Visualizing The Electric Grid In Real Time, And Other World Changing Ideas In Energy

 

Electricity grids are some of the most complex systems ever invented. Serving millions of homes and businesses across thousands of miles of transmission and distribution lines, they’re an incredible tangle of electron flows. And, compared to other infrastructure, they’re generally not very up to date: much of the design still dates back to Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla.

Operators have a surprisingly limited grasp of how power is shifting about at any moment. Take my home in Brooklyn. Because the local utility (Con Edison) has yet to install two-way “smart meters” in my area, a worker has to come to the door every few months and ask to read the meter. The company doesn’t know how much power I’m using hour to hour.

This lack of grid visibility creates a challenge as we add more “distributed” resources, like solar, wind, batteries and electric vehicles, to the network. The grid is evolving from a one-way system, where power flows down to your home from large plants, to a two-way system, where power goes back and forth (say when rooftop solar panels export excess power to the grid). At the same time, solar and wind aren’t constant sources. They vary in usefulness depending on the time of day and the state of the weather.

That’s why we badly need software like GridOS, which recently won the energy category in Fast Company’s World Changing Ideas Awards. (You can read more about the other finalists below.) Developed in Toronto by Opus One Solutions, the grid modeling technology gives grid operators more visibility into power flows, allowing them to identify inefficiencies, balance supply and demand, and make better trading decisions.

“The grid is very blind,” says Joshua Wong, Opus One Solutions’ founder and CEO. “What you can’t see, you can barely control, and what you can’t control, you can’t optimize and put a value on. When you can’t put a price [on a resource], you don’t know how to modernize the grid.”

The value of a distributed–or “edge”–resource is relative and situational, and dictated only partly by its installation cost. A wind turbine is likely to be worth more in the middle of the day (when demand is high), or when a traditional power plant isn’t available (maybe it’s down for maintenance). GridOS shows the marginal value of an edge resource at any moment, enabling better hour-to-hour and day-ahead management, and better planning. Operators can see where they might need to upgrade a distribution line, or put in more energy storage to handle excess supply (say, when turbines are generating more power than consumers need).

Wong founded Opus One in 2011, and has since built several micro-grids in Ontario, including one athletes village at the 2015 Pan-American Games. Wong says these projects helped inform GridOS’s sophisticated algorithms and grid modeling techniques. Opus One Solutions is, as part of New York’s experimental Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) program, currently working on a project with National Grid and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus to create a state-of-the-art energy market that will better price the value of distributed resources and help the utility integrate renewables more effectively. REV reforms the economics of the New York’s power industry, so utilities have greater incentives to use solar and wind.

In the long term, generating power from renewables isn’t likely to be a problem. By 2050, sources like solar, wind and geothermal can meet 80% of demand, a report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory showed last year. (And that’s just with currently available technologies, never mind what inventions might emerge from the energy industry over the next few decades). But enabling the grid to cope with that much distributed generation will require a lot of investment in new infrastructure and more advanced planning systems, like the one GridOS offers.

The end goal, says Wong, is a fully “transactive” energy system, where every home, business, electric vehicle, and generation site works in concert, constantly trading power back and forth, depending on availability and need. “The level of participation needs to increase,” he says. “The network is always more valuable than what anyone can do on their own.”