Think Small to Think Really Big

Before moderating my session at a data analytics conference this past week, I heard an interesting comment from a utility representative about the scalability of data analytics solutions.  He recounted that many vendors were pitching solutions that look good on paper and in small pilots, but the solutions lacked the ability to handle really big data volumes.  That’s a solvable problem since I know a couple of data analytics companies that already handle daily volumes of data that make utility byte flows look like trickles instead of torrents.   For some problems, scaling bigger is better in terms of solutions.  But when it comes to modernizing our electrical grid into a Smart Grid, we need to realize that scalability should go both ways.  For the Smart Grid to really be smart, it has to be fully bi-directional in electricity and communications.  To make that happen, we must think small, especially in microgeneration and energy storage.

Consider the “small” revolution in financing projects to alleviate poverty and hunger and help humans thrive.  In the old model, humanitarian agencies, non-governmental organizations and governments spent billions of dollars creating massive projects that for the most part failed – otherwise everyone would have been uplifted from wretched living conditions.  But along came the brilliant and revolutionary idea of microcredit or microfinance, which upended all thinking about how to programmatically improve economic conditions for people.  Success comes in small amounts of money loaned for simple projects that benefit one household or village at a time.  And those benefits multiply – participants enjoy increased access to food, health care, and education.  Small, localized, and distributed financing activity beat big, remote, and centralized activity.

Our existing electrical grid is based on big systems thinking and engineering.  It consists of massive and centralized generation located hundreds of miles from where it is consumed, with many points of potential failure (as experienced by people in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia without power this past weekend.)  It is designed to be reliable, but when the grid suffers disruptions, outages can be devastatingly big.  Our grid lacks distributed generation, energy storage, microgrids, and fuel cells – what is commonly known as distributed energy resources or DER.  These assets won’t prevent disruptions, but they can mitigate or alleviate the scope and duration of them.

Deployment of DER assets into the distribution part of the grid (from substation to meter) is an excellent example of thinking small.  Some DER assets could be organized into virtual power plants that are managed by utilities or other energy service providers and deliver electricity to connected end points on a priority basis.  Other DER assets might be islanded to provide electricity to one home or commercial building – such as microgeneration in the form of solar panels and energy storage assets to supply enough electricity to power HVAC, refrigeration, and/or medical equipment.  Sweltering homeowners in the middle Atlantic states could be cooling their homes with electricity coming from solar panels on their roofs, or from their EVs for that matter.  Commercial buildings that operate their own microgrids could avoid business down time due to power outages – a real economic advantage to their tenants.

The bottom line is that we need to think quite differently about how we can design and deploy the Smart Grid to gracefully respond to disruptions.  The Smart Grid can be reliable and resilient.  With the help of innovative policies, technologies, or practices that leverage DER assets to supply electricity on a vastly distributed basis, let’s stop thinking big and instead start thinking small.

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