a power node failure. Opens up a whole new area for hackers. Imagine an eDdos (electric Distributed denial of service) attack on pentagon.

Re:Move over hax0rs (5, Funny)

Jonathan the Nerd (98459) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654811)

On the plus side, you could remotely redirect 50000 volts to your favorite spammer.

Re:Move over hax0rs (1)

Ninja_Josh (764918) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654872)

Or your favorite professor... Or ex-girlfriend... I kind of like this idea.

Re:Move over hax0rs (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#8655773)

Doc: 1.21 gigawatts? 1.21 gigawatts! Great Scott!

Marty: What the hell is a gigawatt?

Doc: How could I have been so careless? 1.21 gigawatts! Tom, how am I gonna generate that kind of power? It can't be done, it can't!

Think outside the BOX (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#8655959)

Seriously.... just because something is networked, doesn't mean that it will be on the "internet". It could be an independent network, with no link to the outside world. can't hack what isn't connected...

technology exists (4, Insightful)

millahtime (710421) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654758)

To implement a system that would do this wouldn't require any new technology. The ability to sense grid changes before problems occur has been happening in some places for years. The ability to reroute power is already there. It's just a matter of integrating the technology together and installing it all over. That is where the problem would fall as it would cost a lot of $$$$$.

I have seen demonstrations of this technology on a smaller scale already.

Re:technology exists (3, Insightful)

BiggerIsBetter (682164) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654809)

I think it's also about decentralising the networks. Sure my electricity can be rerouted, but not by me. Electricity supply and distribution is still an "old boys" game, and I don't think they'll give up that power without much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Re:technology exists (2, Interesting)

millahtime (710421) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654867)

"I think it's also about decentralising the networks. Sure my electricity can be rerouted, but not by me."

It's not really about decentralizing the networks from where they are now but about new technology. I don't ever forsee any single person rerouting the power flow. No one person especially someone who doesn't work on the power grid has a clue how/where it needs to be routed. It about the adaptation and smarts of the system.

Re:technology exists (3, Insightful)

BiggerIsBetter (682164) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655421)

I get your point, but what I mean is, If I don't want supply from company X, I can reroute my connection to company Y. Or if I've got a wind tubine in my back yard and am away on holiday, I can route my surplus electricy to my brother across town. I know there's loadings and things to consider, but you get the idea. Some of that is kind of possible already, but it's a bit of a farce - basically you send your money to different companies for the same service over the same lines from the same generators. I want to be able to choose for my electricy comes from a hydro plant and not a coal plant for example.

Re:technology exists (2, Interesting)

_Sharp'r_ (649297) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655144)

It might be interesting to combine this with the systems of broadband over power lines currently in use.

Having sensors at remote locations that can use the power lines themselves to communicate with each other much like routers do over the larger Internet would seem to make this more feasible and not a toy [educationa...ld-toy.com] .

Of course, broadband to your sensor might just encourage the crackers to attack them as noted in earlier posts...

Re:technology exists (2, Interesting)

Beatbyte (163694) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655048)

Technology also exists to setup PV (solar) power on the same power grid where it returns the solar power it gathers back into the grid. no polution.

if more people would have invested in the clean energy and installed it correctly, this wouldn't be as big of a problem.

and if they bitch about money, ask them how much money they lose when the power goes out for a day or 2. I'm sure it'll easily pay for a 5kw PV system.

Re:technology exists (1)

Phurd Phlegm (241627) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655732)

I have seen demonstrations of this technology on a smaller scale already.

My (limited) understanding is that changing the topology of the grid can have highly unexpected effects. This is okay if you have global knowlege of the grid. What if you have only local knowlege?

We kid about someone getting swamped with traffic on the internet: "their servers started glowing cherry red and melted." Well, this is an actual failure more for transmission lines! They don't really melt, but they mayget taken out of service to protect the equipment.

I imagine a lot of high-grade engineering will go into coming up with a system that's immune to cascading failures--if that's possible.

Security through antiquity (4, Insightful)

G4from128k (686170) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654763)

I would fear that a "new electricity net" would be less secure than the current control systems because the control nodes would inevitably be connected to the public internet with packets tunneled via a VPN to the central office. I don't see power companies laying their own independent fibers for connectivity. And even if they use their own BPL, there is a good chance the control nodes, sensor nodes, and ccentral office will be connected to what is a public-exposed BPL net. The cost efficiency of routing packets over the public net are just too tempting. Despite best efforts, I'm sure someone will figure a way to hack into the sensor nodes, control nodes, or the central office if it is connected to a public internet.

The current system is more secure (if unreliable and uncontrollable) because compromising it requires physical access.

Re:Security through antiquity (1)

stevelinton (4044) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654885)

The power distribution companies are just about the one group who really can afford to run private fibre. After all, they already HAVE cables connecting all the omportant sites, byu definition, and the technology to wrap a fibre around a power line is already well established.

And before someone makes the obvious comment -- it's already easy to route data around a line interrupted by a fallen tree or whatever. Harder to route gigawatts.

Re:Security through antiquity (country specific) (2, Interesting)

G4from128k (686170) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655364)

The power distribution companies are just about the one group who really can afford to run private fibre. After all, they already HAVE cables connecting all the omportant sites, byu definition, and the technology to wrap a fibre around a power line is already well established.

Perhaps its a country-by-country issue. In the U.S., power transmission is a neglected, regulated industry -- its the people that generate the power, not the people that transmit the power, that make all the money. Transmission, at least in the U.S., is a commodity infrastructure and many regard it as underfunded.

But even if the power companies of some countries could afford their own fiber, why would they choose this? And if they do pay to install fiber, why wouldn't they lease unused capacity on this line? To the extent that they either choose the cheaper option (use other's fiber) or lease out their own fiber, they are insecure. Public packets and infrastructure control packets should not be corouted.

Re:Security through antiquity (1)

dave420 (699308) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655131)

If they use the right encryption and safety measures, why won't that be secure?

Most electricity systems (heck, most systems in general) are already connected to the net in some way.

Just being connected to the net doesn't mean you're instantly going to get cracked. Look at microsoft.com - a server everyone and their dog wants to crack into. It has external access, and yet is still up and running, profanity-free. With the right technology and people to put it in place, it's secure enough for almost anything.

Re:Security through antiquity (no total security) (1)

G4from128k (686170) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655545)

If they use the right encryption and safety measures, why won't that be secure?

There's no such thing as unhackable security, especially if you want cheap boxes that sit on all the thousands/millions of powerplants and distribution facilities in a big power grid. Sooner or later people will find a weakness in the software, firmware, or hardware of the little boxen on all those sensor and control nodes. Sooner or later a power company will fail to patch a hole (or it will take months to physically replace/patch defective hardware). Sooner or later, the keys to some part of the control net will get leaked or stolen. If the control and sensor boxes on are on the public net, they will become remotely hackable.

