Revolution is U.S. television series that takes place in a post- apocalyptic dystopian future. A new technology is developed by the U.S. Department of Defense to disarm opponents in the battlefield. The technology is capable of nullifying electricity systems and self-multiplying.
After being deployed as a weapon, it quickly spreads out of control and disables all the electricity systems on Earth in a single day. In a world without electricity, governments collapse along with the public order, and many areas are taken over by warlords and militias.
The story falls into a genre of fiction where the present day suddenly becomes a frightening new place for its inhabitants to navigate. However, is the premise so far-fetched? Could a new technology be deployed that would spread out of control, playing havoc with, and wrecking electrical infrastructure?
Actually, such a technology does exist and is being deployed as you read this essay. It is called renewable energy and it is having a devastating effect on the electrical transmission and distribution systems across the planet.
It takes the form of wind or solar energy either produced from commercial scale farms or by consumers themselves. This is gaining in importance as a significant part of the overall energy mix. For example, China has doubled its installed wind power capacity every year for the past five, and is on pace this year to supplant the United States as the world’s largest market for new installations.
Moreover, researchers from Harvard University and Beijing’s Tsinghua University suggest that the Chinese wind power industry is far from its peak potential. According to their meteorological and financial modeling, reported in the journal Science, there is enough strong wind in China to profitably satisfy all of the country’s electricity demand until at least 2030.
Unlike conventional power facilities these renewables can only run in the right conditions, and not necessarily when needed. Wind has to blow fast enough, but not too fast, in order to generate power. Generally, it can provide power from between 7% and 40% of the time, depending on the site and other factors.
However, often there is too much power in the system. Last October, Bloomberg reported that Germany was dumping electricity on its neighbors. Central and Eastern European countries were moving to disconnect their power lines from Germany’s during the windiest days, when they get flooded with energy.
Renewable energy around the world is causing problems, because unlike oil it can’t be stored, so when generated it must be consumed or risk causing a grid collapse.
Commercial farms can be monitored and controlled by existing EMS and SCADA systems by transmission operators. What they cannot do is to predict with any level of confidence what the output of wind power will be 24 to 48 hours in advance.
New systems have to be installed to support this kind of forecasting. Forecasting the output is critical, as it determines when to fire up the large fossil plants to support days when the wind is either going to blow too strongly or not at all, or as in the case of photovoltaic, when the cloud is present and blocks the sun.
So a key problem then is how to optimize production scheduling for conventional power plants. Ideally you would take a plant offline for maintenance shutdown, when certainty of renewable resources is high.
There is an ancillary problem also being discovered by distribution companies. Not only are their systems in danger of occasionally collapsing, but more prevalent is the added wear and tear on components, which is increasing maintenance costs and reducing grid reliability.
One way to address this problem is to use sophisticated forecasting techniques and measure the load across all the components of the grid. In this way the maintenance tasks can be prioritized. This however is a significant computational effort that usually takes weeks to produce a prediction.
This problem is being solved by high performance in memory computing, which can render load forecast results in minutes rather than days.
This then allows the condition in the grid to be monitored in as close to real time as possible and remediation can be taken far earlier for critical situations likely to lead to collapse.
Companies like Alliander of the Netherlands, and Hydro One of Canada are in the early phases of adopting these technologies to minimize disruption and reduce maintenance costs.
This takes us one step closer to reducing the pain and in turn realizing the benefits of the energy revolution.