trees vs. electrons

I find it ironic that Wired magazine, of all things, is much better to read in its physical paper version than it is to read it on its website. Every time I buy a copy, it seems a bit archaic (and wrong!) to be reading the physical version. But the design in the real magazine is much better – it’s more interesting visually, and it conveys information much more effectively than the digital version does.

Although, this could just more a case of me being of the wrong generation. I’m more comfortable with reading online than a lot of people in my age group, but that’s probably not saying much. Still, I’d like to argue that this is really just a case where design matters. The design of the paper version of Wired is just better. That’s my angle and I’m sticking with it…

In any case, one way or another you should read the cover story from the April issue about fixing the electric grid. It’s pretty US-centric, and if you’ve been following the smart grid discussion at all there won’t be much new there. But if you’re new to the topic, it’s a nice outline of some of the issues that most of the developed countries are now facing with their systems of electrical supply.

The whole story is fascinating from a network/systems perspective. At the country level, the electric grids are essentially self-organising networks. And the current sorry state of most of them is a pretty good demonstration that emergent self-organisation isn’t unequivocally good. Really, it’s just a process – and consequently neutral. I suspect that fixing the electric grid is really a wicked problem, as are most of the ones that are worth tackling these days. It also shows that when you’re innovating, it isn’t enough to come up with a good idea. In order for your idea to spread, you have to break connections within the current economic network. The electric grid is highly interconnected with the rest of the economy, and part of the problem in trying to fix it is that doing so requires the breaking of quite a few connections. That is in large part why innovation is also usually destructive – something it pays to bear in mind.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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3 thoughts on “trees vs. electrons

  1. The IPCC has found that increased peak and average temperatures are likely to reduce electricity generation efficiency, transmission line capacity, transformer capacity and the life of switchgear and other components. The carrying capacity of electricity transmission networks is reduced when ambient temperature are high – a warming of 1°C can lead to a three per cent decrease in efficiency – this is on top of the usual transmissions losses.

    Thus, given that peak electricity demand is likely to occur at times of high temperatures (e.g., through the use of airconditioning), the total capital expenditure requirements to meet peak demand (and avoid transmission congestion) are likely to be further increased. For example, for a 2°C warming, peak demand increases 4 per cent in Brisbane.

    About 10 per cent of the existing asset levels may be required to allow for climate-related increases in peak demand by 2030.

    One must consider the path (and grid) dependencies in the energy sector. Transmission lines and associated infrastructure are built with lifetimew of 20-30 years in mnd.

    It should be noted that demand management does not necessarily decrease total energy consumption, but can be expected to help ease congestion in network infrastructure, allow the deferral of some capital expenditure, and improve security of supply.

    Some forms of remote energy generation in form of renewable energy can certainly play a role, but just how large a role depends on a range of issues in terms of cost, technical performance, and power system architecture. Appropriate analyses must be undertaken to determine the optimal location and suitable type of equipment which meet an energy provider’s requirements.

  2. The path dependencies in this sector are enormous Alex, I agree. Which is part of what I was trying to get at in talking about it from a network/systems angle. In any case, there’s a lot of work to be done to straighten out energy supply…

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