On April 30, FERC held a technical conference to review scientific claims and policy arguments about geomagnetic disturbances, known as GMD—how some say that a once-in-a-century solar storm could...
The Body Electric
The smart grid and its biomorphic destiny.
larger system known as vision. The vision system comprises not only the physical and informational, but also many other elements, including the cognitive self. Indeed, the eye is almost part brain as it is subsumed by the larger vision system. Vision is the holistic system that emerges from the overall chunking of many “narrow universalities,” each a sub-system of the aggregate. Similarly, smart grid envelops not only the physical and informational domains but many others, including the cognitive, economic, regulatory, and social. It will evolve effectively into a complex adaptive system.
The IT and power engineering duality makes it hard to see what likely will be the real elephant in the room. The real elephant might be a mouse. More accurately stated, the elephant is the emergence that is likely to arise when millions of new entities ( e.g., distributed mice) are connected to the grid in new ways and start interacting with an infrastructure that is being equipped with ever-increasing automation. The highly networked electrical grid of the future, populated with millions of autonomous nodes, points to an environment that will become increasingly biological and may lend itself to unintended emergent effects. Managing this emergence might be the real challenge moving forward.
Here is where smart-grid biology comes in. Smart-grid biology is, essentially, the application of systems biology, and other complex science concepts, to the energy and electric power equation. It seeks to understand aggregate system level effects and outcomes that cannot be determined through the reductionist analysis of any constituent element within the system.
A New Synthesis
A system of systems (SoS) perspective is central to smart-grid biology. The system of interest, however, extends far beyond just the technical aspects of IT and power engineering to encompass the economic, regulatory, political and perhaps most important of all, consumer behavioral patterns enacted in varying clusters across very large numbers. It necessarily will be a huge interdisciplinary undertaking that will draw upon insights from a wide range of study including network science and also such areas as metabolic scaling theory, sociology, and even epigenetics—the study of how various factors affect the development of an organism. All of it will be undergirded by advanced modeling and simulation techniques.
However, this endeavor must be holistically encapsulated by a new SoS engineering framework that has emergence in view at the outset. As energy and electric power become increasingly networked and automated, the smart grid will start to behave like a biological system where every element affects every other in a complicated web of cause and effect. The horizontal dynamics across these webs of nodes gradually will become more primary than the understanding and optimization of any single node or groups of nodes.
A new SoS engineering framework also is needed for another reason. Breathing life into the grid will bring forth choices not faced before and unleash a war between control and efficiency versus adaptability and survivability. This dynamic tension lies at the heart of biological constructs. The language of biological systems is written in such terms as adaptability, survivability, robustness, fecundity, and non-linearity