Musing on COVID-19, Internet, and Smart Grid
- Apr 24, 2020 11:46 am GMTApr 23, 2020 10:32 pm GMT
- 1164 views
As my family and I are fortunate to shelter safely in place during COVID-19, I’ve had time and reason to ponder. I am increasingly conscious of things that I have taken for granted, not the least of which are face to face family, social, and business interactions. I suppose because of my profession and experience I think a lot about our readily available, affordable electricity and the next best (even better?) thing, the Internet. I have come to realize, that, ironically, while without electricity, we wouldn’t have an Internet, without the Internet, we won’t have reliable, affordable, sustainable, economical electricity.
We were already voluntary Internetizans at our home. We worried that we spent “too much time on the Internet”. Now we are even more constrained to what we can do safely at a distance via an electric powered Internet.
Having consulted some in developing countries I know that our difficulties, while challenging, are just “1st world problems”. Thank goodness for InstaCart and curbside delivery of groceries, supplies, medicine, vodka . . . (Yes! an essential oral antiseptic and general anesthetic, a true tonic during these desperate times! : ) and there are USPS, UPS, FedEx, Amazon Prime, first responders, all the brave souls who enable needful services and supplies that can be arranged on the Internet but can’t be consummated without their efforts. Oh, yeah, garbage pickup, grocery workers, doctors, nurses, aides, and all the other public servants that I have not given much thought to until now. As usual, it’s the common folks who keep us safe and sound. Blue collars clearing the way for blue bloods.
I am dismayed by the uneasy social distancing that strains our families, our neighborhoods, our friendships, our businesses. Will we henceforth be ever cautious and mistrustful, living more isolated lives, interacting mostly, maybe only virtually? Can we adapt to an increasingly virtual existence and yet somehow preserve the family, social, and business relationships? Will Zoom Meetings be good enough?
We are so fortunate to live in a highly developed country, in a temperate climate, in a renowned high tech town, in an upscale neighborhood, with reliable and increasingly sustainable electricity supplied by Austin Energy, a progressive, municipally owned public power system. We have Internet access (but, if you will pardon my whining about a 1st world problem, with intermittent service and bandwidth orders of magnitude less than if we lived in another public power city, Chatanooga Tennessee. There I would have fiber enabled smart grid electricity from the Electric Power Board and gigabit Internet access for less than I pay now to a well known telecom giant you probably know (starts with A, ends with T).
Most people in the world are far more severely underserved. While well over 90% have access to electricity in some form, almost 50% do not have any Internet access. How can they live without it in normal times, much less during COVID-19? Ask my high school twin daughters and their college sister if they had to choose electricity or Internet? Guess what wins? They don’t understand why you can’t have Internet without electricity. After all, they are all still on the Internet even if our electricity is out during a thunder storm.
My company works to enable rural electric cooperatives extend giga/tera bit Internet access to their members and communities via fiber optic networks. Rural Americans were the last to get electricity, but now many are the first to get giga/tera bit Internet. These cooperatives are also poised for a quantum leap to smart grid operations with fiber enabled grid monitoring, analysis, and control.
The electric utility industry faces accelerating structural and institutional change. Not since Edison and Tesla has the industry seen such physical transformation and business disruption. The century old, legacy physical grid and cost-plus monopoly business model are eroding. The grid infrastructure is showing its age while new operational challenges arise. As is increasingly true for us all, electric utilities will not be survive, much less prosper in the future without the Internet, more specifically, the industrial Internet of Thing (IIoT).
I am reminded of something one of my industry idols, Robert Metcalfe, said in a conference keynote: “Over the past 62 years, we met world needs for cheap and clean INFORMATION by building the INTERNET. Over the next 62 years, we will meet world needs for cheap and clean ENERGY by building the ENERNET.”
The electric utility business will steadily converge with the industrial Internet of things (IIoT). Ironically, the electric grid that powers Internet of things will in turn be enabled by it.