More and bigger blackouts lie ahead, unless today’s dumb electricity grid can be transformed into a smart, responsive and self-healing digital network—in short, an “energy internet”
“TREES or terrorists, the power grid will go down again!” That chilling forecast comes not from some ill-informed gloom-monger or armchair pundit, but from Robert Schainker, a leading expert on the matter. He and his colleagues at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the official research arm of America’s power utilities, are convinced that the big grid failures of 2003—such as the one that plunged some 50m Americans and Canadians into darkness in August, and another a few weeks later that blacked out all of Italy—were not flukes. Rather, they and other experts argue, they are harbingers of worse to come.
The chief reason for concern is not what the industry calls “poor vegetation management”, even though both of last year’s big power cuts were precipitated by mischievous trees. It will never be possible to prevent natural forces from affecting power lines. The real test of any network’s resilience is how quickly and intelligently it can handle such disruptions. Think, for example, of the internet’s ability to re-route packets of data swiftly and efficiently when a network link fails.
The analogy is not lost on the energy industry. Of course, the power grid will never quite become the internet—it is impossible to packet-switch power. Even so, transforming today’s centralised, dumb power grid into something closer to a smart, distributed network will be necessary to provide a reliable power supply—and to make possible innovative new energy services. Energy visionaries imagine a “self-healing” grid with real-time sensors and “plug and play” software that can allow scattered generators or energy-storage devices to attach to it. In other words, an energy internet.