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Electricity 2.0

Posted by John Martin at Tue Mar 20 10:30:00 +0000 2012

Notes on a fine talk delivered on March 7 by Mr. Jesse Berst, founder and chief analyst at for the 49th Annual Meeting of the economic development group for the Tri-Cities of Washington state (Pasco, Kennewick, Richland).

Originally, a quiet two-village agricultural shipping node at the convergences of the Yakima and Snake Rivers into the Columbia River, it was transformed into an advanced technology hub in the mid-20th Century as one of the centers of fuel development for America's nuclear program, creating the near-instant 3rd city of Richland to support the reactors on the Hanford Reservation.

As the arms race cooled after the 1950s, the research campus was diversified into a wider range of civilian and government pursuits and 'outsourced' to civilian operations management in the mid-1960s -- then and now contracted to the Battelle Institute, the world’s largest independent non-profit R&D organization. This became the "Pacific Northwest National Laboratory" of the Department of Energy that we know today.

As the newly -Tri- Cities area moved beyond military compound to embryonic industrial metropolis, a regional economic development group was formed in 1963, now known as the Tri-Cities Development Council or TRIDEC.

One natural extension for the National Lab involved the technical skills of large-scale regional electricity grids, being at the center of the vast Columbia Valley hydroelectric network started in parallel with the Tennessee Valley Authority during the Depression with construction continuing through the 1960s. Today, PNNL is renowned for it's testbed, simulators and extensive research into the latest intelligent, interactive and adaptive transmission and distribution infrastructures, popularly known as "smart grid".

Now on the cusp of the half-century mark for the Columbia hydro grid, and TRIDEC itself, the Annual Meeting presented a keynote address by Mr. Berst boldly titled "Electricity 2.0".

Sidebar: TRIDEC has a special-interest group for this sector called the Mid-Columbia Energy Initiative.   A presentation on cleantech open's 4th Northwest season was made to their monthly meeting on March 20 as well as to the TRIDEC Annual Meeting on the 7th.

In his Annual Meeting keynote, Mr. Berst noted something I've long thought but not written: that if you look back at middle-class town-life in America in the 1880s it was nearly identical in its physicality, to life during the Roman Empire.  All the variance from Rome to today has been mostly within the last 90-100 years and directly or indirectly due to electricity, whose delivery, management and pricing has remained virtually unchanged since before WW2. Berst opened with a picture of the entrance to Union Station in DC built in 1908 which put in marble one of those florid quotes to which the early 20th Century was prone -- but also reminding us what's at stake here: (since electrical resistance is a form of fire, we'll include the full engraving here) 

Fire: greatest of discoveries, enabling man to live in various climates, use many foods, and compel the forces of nature to do his work.
Electricity: carrier of light and power, devourer of time and space, bearer of human speech over land and sea, greatest servant of man, itself unknown.
Thou hast put all things under his feet.


Unlike almost any other segment of society from medicine to typewriters, phones, "mail", etc., today's electric power experience has remained virtually unchanged through all our living ancestors, Berst had a slide saying our grid was:

  • Invented in the Age of Edison
  • Designed in the Age of Eisenhower
  • Installed in the Age of Nixon

Power grids are massive, long-term creatures that we want to be stable, thus they shouldn't change much. But the industry consensus is that we're approaching a rare definitional reset. Such may be only required once-a-century, but that upgrade from Electricity 1.0 to Electricity 2.0 is happening now.   I like Mr. Berst calling it Electricity 2.0 rather than Grid 2.0, because, with discussions of new DC-loops in commercial campuses, ideal voltages for massive electric vehicle fleets, redesigning basic connections to accept two-way flows (if houses and farms contribute generation back to the grid) we really are re-imagining the whole idea of electricity. Berst has a good perspective on this, not least as being that rare native-son of the Richland power-engineering community, his parents having moved there in the early 1950s for his father to work on nuclear engineering at Hanford; they still live in retirement in the Tri-Cities. He is also a noted expert and analyst on the Grid, having authored two seminal reports in the early 000s on smart grid's economic opportunity for the Region titled "Poised for Profit".

He did not go into the myriad permutations or challenges of smart grid (as desert was already served), but noted that it shouldn't be so intimidating to us as a society considering that, not long ago, we had rotary-dial-party-line phones, rabbit-ears on our TVs, used carbon paper and posted cheques in the mail. We've moved to dramatically different usage-cases via the same basic elements devices and communications -- solid-state processing and addressable mesh-networks, both swathed in volumes of software to provide interactivity and adaptability.

As with so many things, the main problem is not technological, it's administrative and financial. Electric utilities are in the business of selling a product at a low price. Also, being seen as a basic social need, they are highly regulated. Thus, their whole mercantile ecosystem rewards selling as much as possible and spending as little as possible to do so reliably. Everything required by a more environmentally sustainable and flexible power system would have utilities spend more to sell less . In various ways both are often legally prohibited or restricted. This does not always require a burden on society. Berst noted that Californians, who bear some of the highest utility rates in North America, often have only median net utility charges because of the greater efficiencies in equipment and buildings installed in the State, through various combinations of standards, price signals, voluntary upgrades and some mandates. The challenge of "Electricity 1.0" was easier, because it simply involved "more of everything". Our 2.0 challenge will be to choreograph the economic signals and incentives so as to advance rather than retard the inevitable conversion to "less of everything". Mr. Berst noted that many other advanced and developing economies are moving agressively with smart grid development. It's arguable that given electricity's basic role in moving us beyond Roman lifestyles, America's dominance of the 20th Century stemmed in part from our leadership in its early decades in defining, standardizing, and early-adopting the terms and conditions of Electricity 1.0. The future may well favor those who seize the initiative of Electricity 2.0 before standards get locked in for the rest of the 21st Century.


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