Just being connected to the net doesn't mean you're instantly going to get cracked. Look at microsoft.com - a server everyone and their dog wants to crack into

First, I doubt the power companies would or could replicate Microsoft's level of security (either in terms of money or skilled people). Regular corporations do get kacked all the time. Second, I'd bet Microsoft gets hacked too, but its not publically announced or even necessarily discovered.

The grid is smarter than you think (5, Interesting)

lewko (195646) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654764)

I disagree with the article - obviously written for a non technical audience.

Although I hate calling a bug a "feature", the fact is that blackouts are often a testament to fault-detection which could otherwise overload a grid and cause more substantial problems that would take longer to resolve.

When ever there is a power outage, a grid must be brought back up slowly. Otherwise, all the lights, motors, air-conditioners, fridges etc. switched on will overload the system and shut it down again - bunnyhopping.

Moreover, grids are deliberately designed (1950s or not) to channel energy where it's needed. This prevents overloading or underpowering.

It just saddens me how absolutely dependent we are on electricity/technology that in an emergency we cannot possibly do without it. How many people have been frustrated that their mail server is down, yet not realised they can WALK over to their colleague and TALK to him?

Powers out... Grab the shotgun!

Re:The grid is smarter than you think (1)

Stopmotioncleaverman (628352) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654803)

...although they have to first get to him. In the veal-fattening pen offices we have today, past evening time the office would be in utter darkness. Finding your office mate would be like a blind lab mice navigating a maze, only of office cubicles. It would take forever (probably longer than the power took to come back on), and would probably only serve to get you more irritated :P

It's called PHM and it's new (5, Informative)

millahtime (710421) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654848)

The technology they are reffering to in reality is PHM (Prognostics Health Management) or sometimes called Prognostics and Diagnostics.

This is a form of fault detection that detects something much earlier where you can either go perform maintenance on the problem before it breaks or reroute power from the problem area and go fix it. Either way it keeps the power up and is transparent to the user

Fault detection has come a lot way since the days of the 1950s. Hell it has come a log way from 10 years ago

Say you can detect a problem in the power grid hours or even days before it causes something to break in the grid. You can have a repair guy go out and fix it or if you can't get someone to fix it in time you can reroute power around the problem until you can get it fixed.

From a technical side it can be done and it is a networked approach but nothing says they will use the internet or it will have the same kind of problems from users accessing it.

Re:The grid is smarter than you think (3, Funny)

SmackCrackandPot (641205) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655235)

How many people have been frustrated that their mail server is down, yet not realised they can WALK over to their colleague and TALK to him?

Yes, I've tried, but he's always busy moderating slashdot comments.

Re:The grid is smarter than you think (4, Insightful)

ohsoot (699507) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655283)

Although I hate calling a bug a "feature", the fact is that blackouts are often a testament to fault-detection which could otherwise overload a grid and cause more substantial problems that would take longer to resolve.

Yes, blackouts small blackouts should occur by design to isolate a fault. When the much of the north eastern US is in a black out, the system did not work. The grid should have isolated the fault and blacked out the minimum area.

When ever there is a power outage, a grid must be brought back up slowly. Otherwise, all the lights, motors, air-conditioners, fridges etc. switched on will overload the system and shut it down again - bunnyhopping.

100% correct.

Moreover, grids are deliberately designed (1950s or not) to channel energy where it's needed. This prevents overloading or underpowering.

Absolutely correct again. The problem is that after deregulation power companies send their power to whatever area will pay the most $$$. This is not always the place that is in the most need of power. Thus many lines have a lot more power going through them than before deregulation. In addition electricity is being carried much farther than before. This is not how the grid was designed, and is a partial contributor to the august blackout.


I agree with the article. We need to upgrade the US power system. An alternative would be to do away with deregulation and go back to using the grid as it was designed. (This would require a political change and probably won't happen.)

Re:The grid is smarter than you think (4, Insightful)

johnjay (230559) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655872)

An alternative would be to do away with deregulation and go back to using the grid as it was designed.

It seems to me that such a change would result in building a lot more powerplants closer to cities. I'm not very excited about that, unless they were nuclear power plants, because of the amount of pollution generated by powerplants. I bet that nuclear powerplants wouldn't be built because of environmental and n.i.m.b.y. concerns.

If I'm jumping to the wrong conclusion, please correct me. I don't know much about the electrical system.

Assumptions of grid design are becoming false (4, Informative)

Tau Zero (75868) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655447)

Moreover, grids are deliberately designed (1950s or not) to channel energy where it's needed. This prevents overloading or underpowering.
I'm sorry, but the second sentence is just false. The assumption of the grid is that there is always sufficient generating capacity to meet the instantaneous demand. If demand exceeds supply for any reason, part or all of the system can be under-powered. This is what happened on 8/14/2003: lines carrying power to portions of Ohio went down, causing local plants to overload and trip off-line and beginning the cascade of failures.
When ever there is a power outage, a grid must be brought back up slowly.
This is why it is so important to prevent large outages. Small-scale load shedding is a vast improvement over any big failure. Systems which can react to an under-power situation fast enough to dump a few neighborhoods or plants before the generators or lines have to trip off will prevent outages from growing larger.

Cutting off customers is a poor substitute for demand-side management [doe.gov] . When there's a run on, say, toilet paper or gasoline, prices rise or suppliers run out. Latecomers delay their consumption and everyone has an incentive to decide how important it is to have the goods right now vs. later; there is no way to bring down the toilet-paper supply system. We have no such buffer like this for electricity; because of the false assumption that electricity will always be available when you flip the switch, too many people flipping the switch can cause everyone's power to go down. We need to address this sooner rather than later.

Although I hate calling a bug a "feature", the fact is that blackouts are often a testament to fault-detection which could otherwise overload a grid and cause more substantial problems that would take longer to resolve.
Fault detection is one thing. A faulty response to detection of a fault is another; if the system reacts to a shortage of generation capacity by cutting off generation rather than consumption, the protective systems act to decrease reliability. We may need measures such as mandatory utility control over air-conditioners (the major loads during summer demand peaks) in order to get a handle on this problem.

IN SOVIET RUSSIA (-1)

Skratch (39859) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654771)

Dumb electricity grid transforms YOU!

What convenience! (1)

chewtoy-11 (448560) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654780)

This way, when the northeastern section of the USA loses its power, they also lose their Internet service in one-fell swoop! Granted, for desktops this won't make a difference, but for laptops it would...

Great... (4, Funny)

Stopmotioncleaverman (628352) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654782)

Now my fridge will get spammed (sic), worms will infest my lightbulbs, my appliances will get deleted left right and centre, and my house will reboot at odd times, being slower to switch back on and losing more electricity points each time it does.

Not to mention the 'Blackout.A throgh Blackout.J' DDoS that's gonna be happening on SCO's HQ...

