February 2009
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Energy, Innovation, and E-Tech

Current assumptions of a paternalistic utility providing all control will not be sustained. New models of loose integration and symmetric interactions are required. 

Toby ConsidineToby Considine
Systems Specialist,
Facility Services, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill
The New Daedalus

Contributing Editor

The culture of information technology is one of innovation and rapid change. The culture of energy is risk-adverse and slow to change. We need to move from energy to E-Tech to address today's problems of climate, of security, and of reliability.  E-Tech will embrace diversity to customize each solution for each situation. E-Tech will support rapid quick adoption of new technologies. E-tech must not be constrained by the slow adoption of the regulated utilities. E-Tech must be more tolerant of poor power quality. E-Tech must provide better support of digital systems for business and entertainment than do today's systems.  

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Today's energy distribution systems are deeply integrated and intolerant of diversity. Utilities routinely demand new components based on 20 year old technology. SCADA security relies on physical defense of dumb systems. Every decision is made to preserve a static hierarchy of systems from generator to final user. 

Tomorrow's energy distribution must acknowledge and accept distributed generation and diversity of technology. Every demarcation will potentially support energy flows in either direction. Net energy users will be able to negotiate with different suppliers. Today's presumption of hierarchical control will not support this. 

As new technologies hit the market, new sources of energy will appear in a patchwork across the distribution networks.  Some of these will be competing brands of existing technologies.  Some of these will be radical variants and extensions of existing technologies, perhaps leveraging intelligence or nanotechnology to create something that is qualitatively distinct.  Some of these will use whole new approaches to electrical generation, such as the bacterial system I wrote of last fall.  

Reliable Controls Other approaches will change the way energy is used. Energy storage, conversion, and recycling are all parts of the Net Zero Energy (NZE) building. If some of these approaches create excess energy that can be sold to the grid, our interface should support it. As the price, i.e. scarcity, of electricity grows, a building may wish to redeploy more and more of its energy for sale. It is imaginable that the mix of energy sources inside a building may be unique. It is certain that the mix of energy sources in each building are likely to change over time. 

The current models of grid operation will not support these new scenarios. Deep process-oriented integration will be a barrier to rapid innovation.  Current assumptions of a paternalistic utility providing all control will not be sustained. New models of loose integration and symmetric interactions are required. 

Today, new energy technologies have an additional hurdle to get to market; they must be accepted by the utilities as a proper peer with full process revealed. This can add years to the trip to market and presents a huge barrier to venture funding of energy projects. We must remove that barrier, through adopting service oriented integration and abandoning process integration. When we do, many more energy ventures will be funded. When we do, we will have gone a long way toward making E-Tech as agile and innovative as high tech.

 

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