Electric Currents

Networking the Power Grid

May 14, 2015

In the last 30 years we've gone from mainframes to Internet. Now it's time to do the same with electric power generation, which was Thomas Edison's original dream.

For nearly a decade, I worked on the customer service side of the ticket counter at Continental Airlines here in Omaha. I checked you in for your flight, assigned your seat, tagged your luggage and told you how to get to your gate. At my finger tips was a bulky cathode ray tube (CRT) terminal - remember those? - that was connected to a huge mainframe computer somewhere hundreds of miles away. It's glowing neon characters helped me print your ticket and find your missing bag. It even allowed me to carry on electronic conversations with colleagues in faraway Auckland: in effect, my first exposure to what we'd soon come to call email.

About the same time I went to work for Continental, I bought my first Apple Macintosh computer, the original 128K model, using it to write freelance articles for magazines and the odd movie script (only one of which came close to being sold, but didn't).

By 1993, I was ready to move on and a job with an advertising agency doubled my salary, and so I left the mainframe behind to work on a networked Macintosh, writing ad copy for National Geographic, Consumer Reports and the Riviera Hotel and Casino.

It was also that year that I attended a conference in Lincoln organized by then Senator Bob Kerrey that introduced me to the Internet. Yahoo was 'the' search engine at the time and Netscape was still a twinkle in Mark Andreessen's eye. Mozilla was still in early beta when I launched my first Internet business the following year.

Which brings me to distributed electric power generation, Tesla's new PowerWall, and America's aging power grid.

As you may be aware, within a week of Elon Musk announcing his company's newest product, a modular battery storage system for both home and business, the company's first year of production was completely sold out, taking in the equivalent of $800USD million in pre-order reservations; not actual cash, however. That volume, rivaling the initial early sales of the iPhone and Viagra, is a remarkable testament to people's trust in Musk and Tesla, as well as a shift in thinking about where our power comes from. Residential and commercial-scale solar installations are booming across America.

We know power companies are concerned about this shift from centralized power generation that dates from the days of Nicola Tesla. They see the growth of solar panels on customer roofs as a threat to their economic future, and rightly so, I suppose. Unfortunately, some also are actively seeking ways to stymie this trend and in the process alienating the very customers they should be cultivating.

Here's why.

It was the brilliant Serbian immigrant's alternating current technology or AC that enabled long distance, over-the-wire transmission of power from far away generators like those at Niagara Falls in upstate New York and beat out Thomas Edison's decentralized, neighborhood direct current system. Edison's plan was to eventually see individual homes become mini-power generators. Because DC current could only be shared over relatively short distances, this was thought of at the time as a shortcoming.

For the George Westinghouse's of the world, centralized and easily monopolized AC was the future. But for networked, neighborhood systems, DC's shortcoming was also its key advantage.

Truth be told, we just weren't ready for Edison's system. To work, it required literally thousands of small, coal-fired steam plants in order to electrify a city. Imagine the environmental costs of such a system. Just delivering all that coal year-round by draft horse wagons would be a monumental mess. The cities of that period had a big enough problems cleaning up buckets of manure and rivers of urine every horse produced daily. Between the coal dust, smoke and horse waste, cities would have been even more unlivable.

Now, however, with the advent of ever cheaper, pollution-free solar power, a DC-based, decentralized system starts to make sense again. Interestingly, Tesla Energy's PowerWall is DC-based to minimize energy loss. Think of all the things you own that are actually DC-powered, starting with the mobile device you may be using to read this blog. Of course, to charge it you need to plug it into an AC outlet and use an inverter to convert it back to DC, wasting a bit of power to recharge the battery.

Now I will be the first to admit that despite taking some elementary courses in electrical theory over the years, I don't remotely consider myself knowledgeable in this arena. There are applications - like electric car motors - where AC current just works better, like in the Tesla Model S. But I also wonder what would happen if, following Edison's original vision, solar installers like Suncity, Vivint, and SunEdison started networking all these decentralized DC power systems the way we networked those ad agency Macintoshs back in the early 1990's.

Then take this a step further. What would happen if my local power provider -- in this case, OPPD -- decided that they really didn't need to be in the 'mainframe' business anymore. Instead, they realized their future was in the energy equivalent of an Internet service provider that networks all these little kilowatt-sized networks together.

I own the Macintosh on my desk and the WiFi router a few feet away, but it's Cox Cable that connects me to all those other millions of networked computers out there that give me access to you and you to me. Solar can be exactly the same. I own the panels and the storage, my ESP (energy service provider) networks me to everyone else. For that I pay a modest service fee, as well as for any that I might draw off the system. In return, they also pay me for excess power I produce that I sell to others. I can see a whole new genre of business opportunities spring up from such a model.

In my humble opinion, this is the business my local power provider needs to be figuring out, not how to make it difficult for me to put solar on my house. Look, I don't want to have rely on toxic coal or risky nuclear fission anymore. Help me make that possible. Don't fight me for wanting to make our world a better place to live.

In the end, we all benefit by creating a far more resilient power grid, one that is cleaner and way, way safer.

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