The Body Electric


The smart grid and its biomorphic destiny.

Fortnightly Magazine - June 2010

Smart grid is commonly viewed as the digitization of the electric power infrastructure that will help enable a sustainable energy future. By applying modern advances in instrumentation, communications, and information technology (IT), conventional wisdom holds that the electrical grid will be made more efficient, reliable, cost effective, and eco-friendly. However, lost in this sea of technological promise is an appreciation for the underlying impact of what fundamentally might happen.

Distilled to its very essence, smart grid is about connecting nodes, altering their interactions, and infusing it all with intelligence and autonomy. Connecting, altering, and infusing—sounds harmless enough. However, the fullness of what smart grid is attempting is so astounding as to be almost prosaic. It is written in letters too large to be seen and too familiar to be understood. Hyperbolically speaking, smart grid is attempting to bring inanimate objects to life—creating its own version of Galatea from the Pygmalion tale of old.

It’s a life-creating act to convert insensate objects (i.e., the statuesque role consumers and devices play in the monolithic, centralized legacy grid) into almost-sentient nodes that wield real impact in the unfolding drama of energy transformation. But there’s a catch in this headlong pursuit of a Frankenstein-like destiny. In connecting everything and equipping it all with intelligence and automation, this endeavor might result in an environment that becomes quasi-biological over time and begins to exhibit behavior similar to that of living systems.

In so doing, the whole energy landscape gradually will become ever more exposed to unintended consequences and undiscovered opportunities. These surprises will be the emergent effects that arise from a highly connected world of rampant horizontal causality. Emergence is about the transcending impact of the whole that cannot simply be deduced from an understanding of the parts. Emergence is a hallmark of living pathways and often times gives rise to strange twists just like the quirkiness we experience in real life.

Greater Than its Parts

A dozen individuals asked to define a smart grid likely will offer a dozen different answers. Like the tale of the blind men and the elephant, each unseeing individual touches a different part of the elephant and draws definitive conclusions on the whole based on the narrow experience of the part. Each man’s error is only partly related to physiological blindness. The real blindness is in the refusal to consider alternate viewpoints in an integrative way.

The blindness at play in smart grid is the insular thinking inherent in domain-centric perspectives. Chief among these is the IT-centric domain that has led many to conclude that smart grid is merely the digitization of the electricity infrastructure. It’s an article of faith that the miracle of IT will do for the power grid what it did for communications via the Internet. Indeed, with advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) serving as an initial proxy for 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 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 and trades off against things like precision, optimization, scarcity, predictability, and efficiency—the focus of traditional systems-engineering approaches. The interactions of highly networked systems aren’t governed by mechanisms that traditional approaches necessarily can discern nor manage. The messy redundancy of networks has a recursive nature that oftentimes leads to counter-intuitive outcomes. By connecting large numbers of nodes, facilitating widespread horizontal interactions and dependencies, and infusing it all with intelligence and autonomy, we may step into a world where non-linear effects and wild-card factors become the norm.

This brave new world requires a new synthesis to accommodate the novel unpredictability that likely will spring forth from the smart grid as it eventually ascends to its ultimate role as the central nervous system in the transformation of energy and electric power in the 21st century. Let it be smart-grid biology.