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The Body Electric

The smart grid and its biomorphic destiny.

Fortnightly Magazine - June 2010

an IT-centric view of electricity infrastructure, many industry leaders considered smart grid to be synonymous with AMI for quite some time. Most now have come to realize that AMI is merely the opening scene of a much larger story, the ending of which isn’t yet written.

The second act now has IT giants such as Cisco, Microsoft, and Google entering the stage as energy solution companies. This effectively doubles down on the belief that smart grid is a “bits” problem, as the IT blind man tightens his grip on the elephant’s tail, believing it to be a rope with which he will pull the industry forward. In reality, it will be the tail trying to wag one very big elephant. The limitations of this perspective will become evident when it collides with the inviolate physical primitives of energy and electric power, which don’t necessarily obey Internet logic.

The power engineering domain is another area of potential blindness. It’s a world view grounded in the physical universe, which assumes the physics of electricity is inextricably linked to a centralized operational architecture that places the utility at the center of the universe. Those with this viewpoint assume that the locus of control will remain centered on the utility as smart grid evolves in the name of reliability, efficiency, and optimization. The lingua franca of this domain is informed by such considerations as capital investment, cost-recovery mechanisms, decades-long asset lives, rate cases, and the like.

The power engineering blind man views the smart grid as an “atoms” problem. He believes that by incorporating improvements in physical infrastructure and engineering coupled with a bit of IT, the utility will continue to be the pivot point upon which the energy equation turns. He is secure in the belief that the elephant’s foot is a pillar, against which his assumption of utility-centricity rests. In reality, the pillar actually might be the foot that crushes his perceptions when empowered consumers at the edges of the network compel the elephant to dance. With every smart meter or intelligent electronic device deployed, he sows the seeds of his own unwitting transformation by surrendering ever more control to the distributed edges of the network. This path eventually might decouple the underlying physics of electricity from its current mode of centralized delivery and usher in a new era of distributed architectural constructs.

The real elephant in the room, however, might be something much larger than either the IT or the power engineering blind man suspects.

Stephen J. Gould, the late paleontologist from Harvard University once posed what he called the “most excellent question.” He asked: “What good is 5 percent of an eye?” In a simple linear way of thinking, the answer seems obvious—5-percent vision is better than having none at all. But there’s a non-linear catch to the question. Five percent of an eye does not equate to 5-percent vision. You need 100 percent of an eye to even have the possibility of having 5-percent vision.

The physiology of the eye itself—already a very complex system—is only one component of a much