Re:Great... (1, Funny)

NerdHead (35767) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655757)

Don't buy MS-HOUSE. Be leary of some open source homes too.

Virusses/Virii anyone? (2, Interesting)

Killjoy_NL (719667) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654786)

I wonder how long it will take to write a "energy-equivalent" virus? That could have really terrible effects.

pr0nz (1)

Lehk228 (705449) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654795)

So does this mean i can download porn from my lamp yet?

Re:pr0nz (1)

lewko (195646) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654804)

So does this mean i can download porn from my lamp yet?

Why don't you stick your pee-pee in the light socket and report back to us?

The Text... (For the Access Impaired) (0, Redundant)

Kjuib (584451) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654818)

ENERGY Building the energy internet Mar 11th 2004 From The Economist print edition Energy: More and bigger blackouts lie ahead, unless today's dumb electricity grid can be transformed into a smart, responsive and self-healing digital network--in short, an "energy internet" "TREES or terrorists, the power grid will go down again!" That chilling forecast comes not from some ill-informed gloom-monger or armchair pundit, but from Robert Schainker, a leading expert on the matter. He and his colleagues at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the official research arm of America's power utilities, are convinced that the big grid failures of 2003--such as the one that plunged some 50m Americans and Canadians into darkness in August, and another a few weeks later that blacked out all of Italy--were not flukes. Rather, they and other experts argue, they are harbingers of worse to come. The chief reason for concern is not what the industry calls "poor vegetation management", even though both of last year's big power cuts were precipitated by mischievous trees. It will never be possible to prevent natural forces from affecting power lines. The real test of any network's resilience is how quickly and intelligently it can handle such disruptions. Think, for example, of the internet's ability to re-route packets of data swiftly and efficiently when a network link fails. The analogy is not lost on the energy industry. Of course, the power grid will never quite become the internet--it is impossible to packet-switch power. Even so, transforming today's centralised, dumb power grid into something closer to a smart, distributed network will be necessary to provide a reliable power supply--and to make possible innovative new energy services. Energy visionaries imagine a "self-healing" grid with real-time sensors and "plug and play" software that can allow scattered generators or energy-storage devices to attach to it. In other words, an energy internet. Flying blind It sounds great. But in reality, most power grids are based on 1950s technology, with sketchy communications and antiquated control systems. The investigation into last year's North American blackout revealed that during the precious minutes following the first outages in Ohio, when action might have been taken to prevent the blackout spreading, the local utility's managers had to ask the regional system operator by phone what was happening on their own wires. Meanwhile, the failure cascaded to neighbouring regions. "They simply can't see the grid!" laments Clark Gelling of the EPRI. Even if operators had smart sensors throughout the system, they could do little to halt problems from spreading, because they lack suitable control systems. Instead, essential bits of energy infrastructure are built to shut down at the first sign of trouble, spreading blackouts and increasing their economic impact. The North American blackout, for example, cost power users around $7 billion. Engineers have to spend hours or even days restarting power plants. The good news is that technologies are now being developed in four areas that point the way towards the smart grid of the future. First, utilities are experimenting with ways to measure the behaviour of the grid in real time. Second, they are looking for ways to use that information to control the flow of power fast enough to avoid blackouts. Third, they are upgrading their networks in order to pump more juice through the grid safely. Finally, they are looking for ways to produce and store power close to consumers, to reduce the need to send so much power down those ageing transmission lines in the first place. First, to the eyes and ears. With the exception of some simple sensors located at a minority of substations, there is little "intelligence" embedded in today's grid. But in America's Pacific north-west, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), a regional utility run by the federal government, has been experimenting with a wide-area monitoring system. Carson Taylor, BPA's chief transmission expert, explains that the impetus for this experiment was a big blackout in 1996. Sensors installed throughout the network send data about local grid conditions to a central computer, 30 times a second. Dr Taylor credits this system with preventing another big blackout in his region, and says his counterparts in America's north-east could have avoided last year's blackout if they had had such a system. He wishes his neighbours to the south, in power-starved California, who import hydroelectric power from Canada over BPA's transmission lines, would upgrade their networks too. If they did, he believes the entire western region could enjoy a more reliable power supply. Real-time data is, of course, useless without the brains to process it and the brawn to act on it. For the brains, look to Roger Anderson and his colleagues at Columbia University and at the Texas Energy Centre. They are developing software to help grid managers make sense of all that real-time data, and even to forecast problems before they occur. They hope to use the Texas grid, which (fittingly, for the Lone Star state) stands alone from North America's eastern and western power grids, as a crucible for their reforms. ABB, a Swiss-Swedish engineering giant, has also developed brainy software that tracks grid flows several times a second and feeds the information to control systems that can respond within a minute or so. The firm claims it can make outages 100 times less likely. The real challenge is responding in real time. Today's electro-mechanical switches take tenths of seconds or longer to divert power--usually far too long to avoid a problem. But several firms have devised systems that can switch power in milliseconds. At the Marcy substation in upstate New York, the New York Power Authority and the EPRI are experimenting with a device that can instantaneously switch power between two transmission lines--one notoriously congested, the other usually not--that bring power into New York City. Another bit of brawn comes in the shape of devices that can act as "shock absorbers" and smooth out fluctuations in the power supply. Greg Yurek, the head of American Superconductor and a former professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argues that recent trends have increased the instability of the grid and highlighted the need for this sort of technology. In America, deregulation of the wholesale power market means ever larger quantities of power are travelling greater distances, yet investment in the grid has halved since the 1970s. Traditionally, grid operators used banks of capacitors, which store and release energy, to act as shock absorbers for the grid. But capacitor banks tend to be very large and hard to site near customers (who love to guzzle power but complain about new power lines or hardware in their neighbourhood). American Superconductor makes smarter devices known as D-VARs that fit into portable tractor-trailers and can be parked right next to existing substations. Clever software monitors the grid and responds in a matter of milliseconds if it detects fluctuations. The third broad area of improvement involves squeezing more juice through existing power lines. It may not be necessary to lay thousands of miles of new copper cables to tackle this problem. Because of the current lack of real-time monitoring and controls, system operators often insist that utilities run just 50% of the maximum load through their wires. That safety margin is probably prudent today. But as the grid gets smarter in various ways, EPRI officials reckon that it may be possible to squeeze perhaps a third more juice through today's wires. And if those copper wires were replaced with something better, even more power could be piped through the grid. One alternative is a cable that uses a combination of aluminium and carbon-glass fibre composite. Researchers at CTC, a cable-maker working with the University of Southern California, think this composite cable could carry twice as much power as a conventional one. Similarly, American Superconductor has come up with superconducting cables that can carry five times as much power as ordinary wires. Back to the future In the long run, however, the solution surely does not lie in building ever fatter pipes to supply ever more power from central power plants to distant consumers. Amory Lovins, head of the Rocky Mountain Institute, an environmental think-tank, explains why: "the more and bigger bulk power lines you build, the more and bigger blackouts are likely." A better answer is "micropower"--a large number of small power sources located near to end-users, rather than a small number of large sources located far away. This sentiment is echoed by experts at America's Carnegie Mellon and Columbia universities, who have modelled the vulnerabilities (to trees or terrorists) of today's brittle power grid. Even the gurus at EPRI, which relies on funding from utilities that run big power plants, agree that moving to a distributed model, in conjunction with a smarter grid, will reduce blackouts. Look at Denmark, which gets around 20% of its power from scattered wind farms, for example. Sceptics argued that its reliance on micropower would cause more blackouts. It did not. At first glance, this shift toward micropower may seem like a return to electricity's roots over a century ago. Thomas Edison's original vision was to place many small power plants close to consumers. However, a complete return to that model would be folly, for it would rob both the grid and micropower plants of the chance to sell power when the other is in distress. Rather, the grid will be transformed into a digital network capable of handling complex, multi-directional flows of power. Micropower and megapower will then work together. ABB foresees the emergence of "microgrids" made up of all sorts of distributed generators, including fuel cells (which combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity cleanly), wind and solar power. The University of California at Irvine is developing one now, as are some firms in Germany. "Virtual utilities" would then aggregate the micropower from various sources in real time--and sell it to the grid. Energy-storage devices will be increasingly important too. Electricity, almost uniquely among commodities, cannot be stored efficiently (except as water in hydro-electric dams). That means grid operators must match supply and demand at all times to prevent blackouts. But if energy could be widely stored on the grid in a distributed fashion, and released cheaply and efficiently when needed, it would transform the reliability and security of the grid. According to Dr Schainker, the last few years have brought dramatic advances in this area. He reckons that several energy-storage technologies now look quite promising: advanced batteries, flywheels and superconducting devices known as SMES devices. But the most intriguing storage option involves hydrogen--which can be used as a medium to store energy from many different sources. Most of the recent hoopla surrounding hydrogen has concentrated on its role in powering fuel-cell cars. However, its most dramatic impact may well come in power generation. That is because hydrogen could radically alter the economics of intermittent sources of green power. At the moment, much wind power is wasted because the wind blows when the grid does not need, or cannot safely take, all that power. If that wasted energy were instead stored as hydrogen (produced by using the electrical power to extract hydrogen from water), it could later be converted back to electricity in a fuel cell, to be sold when needed. Geoffrey Ballard of Canada's General Hydrogen, and the former head of Ballard, a leading fuel-cell-maker, sees hydrogen and electricity as so interchangeable on the power grid of the future that he calls them "hydricity". Another benefit is that hydrogen could also be sold to allow passing fuel-cell-powered electric cars to refill their tanks. In time, those automobiles might themselves be plugged into the grid. Tim Vail of General Motors calculates that the power-generation capacity trapped under the hoods of the new cars sold in America each year is greater than all the country's nuclear, coal and gas power plants combined. Most cars are in use barely a tenth of the time. If even a few of them were plugged into the grid (in a car park, say), a "virtual utility" could tap their generating power, getting them to convert hydrogen into electricity and selling it on to the grid for a tidy profit during peak hours, when the grid approaches overload. Brighter prospects? So, given all of the environmental, economic and energy benefits of upgrading the power grid, will it really happen? Do not hold your breath. The EPRI reckons that building an energy internet could cost over $200 billion in America alone. Even so, the obstacle to progress, in America at least, is not really money. For even $200 billion is not an outrageous amount of money when spread over 20 or 30 years by an industry with revenues of over $250 billion. The snag is politics: America's half-baked attempt at deregulation has drained the industry of all incentives for grid investment. America's power industry reinvests less than 1% of its turnover in research and development--less than any other big industry. While Britain is a notable exception, the picture is not much better in many parts of the world. The technology exists to enable a radical overhaul of the way in which energy is generated, distributed and consumed--an overhaul whose impact on the energy industry could match the internet's impact on communications. But unless regulators restore the economic incentives for investment, the future looks bleak. Time to stock up on candles and torches.

