Brenda Cooper

Smart Power

Last week, I listened to energy futurist Jesse Berst talk.  He spoke primarily of the smart grid.  This post is not a recap of his speech per se, but certainly he gave me new ways to think about energy and some of that gift is what I’ll write about.  If you get a chance to hear him, he’s very clear and interesting, and makes a complex subject understandable.

One of the problems I mentioned in a recent post is getting green energy from the source of the energy to the user of the energy.  Wind power isn’t necessarily generated next to millions of power users, for example.  Also, the grid we have today is pretty dumb — most of it was built before the microprocessor.  Remote parts of the grid often don’t talk to each other.  Think of the Internet, where almost every node knows where almost every other node is, or can easily find out.  Addressing and routing and alternate routing (when necessary) is all electronic, reasonably invisible to humans, and very, very fast.  But we can’t do that with power nearly as well.

We need a power grid that acts more like the Internet.  More self-healing, with good base standards.  Until the grid works better and smarter, we’re doomed to stay largely reliant on our old power plants, and on small sources of localized generation like rooftop solar.  We need ways to store energy, and better deal with variations in supply and demand.  Right now, we pretty much have to produce pretty near when we need to consume.  But for a simplistic example, the sun shines and the wind blows during the day, and we want to heat our houses at night in the winter.  So we need more storage in the grid, and more ability to distribute power from one place to another without too much loss. 

A lot of the problem is our grid is built and maintained laregly by a government that is leery of spending money on long-term goals, and is somewhat cash-strapped by low tax policies.  But as gas prices rose this year, so did venture capital investments in alternative power.  Which means private investment.  Perhaps we’ll have the Google grid shortly – technology companies (an a lot of other sectors) are very dependent on reliable power.  At any rate, its something to pay attention to in both the public and private sector – the power grid is a core infratructure we desperately need but seldom think about, or fund.