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Musing on COVID-19, Internet, and Smart Grid

Steven Collier's picture
VP Business Development - Smart Grid Solutions Conexon, LLC

Steve (aka the Smart Grid Man) is a widely known electric energy industry thought and practice leader who consults, speaks, writes, and teaches on issues, technologies, and applications related...

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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.”

 

https://www.cnet.com/news/enernet-a-smart-grid-vision-from-a-net-tycoon/

 

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.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Apr 24, 2020

These cooperatives are also poised for a quantum leap to smart grid operations with fiber enabled grid monitoring, analysis, and control.

This is exciting-- and such upgrades should really be seen as the public good they are, especially in more rural areas. The current thrust into home working is just one reason to show the necessity of such upgrades, they're no longer a luxury. And all the utility opportunities that are opened up with smart grid that can benefit these same rural customers must be made a priority.

Steven-- do you see movement in these areas maybe being a part of a stimulus type package that comes around in the wake of COVID? Seems like the type of initiative that could create jobs, great public good, and spur economic activity. I imagine the high capital costs could be a hurdle for it though

Steven Collier's picture
Steven Collier on Oct 21, 2020

Matt,

Pardon my delay in responding to you. Thank you for reading my article and your feedback. I agree wholeheartedly with your suggestion that timely realizing the full benefits of a modern grid will require subsantial public funding and support. The benefits will justify it, and without it, the US electric grid will be inadequate.

You might be interested in my white paper that I posted today on my LinkeIn page:

"Electric Cooperatives Must Operate Smart Electric Grids With Fiber to the Meter Communications" 

You can view or download it here:  https://bit.ly/FGSGpdf

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 21, 2020

Thanks for the follow up link, Steven. I'd love to see a summary post for that topic on its own as an original feature on Energy Central, if you're ever up for it!

Rakesh  Sharma's picture
Rakesh Sharma on Apr 24, 2020

During the last financial crisis, the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) provided DOE with $4.5 billion to modernize the electric power grid. The modernization efforts taken over the years have helped grid operators manage the crisis today.

You are correct. The Internet has changed other industries and will change the utility industry as well. What form this change will take, from the consumer perspective, is still not clear though. Changes occurring at the grid's edge are not substantial enough to have an impact at the center. From the utility end, we might see more convergence and power sharing between different ISOs.

I, for one, believe that pandemics and lockdowns will recur in the future and it is imperative to design global infrastructure to remain operational during crises. The Internet (or ENERnet, as you refer to it) is a valuable tool.  

Steven Collier's picture
Steven Collier on Oct 21, 2020

Rakesh,

Pardon my delay in responding to you. Thank you for reading my article and your feedback. I respectfully disagree with you about the changes at the grid edge. I believe that the accelerating proliferation of distributed energy resources combined with the erosion of the legacy bulk electric system  will profoundly affect every aspect of electric utility planning and operations. 

You might be interested in my white paper that I posted today on my LinkeIn page:

"Electric Cooperatives Must Operate Smart Electric Grids With Fiber to the Meter Communications" 

You can view or download it here:  https://bit.ly/FGSGpdf

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