I want it Wireless!!! (1)

The Saint (ST) (762640) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654826)

IMHO, they shouldn't compare it to the Internet. OK, in principle you can build a power network in a way that a consumer can have power redirected to him if a portion of the network fails, but you don't normally wrap energy packets into TCP/IP wrappers. Now, if they find a way to make a wireless power grid (in analogy to wireless internet), that would be telling...

Re:I want it Wireless!!! (1)

Paulrothrock (685079) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655093)

Yes, because we all want 120V flying through our brains.

Re:I want it Wireless!!! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#8655368)

My father built something for my sister's primary school science project (which won her the science olympiad ;p), which was a little wooden wheel w tinfoil conductors and an aerial, which, when held up into the air, caused the wheel to spin. Proof of concept: you can use the (what is it called?) latent energy of the earth to power things already. What I want to do with this is use it to power an airship. :)

Related Audio (1)

loadquo (659316) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654827)

Here [economist.com]

ARRL concerned over rf interference (4, Informative)

Syntroxis (564739) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654828)

The ARRL (Amateur Radio Relay League) is very concerned about the disruption of various portions of the RF spectrum, particularly HF that police, er, fema, etc. use.

An article regarding their concern is here [arrl.org] .

valid concern (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#8655223)

-- home radio reception would be dramatically altered with adoption of IP over electrical wires. Shortwave already sucks enough during the daytime with the interference existing, adding to it would be disastrous, IMO. I find shortwave to be a breath of fresh air in getting a more varied news/information resource, a decent addendum to the internet, and retaining the ability to communicate during crisis times is a great boon. A transceiver with the addition of your own stable power supply that is independent of the grid (me -> some solar) is a decent backup.

England? (1)

leandrod (17766) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654832)

Many ages ago, when people were still using Dr Halo for graphics and Ventura for publishing, I had two Englishmen for bosses. They told me the English power grid was already resilient, so that one never needed the battery in the alarm clock. Needless to say I didn't believe them.

Re:England? (2, Interesting)

Fzz (153115) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654975)

Having lived for a number of years in Boston, Berkeley, and London, I can tell you that the power is MUCH more reliable in London. Boston seemed to suffer from two or three outages a year, Berkeley more like seven or eight (three in the last two weeks), and London is about one outage every few years.

Now, whether it will stay that way with the lack of investment in England after electricity privatization, who can say.

Re:England? (3, Informative)

pklong (323451) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655067)

The blackout in London, not long ago should be proof enough that the british grid is not perfect.

Concerns about long term blackouts in the future due to our overreliance on gas [bbc.co.uk] for power generation have also been raised.

