How do you build a better oven? That’s a question Nathan Myhrvold, former CTO for Microsoft and foodie recently discussed. He pointed out that today’s electric or natural gas-powered oven is designed on the principle first put forward five thousand years ago to dry clay bricks. Kitchen technologists since then have been tinkering with that basic design – even though the objective of food preparation is often at adds with the objective of baking a clay brick, with the possible exception of holiday fruit cakes.
His exploration of how to build a better oven is a useful analogy about how we think about building a better electrical grid. We can continue to tinker around the edges, making small, incremental improvements to existing technologies, or we can start over and work with entirely new technologies. For example, we can continue to try to commercialize carbon sequestration technologies to make fossil fuels less polluting, or we can put our money in clean from the get-go renewables.
Myhrvold offers a fascinating description of the problems with existing ovens right from the moment you turn them on. Today’s ovens are inefficient. They consume too much energy for the output we get. The same is true of today’s electrical grid. We lose 6 -10% of the energy along the supply routes from those remote, centralized sources of generation to the flicks of a million switches that make lamps glow. The technologies to reduce those losses in the traditional electricity supply chain tinker with the problem. A Smart Grid reconfiguration of the grid from centralized to distributed energy resources (DER) co-located at the point of consumption is a fresh approach that simply eliminates the line loss problem.
The problems with ovens aren’t simply about wasted energy. The energy is often in the wrong areas. The oven and the food contained within are not very responsive to each other’s status. A cake may be baking too hot on one side of the oven and too cool on the other. This misapplication of energy exacerbates another shortcoming – ovens provide insufficient and often inaccurate feedback about what’s going on inside them. The only way cooks can really know what’s going on is to open the door and conduct a visual inspection. As the IEEE Spectrum article explains, that simply compounds all the energy waste issues in the modern kitchen oven.
The problems of balance and lack (or inaccuracy) of feedback apply to today’s grid too. Sure, grid operators do a good job of balancing the grid, but it requires a significant effort with an expensive outlay of capital and energy waste. Here’s where another Smart Grid technology group comes into play. Sensors deliver situational awareness of grid operations, and improve the abilities to deliver the right amounts of energy at the right places at the right time without wasting as much energy. In fact, in many scenarios, reducing demand for electricity – also known as demand response (DR) – is a better answer than increasing generation capacity. Sensors, and their companion actuator technologies are already successfully automating electricity reductions (or responses) on a facility-wide scale – such as dimming lights or bumping an air conditioner temperature up a degree.
And guess what? Sensors address the situational awareness problem in ovens, and can include communications capabilities to alert us when food has completed its cooking cycle or needs skilled human intervention. Just like the grid, sensors plus communications technologies in ovens makes them smart too. Both ovens and the electrical grid benefit from innovative thinking that put less emphasis on technology evolution and more emphasis on technology revolution. Consumers of both will be better off for it.