The Body Electric


The smart grid and its biomorphic destiny.

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.

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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