Just search the BBC [bbc.co.uk] to see that you really do need batteries in your alarm clock. Even if the supergrid stays up, you will always have local failures. (My power was intermittent this weekend, due to the bad weather)

No battery in my alarm clock... (1)

Maddog Batty (112434) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655256)

I would guess I get the flashing display (indicating a power failure) on my alarm clock about once a year. I also do not have a UPS system for my computer nor do I know of anyone that does. Our power system is not perfect but it is certainly a lot better than what you guys get over the pond.

About time we got data on the power lines (1)

haxor.dk (463614) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654838)

Not only is the power net available by almost 100% (who haven't got power these days - The Amish?), but high voltages also allow for stable data transmissions (more noise tolerance, even though i think data is transmitted with phase modulation??).

Only thing I wonder about the the quality of cabling constricting the amount of data able to be transmitted and recieved.

Self destructive more like (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#8654842)

Considering that the internet in it's current form is more likely to self destruct than heal,
choosing it as a model for electricity distribution is'nt the most sane decision I've
heard of late.

for when it gets /.ed (-1, Redundant)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#8654856)

Building the energy internet
Mar 11th 2004
From The Economist print edition

Energy: More and bigger blackouts lie ahead, unless today's dumb electricity grid can be transformed into a smart, responsive and self-healing digital network--in short, an "energy internet"

"TREES or terrorists, the power grid will go down again!" That chilling forecast comes not from some ill-informed gloom-monger or armchair pundit, but from Robert Schainker, a leading expert on the matter. He and his colleagues at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the official research arm of America's power utilities, are convinced that the big grid failures of 2003 -- such as the one that plunged some 50m Americans and Canadians into darkness in August, and another a few weeks later that blacked out all of Italy -- were not flukes. Rather, they and other experts argue, they are harbingers of worse to come.

The chief reason for concern is not what the industry calls "poor vegetation management", even though both of last year's big power cuts were precipitated by mischievous trees. It will never be possible to prevent natural forces from affecting power lines. The real test of any network's resilience is how quickly and intelligently it can handle such disruptions. Think, for example, of the internet's ability to re-route packets of data swiftly and efficiently when a network link fails.

The analogy is not lost on the energy industry. Of course, the power grid will never quite become the internet -- it is impossible to packet-switch power. Even so, transforming today's centralised, dumb power grid into something closer to a smart, distributed network will be necessary to provide a reliable power supply -- and to make possible innovative new energy services. Energy visionaries imagine a "self-healing" grid with real-time sensors and "plug and play" software that can allow scattered generators or energy-storage devices to attach to it. In other words, an energy internet.

Flying blind

It sounds great. But in reality, most power grids are based on 1950s technology, with sketchy communications and antiquated control systems. The investigation into last year's North American blackout revealed that during the precious minutes following the first outages in Ohio, when action might have been taken to prevent the blackout spreading, the local utility's managers had to ask the regional system operator by phone what was happening on their own wires. Meanwhile, the failure cascaded to neighbouring regions. "They simply can't see the grid!" laments Clark Gelling of the EPRI.

Even if operators had smart sensors throughout the system, they could do little to halt problems from spreading, because they lack suitable control systems. Instead, essential bits of energy infrastructure are built to shut down at the first sign of trouble, spreading blackouts and increasing their economic impact. The North American blackout, for example, cost power users around $7 billion. Engineers have to spend hours or even days restarting power plants.

The good news is that technologies are now being developed in four areas that point the way towards the smart grid of the future. First, utilities are experimenting with ways to measure the behaviour of the grid in real time. Second, they are looking for ways to use that information to control the flow of power fast enough to avoid blackouts. Third, they are upgrading their networks in order to pump more juice through the grid safely. Finally, they are looking for ways to produce and store power close to consumers, to reduce the need to send so much power down those ageing transmission lines in the first place.

First, to the eyes and ears. With the exception of some simple sensors located at a minority of substations, there is little "intelligence" embedded in today's grid. But in America's Pacific north-west, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), a regional utility run by the federal government, has been experimenting with a wide-area monitoring system. Carson Taylor, BPA's chief transmission expert, explains that the impetus for this experiment was a big blackout in 1996. Sensors installed throughout the network send data about local grid conditions to a central computer, 30 times a second.

Dr Taylor credits this system with preventing another big blackout in his region, and says his counterparts in America's north-east could have avoided last year's blackout if they had had such a system. He wishes his neighbours to the south, in power-starved California, who import hydroelectric power from Canada over BPA's transmission lines, would upgrade their networks too. If they did, he believes the entire western region could enjoy a more reliable power supply.

Real-time data is, of course, useless without the brains to process it and the brawn to act on it. For the brains, look to Roger Anderson and his colleagues at Columbia University and at the Texas Energy Centre. They are developing software to help grid managers make sense of all that real-time data, and even to forecast problems before they occur. They hope to use the Texas grid, which (fittingly, for the Lone Star state) stands alone from North America's eastern and western power grids, as a crucible for their reforms. ABB, a Swiss-Swedish engineering giant, has also developed brainy software that tracks grid flows several times a second and feeds the information to control systems that can respond within a minute or so. The firm claims it can make outages 100 times less likely. The real challenge is responding in real time. Today's electro-mechanical switches take tenths of seconds or longer to divert power -- usually far too long to avoid a problem. But several firms have devised systems that can switch power in milliseconds. At the Marcy substation in upstate New York, the New York Power Authority and the EPRI are experimenting with a device that can instantaneously switch power between two transmission lines -- one notoriously congested, the other usually not -- that bring power into New York City.

Another bit of brawn comes in the shape of devices that can act as "shock absorbers" and smooth out fluctuations in the power supply. Greg Yurek, the head of American Superconductor and a former professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argues that recent trends have increased the instability of the grid and highlighted the need for this sort of technology. In America, deregulation of the wholesale power market means ever larger quantities of power are travelling greater distances, yet investment in the grid has halved since the 1970s.

Traditionally, grid operators used banks of capacitors, which store and release energy, to act as shock absorbers for the grid. But capacitor banks tend to be very large and hard to site near customers (who love to guzzle power but complain about new power lines or hardware in their neighbourhood). American Superconductor makes smarter devices known as D-VARs that fit into portable tractor-trailers and can be parked right next to existing substations. Clever software monitors the grid and responds in a matter of milliseconds if it detects fluctuations.

The third broad area of improvement involves squeezing more juice through existing power lines. It may not be necessary to lay thousands of miles of new copper cables to tackle this problem. Because of the current lack of real-time monitoring and controls, system operators often insist that utilities run just 50% of the maximum load through their wires. That safety margin is probably prudent today. But as the grid gets smarter in various ways, EPRI officials reckon that it may be possible to squeeze perhaps a third more juice through today's wires.

