In search of the energy Internet

Two Steps Forward

In search of the energy Internet

"The Enernet." When I heard that term last week, at the U.S. Energy Department’s Energy Innovation Summit, I harkened back to about 1993, when something called "the Internet" first entered my consciousness. At the time, it sounded geeky and abstract and wholly unrelated to my life and work.

Given how the whole Internet thing turned out, I decided to take the notion of an Enernet — an energy Internet — more seriously.

The idea of a smart, networked electricity grid has been talked about for several years. I found a 2004 article on the topic from The Economist that described turning “today's dumb electricity grid” into “a smart, responsive and self-healing digital network.” I’m certain this wasn’t the first article on the topic.

I have been talking about something similar since 2008, when I first integrated the idea of a convergence of energy, information, building, and transportation technologies into my keynote presentations. That idea we now call VERGE, and has become a center of activity for my company (including next week’s VERGE DC event). Still, I hadn’t heard of the Enernet before, though I’ve come to learn that the term dates back almost as long as my talking about “convergence.” Here’s a 2009 C-NET article that references the term.

Last week’s Energy Innovation Summit was produced by ARPA-e (for Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy), created by President Bush in 2007 but funded by President Obama in 2009. It was modeled after the Defense Department’s highly successful DARPA, created a half-century earlier to maintain the technological superiority of the U.S. military. DARPA has been credited with birthing a wide range of critical technologies, many of which have migrated to civilian use — the Internet as well as high-frequency radar, high-energy lasers, cloud computing, jet engines, virtual reality, and GPS, among other innovations. (Google’s autonomous vehicle and Apple’s iPhone Siri speech recognition technology are both children of DARPA.)

At EIS12, as last week’s event was referred to in shorthand, nearly 2,500 people assembled outside Washington, DC, to hear from the likes of Bill Clinton, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Fedex founder and CEO Fred Smith, ex-Walmart CEO Lee Scott, Xerox CEO Urusula Burns, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, MIT President Susan Hockfield, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, various DOE officials, and more Members of Congress than you shake a gavel at. It was, at times, a bit of a cheerleading session for increasingly maligned federal funding of advanced energy technologies, a necessity in an era of the politicization of solar and other renewables. At other times, the summit was an energy geekfest.

It was the latter — in particular, the Enernet — that most captivated my interest.

In a session on “Future Grid,” a group of speakers addressed how to integrate into the electricity grid millions of “prosumers” — buildings, power plants, and other entities that both produce and consume electricity — along with billions of smart devices, from cars to computers to light switches to ATMs. Doing this reliably, economically, and sustainably — not to mention instantaneously — is shaping up to be a Herculean effort. The goal is to create an Internet-like distributed electricity system where anyone, from large utilities to individual consumers, can literally plug in and play: the Enernet.

Suffice to say, the Enernet is a radical change from how electricity has been delivered for the past 100 years. And that system — centrally generated in large power plants, delivered to customers via electromechanical devices — has worked fairly well, the occasional blackout notwithstanding. As everything becomes decentralized and digitized, things should get even more efficient and reliable — at least in theory. In reality, it's an open question.

The problem, as best I can assess, isn’t the technology. It’s moving along nicely, thanks to thousands of innovative companies, thousands more university research projects, plus government funding and consortia of companies and stakeholders creating common standards and platforms on which to build products and systems.

The problem seems to be in how all the parties play well together: utilities, regulators, grid operators, independent power producers, electric vehicle makers, building owners and households with solar panels that produce more energy than they need, and 1,001 other players that make up this complex energy ecosystem.

And then there’s the data. Since energy systems will be digital, with every device having, in effect, an Internet address, there will be scads of data pouring forth. Already, there are 30 million smart meters in the U.S., with 50 million more coming online in the next five years. Add to that an “Internet of things” — smart appliances, switches, plugs, and other devices that are interconnected — which already numbers in the billions (and 50 billion by 2020, according to one estimate). Suddenly, the tsunami of data we know as today’s Internet seems a drop in the bucket.

To cope, electric utilities and others in the energy field are adopting the lingo of data analytics: “geospatial mining,” “adaptive learning,” “data cleansing,” “knowledge discovery,” “pattern recognition,” and so on. And, of course, “cyber security,” a nontrivial piece of any critical system that can be hacked, infected, spammed, phished, or otherwise tampered with.

There are big, unanswered questions: who owns all of the data produced by an Enernet — all of the information about the behavior of people and their vehicles and buildings? Will it be utilities, customers, third parties, no one? Who oversees this decentralized but critical infrastructure: is it self-governed or does the government play a role? (And if the latter, does regulation differ from state to state or city to city?) If you’ve ever suffered a hacked email account or computer virus, let alone a denial-of-service attack, it doesn’t take much imagination to see what kinds of havoc can be wreaked on the Enernet.

As I said, there are countless nodes of activity attempting to figure out such complexities. One major node is the Defense Department, which has multiple reasons to care about all this. Not the least of those reasons is that its military bases will likely be the proving ground for many Enernet technologies. At the ARPA-e conference, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter, who holds a doctorate in theoretical physics from Oxford University, talked about the military’s gluttonous appetite — and equally huge budget — for new energy technologies. DoD, which operates 500 installations in the U.S. alone and maintains 300,000 buildings and facilities worldwide — already is experimenting with microgrids, local energy storage, and renewable energy generation in an effort to curb its energy bill while increasing reliability.

And not just for military bases and buildings: Among the 200 or so exhibitors at ARPA-e last week were various branches of the Pentagon, boasting such advances as the Soldier Wearable Integrated Power System, or SWIPES, which will allow tomorrow’s soldier to enter the battlefield fully armed with portable power; and Piezoelectric Harvesting Onboard Munitions systems that, I kid you not, generate electricity “from the natural vibration environment” of gun-fired weapons.

When it comes to the Enernet, it’s still the Wild West.

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