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The blind gridmaker

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By Ryan Williams

· 5 min read

The electrical grid is an impressive feat of human engineering that has evolved over time to become the most important infrastructure of modern society. From its humble beginnings as a simple network of wires and generators, the grid has grown and adapted to meet the ever-increasing demands of our energy-hungry civilisation.

But how did this remarkable system come into being? To answer this question, we must look to the forces of evolution, which have shaped the grid over time in much the same way as they have shaped all living things. Like all successful organisms, the grid has evolved through a process of natural selection, in which only the most well-adapted designs survive and thrive. The earliest grids were simple and inefficient, relying on large generators to produce a limited amount of power that was then distributed through a network of wires to homes and businesses. Many of them ran at different voltages from each other and represented massively inefficient infrastructure investment. Many of them used direct currents (DC) which required the generators to be located close to the end customer. Generally, these early grids were crude and unsophisticated, but they represented a crucial first step in the evolution of the grid.

Over time, however, the grid evolved to become more complex and sophisticated. Engineers developed new technologies, such as alternating currents (AC), transformers, and capacitors, that allowed electricity to be transmitted over longer distances with less loss of power. They also created new types of generators, such as nuclear reactors and wind turbines, that could produce electricity more efficiently and sustainably.

But the evolution of the grid was not a smooth and steady process. Like all natural systems, it was subject to the whims of chance and the caprices of its environment. Blackouts, brownouts, and other disruptions have plagued the grid throughout its history, forcing engineers to adapt and improve their designs in response.

One of the most important factors in the evolution of the grid has been the growth of our energy needs. Energy demand grows roughly at the same rate with the broader economy, increasing almost in lockstep with GDP. As our civilisation has become more reliant on electricity, the grid has had to adapt and expand to meet our ever-increasing demands. These evolutionary pressures have required engineers to develop new technologies and infrastructure, such as smart grids and energy storage systems, to manage the flow of electricity more efficiently and reliably.

Generally speaking, these innovations were not created by an omniscient Central Planner who optimally designed the grid from the outset. Rather, they are the result of trial and error, micro-improvements incentivised by a profit-seeking motive. The evolution of the grid therefore remains guided by a Blind Gridmaker, subject to the same forces of natural selection that govern all living things. It is a system that must constantly adapt and evolve in response to the changing needs and challenges of its environment.  

And like all living things, today’s legacy grid is subject to the laws of entropy, which dictate that it will eventually decay and die in its current form. As its environment changes from a world with fossil-fuel-powered generators with large amounts of inertia to a world powered by unpredictable renewable energy, it will need to evolve into the next generation that is better adapted to its new environment.

What types of innovative breakthroughs will evolve with the grid? It is clear that the grid of the future, like the internet, will be a two-way system, with information flowing both upstream and downstream. Legacy one-directional technologies, such as traditional transformers, will not survive the generational leap in their current form and will eventually be replaced by smarter technologies.

Flexible, modular technologies that quickly respond to local changes in load will be required. This need is enhanced by the fact that many renewable energy sources generate direct current (DC) power for a grid that runs on an alternating current (AC)*. These technologies will be ‘smart’ and at least partially autonomous, with the ability to make decisions to optimise generation and load based on local signals without the need to communicate with a central authority. This also adds resilience to the grid, preventing the classical ‘domino-effect’ blackout problems. When system problems such as blackouts are detected, these modular smart systems can quickly isolate the problem and protect the rest of the grid.

Consumers will also evolve into key market participants. The introduction of smart meters is a first step in this evolutionary process, but the grid of the future will ultimately result in a broad range of choices for consumers that should ultimately bring down costs, in a system that may resemble mobile phone plans today. Early mobile phone pricing allowed customers to add certain data limitations and also charged different prices for calling during peak times. The evolution of the internet alongside mobile phones allowed customers to know their usage and costs in real time, no longer waiting for a monthly bill to know their usage.

This new environment will need appropriate rules meant to encourage entrepreneurs, policy makers, engineers, and scientists to seek new ways to harness the power of electricity and use it to meet the needs of our civilisation. These rules should be simple, universal, and utilise the power of human innovation and motivation. Current policy and regulatory debates on issues such as data privacy/management and artificial intelligence (AI) should occur with an eye on the need to encourage technological innovation to power the grid of the future.

The history of the grid is a testament to the power of natural selection to shape and transform the world around us. It reminds us that the forces of evolution are not limited to the realm of biology, but extend to all aspects of our world, including the systems and technologies that we create.

As we continue to face new challenges and opportunities in the world of energy, the story of the grid will continue to evolve, driven by the forces of natural selection and the ingenuity of human engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs. And as the grid continues to evolve and adapt, it will remain a testament to the power of evolution to shape and transform the world around us.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Professor Ryan Williams is Chief Economist at Enoda. Ryan has 20+ years of experience in economics, finance, and accounting across industry and academia. He was previously a tenured professor at the University of Arizona and currently lectures at Université Paris Dauphine - PSL.

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