And if those copper wires were replaced with something better, even more power could be piped through the grid. One alternative is a cable that uses a combination of aluminium and carbon-glass fibre composite. Researchers at CTC, a cable-maker working with the University of Southern California, think this composite cable could carry twice as much power as a conventional one. Similarly, American Superconductor has come up with superconducting cables that can carry five times as much power as ordinary wires.

Back to the future

In the long run, however, the solution surely does not lie in building ever fatter pipes to supply ever more power from central power plants to distant consumers. Amory Lovins, head of the Rocky Mountain Institute, an environmental think-tank, explains why: "the more and bigger bulk power lines you build, the more and bigger blackouts are likely." A better answer is "micropower" -- a large number of small power sources located near to end-users, rather than a small number of large sources located far away.

This sentiment is echoed by experts at America's Carnegie Mellon and Columbia universities, who have modelled the vulnerabilities (to trees or terrorists) of today's brittle power grid. Even the gurus at EPRI, which relies on funding from utilities that run big power plants, agree that moving to a distributed model, in conjunction with a smarter grid, will reduce blackouts. Look at Denmark, which gets around 20% of its power from scattered wind farms, for example. Sceptics argued that its reliance on micropower would cause more blackouts. It did not.

At first glance, this shift toward micropower may seem like a return to electricity's roots over a century ago. Thomas Edison's original vision was to place many small power plants close to consumers. However, a complete return to that model would be folly, for it would rob both the grid and micropower plants of the chance to sell power when the other is in distress. Rather, the grid will be transformed into a digital network capable of handling complex, multi-directional flows of power. Micropower and megapower will then work together.

ABB foresees the emergence of "microgrids" made up of all sorts of distributed generators, including fuel cells (which combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity cleanly), wind and solar power. The University of California at Irvine is developing one now, as are some firms in Germany. "Virtual utilities" would then aggregate the micropower from various sources in real time -- and sell it to the grid.

Energy-storage devices will be increasingly important too. Electricity, almost uniquely among commodities, cannot be stored efficiently (except as water in hydro-electric dams). That means grid operators must match supply and demand at all times to prevent blackouts. But if energy could be widely stored on the grid in a distributed fashion, and released cheaply and efficiently when needed, it would transform the reliability and security of the grid. According to Dr Schainker, the last few years have brought dramatic advances in this area. He reckons that several energy-storage technologies now look quite promising: advanced batteries, flywheels and superconducting devices known as SMES devices. But the most intriguing storage option involves hydrogen -- which can be used as a medium to store energy from many different sources.

Most of the recent hoopla surrounding hydrogen has concentrated on its role in powering fuel-cell cars. However, its most dramatic impact may well come in power generation. That is because hydrogen could radically alter the economics of intermittent sources of green power. At the moment, much wind power is wasted because the wind blows when the grid does not need, or cannot safely take, all that power. If that wasted energy were instead stored as hydrogen (produced by using the electrical power to extract hydrogen from water), it could later be converted back to electricity in a fuel cell, to be sold when needed. Geoffrey Ballard of Canada's General Hydrogen, and the former head of Ballard, a leading fuel-cell-maker, sees hydrogen and electricity as so interchangeable on the power grid of the future that he calls them "hydricity".

Another benefit is that hydrogen could also be sold to allow passing fuel-cell-powered electric cars to refill their tanks. In time, those automobiles might themselves be plugged into the grid. Tim Vail of General Motors calculates that the power-generation capacity trapped under the hoods of the new cars sold in America each year is greater than all the country's nuclear, coal and gas power plants combined. Most cars are in use barely a tenth of the time. If even a few of them were plugged into the grid (in a car park, say), a "virtual utility" could tap their generating power, getting them to convert hydrogen into electricity and selling it on to the grid for a tidy profit during peak hours, when the grid approaches overload.

Brighter prospects?

So, given all of the environmental, economic and energy benefits of upgrading the power grid, will it really happen? Do not hold your breath. The EPRI reckons that building an energy internet could cost over $200 billion in America alone. Even so, the obstacle to progress, in America at least, is not really money. For even $200 billion is not an outrageous amount of money when spread over 20 or 30 years by an industry with revenues of over $250 billion.

The snag is politics: America's half-baked attempt at deregulation has drained the industry of all incentives for grid investment. America's power industry reinvests less than 1% of its turnover in research and development -- less than any other big industry. While Britain is a notable exception, the picture is not much better in many parts of the world. The technology exists to enable a radical overhaul of the way in which energy is generated, distributed and consumed -- an overhaul whose impact on the energy industry could match the internet's impact on communications. But unless regulators restore the economic incentives for investment, the future looks bleak. Time to stock up on candles and torches.

Slashdot Effect (5, Funny)

osullish (586626) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654861)

Does this mean if a site is slashdotted we can cause a blackout in the surrounding area?

So what happens when..... (1)

sofakingon (610999) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654864)

I have to use a battery-powered radio to listen to the news about how some script kiddie did a DDoS against a known vulnerability on the "powernet" and all the food in my fridge goes bad....

Sensors - 30 times a second? wow (3, Informative)

Hee Hee Hee (310695) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654868)

Carson Taylor, BPA's chief transmission expert, explains that the impetus for this experiment was a big blackout in 1996. Sensors installed throughout the network send data about local grid conditions to a central computer, 30 times a second. Dr Taylor credits this system with preventing another big blackout in his region, and says his counterparts in America's north-east could have avoided last year's blackout if they had had such a system.

Geez. Come on, Dr. Taylor. Just about everyone has some sort of SCADA network (the network of sensors) running on their grid. The blackout started in Ohio because some operators couldn't see some alarms, and the problems cascaded from there. (There are suggestions that some buggy software caused this, but the jury is still out.) The reports that have been released leave many questions unanswered, which tells how complicated and extensive our power grid is.

It will take many BILLIONS of $$ and many years to upgrade things enough to make it what we call dependable. It's complicated enough just keeping local grids running, let alone transferring power from one to another; balancing sources and loads, switching connections at the right time, etc.

Oh great... (0)

Ninja_Josh (764918) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654884)

Honestly, in my personal opinion, the whole theory behind this is silly... God forbid what the hax0rs are going to do! Haha

Energy Internet Viruses... (1)

aapold (753705) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654887)

Great... now hackers will be able to fry people....

Decentralization is a widespread trend (3, Interesting)

MemoryAid (675811) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654897)

The article discusses using distributed power systems to reduce the need for a high-capacity power grid. This is where the real parallel to the internet can be drawn. Just as the internet has enabled information workers to telecommute, distributed power production can do the same for power plants (not that power plants commuted in the same sense as office workers).

As power production technology gets less intrusive, it becomes more acceptable to have in a residential neighborhood, or hospital basement. Just as you get better quality of service from a web server down the hall than from one on another continent, a neighborhood fuel cell could provide more reliable power to the customer.

Decentralization is becoming a broad-ranging trend in our society. We have people telecommuting, there are microbreweries springing up all over, and people can make their own diesel fuel in their garages. It is not too difficult to come up with more examples (if you disagree, the same probably holds for counterexamples). On a more political note, this ongoing decentralization helps us reduce our dependence on 'The Man' and increases our self-determination. I, for one, welcome our -- never mind.

Re:Decentralization is a widespread trend (1)

Daniel Boisvert (143499) | more than 10 years ago | (#8656096)

Decentralization is becoming a broad-ranging trend in our society.

Anybody else wondering if this will be like the PC 'revolution' in the late eighties/early nineties?

Effectively, everybody and their brother went out and bought one so they could feel 'empowered' and 'independent', and only after a decade or so did folks figure out that maybe it wasn't such a bright idea after all--maybe there really was something to that old client/server model. There are efficiencies of scale in the real world, and plenty of reasons to keep certain things centralised. Personally, I like having everything under my personal control and am perfectly capable of managing it efficiently. There are plenty of folks who aren't, though, and who will leap on the decentralisation bandwagon without thinking it through first. A trend to decentralise doesn't have to be problematic per se, but I think we'd be best to think long and hard about it before proclaiming it as the Next Big Thing.

Dan

Local Generation (4, Interesting)

AlecC (512609) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654900)

Firstly, don't take the internet analogy too far - it's just a system which allows power routing to be managed locally in an intelligent manner, rather than depending upon some central authority. One of the reasons for last year's NW USA blackouts was that data failed to get to the central control centre because of localised breakdowns.

However, decentralised systems can also faile - indeed, given perfect information at the centre (a big given, which often fails) a central overview can outperform a local intelligence. With a distributed system, you would probably get smaller but more frequent outages as local subsystems panic, with a larger total number of houshold outage minutes. This migh, of course, be less damaging if humans don't panic because it is only a few tens of blocks down.

The big potential gain, mentioned lower down in the article, is the potential structural changes to allow small scale generators to generate and distribute power locally. Lots of places have backup power generators, which cut in only when the mains fails. If the economics are right, it would be weorth while their running these continuosly, selling surplus power to the grid, and using the grid as a backup for their own power generation rather than the other way round. This saves the capital investment required for power stations, since it is using capital already invested instead of new capital - which may therefore overcome the diseconomies of small scale. It also saves the losses of long-distance power distribution. However, where you really win is that each area hasa a large proportion of its own power generated locally, so it doesn't care if the grid goes away. Suddently, it soean't matter what happens elswehere. there is also a cewrtain natural balance, as electricity is used in workplaces dirung the day, and when the workers go home the power is available for their domestic evening peak.

The real pie-in-the-sky payoff is when we all get hydrogen-powered cars, which generate electricity for no wear and tear on the fuel cell (we hope). If every car parked at home or work plugs into the grid, you have more generating capacity than you will need in the near future. (It is quoted that the power output of one year of US car sales exceeds the installed generating capacity of the entire world).

Vehicular generation (2, Informative)

Tau Zero (75868) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655608)

If every car parked at home or work plugs into the grid, you have more generating capacity than you will need in the near future. (It is quoted that the power output of one year of US car sales exceeds the installed generating capacity of the entire world).
If not true, it's pretty close. If you assume sales of 1.2 million units/month [66.102.9.104] and an average of 100 KW (134 HP) per unit, annual engine power would be 1.44 terawatts; total nameplate electric generation capacity in the USA is around 700 gigawatts.

The problem with any such scheme is that current motor fuel is derived from a commodity which is rising rapidly in price, and the future panacea-fuel (hydrogen) has very difficult unsolved problems with production and also storage suitable for vehicles.

Oblgatory quote (1)

shachart (471014) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654957)

Doc: 1.21 GigaWatts?!
Marty: Sheesh, which toilet did you bump your head on? We'll just DDoS a few city blocks, should solve the problem.

Re:Oblgatory quote (1)

pklong (323451) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655213)

1.21 GW no problem, you just need one of these [edisonpowerprogramme.com] . More here. [fhc.co.uk]

A little late in the game (2, Insightful)

Tarwn (458323) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654968)

Considering the costs involved and the time it will take to get it going, I think wireless broadband is going to beat it to the punch. Wireless Broadband should be pretty heavily installed (kind of like early cell companies, but faster) within the next few years, and with 802.16e coming (mobile 802.16) then it will have yet another advantage over Ethernet over power lines.

I'd rather the drunk drivers have to drive a semi into a tower to take my internet out anyways :) At least then they won't do it again...hate to be the poor schmuck that has to go check on that equipment outage though.

I think if the IT market moved slower, say stretched out about 10x, then there would have been room for ethernet over powerlines, but as it is it is I think the window of opportuniy for it has already come and will be gone before they manage to get major systems up and running. I've worked with power companies, I know how long it takes them to do anything.

I mean if an OS upgrade requires 6+ months of wait time (not 6 month after it comes out, 6 months after they decide it might be safe to use) and several to many nuclear plants are still running Windows Nt 4, how long do you think it will take for them to decide to do something that will affect all of their lines?

Ethernet over power lines != Power internet (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#8656074)

Sorry, but I have to say it. RTFA. This is not about internet over power-lines. It is about an internet-like structure for the power grid.

OH! Wonderful!! (1)

Carthis (48443) | more than 10 years ago | (#8654973)

It looks like Skynet is finally coming to life.

RUN JOHN CONNER!

when I get my own home (2, Funny)

WormholeFiend (674934) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655037)

I'm going to use "open source" electricity, from the wind and the sun. :P
-

Simple, Cold War-Inspired Solution (4, Insightful)

Paulrothrock (685079) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655068)

Encourage people to have power generation in their own homes. Solar panels, generators, etc, designed for home use, would not only ease strain on the grid during hot days in the summer, but would also make their owners money, and make them energy independent.

This would also provide security in an attack, because the entire electrical grid will no longer be supplied by a few power plants that are large targets for any attacker.

The only reason this wasn't implemented during the Cold War is because the technology wasn't there yet, but it is now. And what better way to promote the hydrogen economy that having people put fuel cells on their property to power their house when the main grid fails? People who don't want to have hydrogen in their cars probably won't mind having a tank in their back yard. A lot of people already have tanks of propane for heating and cooking where there's no natural gas service. (Yeah, yeah, I know it's not a cryogenic liquid, but it sure does explode like hydrogen.)

This would create a distributed network of power generation, and no RIAA-like actions by Al Qaeda or Mother Nature would be able to bring much of the grid down at any one time.

Re:Simple, Cold War-Inspired Solution (2, Insightful)

spectrokid (660550) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655698)

Not goin' to be easy. Here in Denmark, when the grid went down last year, all the windmills came to a standstill. As long as you work with AC, you need someone to set the frequency and the phase. Switchin the whole damn thing to DC would make it easier, but that is one hell of an investment.

real electric grid problems (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#8655070)

... some of the real problems don't involve hardware, they involve corruption and malfeasance. [dissidentvoice.org]

No amount of hardware fixes will overcome sheer greedism as a business model, with government oversight being the foxes guarding the hen house.

zogger

Just ask Mr. Gore (2, Funny)

Gothmolly (148874) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655108)

Since he knows both about energy [newsmax.com] and the Internet [firstmonday.dk]

I won't believe til I see it.. and it works 100% (3, Informative)

MalaclypseTheYounger (726934) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655239)

Slightly offtopic, but I recently purchased one of those Phone-Line through the Power Lines adapters from Radio Shack.

What you do is plug one adapter into the wall circuit in a room with a phone jack, and hook the phone line up to it. Then, in another room without the phone jack, you plug the 'receiver' into the wall, and you can plug a phone into it.

Strangely enough, it works. I can even connect to the internet (at 28.8 or less, usually) through this circuit.

BUT - and a big BUT at that, is I keep on getting mixed lines, I hear other people talking on the line, and the most annoying part of it is that whomever's line I am crossed with, when they make a phone call to somewhere else, MY phone number shows up on that person's caller ID. So then I get phone calls at 1am from shady people asking me "Did you call here?!?". At first it was fun listening to their phone calls, apparently someone's boyfriend got caught in a drug deal and needed to be bailed out, but after 4 or 5 of those 1am calls I decided to ditch the whole thing.

So, I for one would not be too interested in this technology unless I see it proven first. In someone else's house. And knowing how bad it worked for the phone, I'm scared stiff to know what people could grab off my line if I use it for the internet.

$.02

The Grid is close to max load (1)

StateOfTheUnion (762194) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655327)

There isn't a lot of available capacity on the powergrid . . . Imagine an internet running at near capacity . . . If a major trunk goes down, "Self healing" or routing around the problem isn't going to help because there is not enough latent capacity to reroute all the traffic in a timely fashion. On the powergrid, this would still lead to brownouts or blackouts or maybe overheated or vaporized powerlines.

To be able to reroute power effectively, we should first insure that there is adequate capacity to enable us to reroute power through alternate pathways.

Can we have it sewn into our clothes? (0, Offtopic)

geekpuppySEA (724733) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655344)

Imagine, ladies, if you will - a Pocket Rocket [drugstore.com] system so advanced and powerful, it knows exactly what charge to apply and exactly where and when...

And no one will know you're using it!

Will the internet become unreliable? (1)

moojin (124799) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655393)

If the internet via electricity grid becomes more widespread in the future, will the internet become unreliable? If the power goes out (as it did during the East Coast Black Out of 2003), the internet would lose a lot of connectivity in the areas of the black out. It would no longer matter if ISPs or bandwith providers had back up generators. They would go offline as soon as the power went off. What happens if there are rolling black outs such as the ones that happened in California a few years ago? Wouldn't this be bad for VOIP too?

I'm not trying to disparage this idea at all, I'm just curious as to what the affects of black outs or power outages would be to the internet if this form of bandwith was in widespread implementation.

Should have RTF (1)

moojin (124799) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655409)

My apologizes, I should have RTF. I thought they were talking about internet over electrical lines. Again, my apologizes.

Distribute? (1)

F34nor (321515) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655568)

Now that CAT makes flywheel UPS systems I think I have a wonderful solution. Subsidize putting a flywheel system in every home. Or perhaps just large appt. etc. Let it charge up during the night, maybe a trickle charge from a solar array for daytime, and pull power off the system during high loads.

Another Idea use CWT (changing World Technologies) TDP (Thermal Depolymerization Process) on every major sewer system in the United States. The use the fuel to run high efficiency generators. Shit to electricity.

Woohoo! (2, Funny)

bobej1977 (580278) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655651)

FR33 3l3CTR1C1TY F0R H4X0R5!!!

For the love of humanity... (2, Interesting)

Channard (693317) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655716)

.. has no-one behind this idea seen the movie 'Pulse'? Cue a rogue AI hooked up to the power grid, housewives boiling in the shower and garage doors going rogue.

Like it is now! (1, Flamebait)

tarsi210 (70325) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655858)

...smart, responsive and self-healing digital network--in short, an 'energy internet'.

Oh, you mean like the Internet is now? You mean that when Alter.net takes a dump in Ohio that I will still be able to get to the east coast, albeit through a more round-about way? That even if major fibre in the West gets backhoed that I'll be able to get to Australia, maybe through England first?

Although originally designed to be, the Internet is NOT completely fault-tolerant, smart, responsive, or self-healing. In fact, some parts are downright fragile...hit the right router and a lot of lines go dark.

Now, maybe the electric grid would be easier to make tolerant due to the way the distribution is setup, or maybe not (I'm no expert). Monitoring is all good, but building something that is less likely to break is better. I can monitor my servers all I want and be paged like crazy when they go down, but if I don't have good hardware to start with, I'll be running to work at 3am an awful lot.

Building something that is inherently fault-tolerant seems to me to be a better "first" than just improving the monitoring of an already fragile system.

Re: Like it is now! (1)

sploxx (622853) | more than 10 years ago | (#8656147)

ACK. Todays internet is rather tree-shaped than a grid, as it was intended to be. Because of market forces, there is often not more than one path from host A to host B.
If this will get true for the power grid, one will see even more outages.

Cheney's Energy Task Force (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#8655936)

It's interesting to note that no one from the Electric Power Research Institute was invited to be part of Cheney's energy task force.

Interference (3, Interesting)

dpille (547949) | more than 10 years ago | (#8655973)

Okay, so the reliability of this information is obviously suspect given the source, but over the weekend I caught an Art Bell show on the radio, where the President of the American Relay Radio League claimed that interference from this kind of power line networking would essentially kill broadcasting in North America over a wide spectrum- if I remember correctly, something like 20Mhz-80Mhz. Art Bell's recap is here [coasttocoastam.com] .

Looking into it now a little further, some of the American Relay Radio Leauge documents and links [arrl.org] has some mentions of problems for radio astronomy and a few other low-profile endeavors.

Anyway, I had no idea this was a possible outcome, and these claims make me think that perhaps it's better to insist that we really work on existing non-interfering technologies before we kill one of the few sections of spectrum that an individual can use on his own.
Load More Comments
Slashdot Login

Need an Account?

Forgot your password?

Submission Text Formatting Tips

We support a small subset of HTML, namely these tags:

  • b
  • i
  • p
  • br
  • a
  • ol
  • ul
  • li
  • dl
  • dt
  • dd
  • em
  • strong
  • tt
  • blockquote
  • div
  • quote
  • ecode

"ecode" can be used for code snippets, for example:

<ecode>    while(1) { do_something(); } </ecode>