The final voyage of the Endeavour made its way to San Francisco and Silicon Valley on September 21, 2012.  It was a gloriously beautiful day, and many people turned out to bid farewell to the fifth and final space shuttle.  The shuttle program lasted thirty years, and has a remarkable record of accomplishments, such as being the first reuseable spacecraft to carry humans into orbit and launching (and fixing) the Hubble Space Telescope.  But from a systems perspective, it is time to think differently about how we continue space exploration.

New entrants like SpaceX will drive innovation that could upend current space programs, technologies, and models. New thinking will challenge presumptions about what we can and want to achieve and how we achieve it.  And that should be equally true about today’s power grid.  Like the mission for the Enterprise in StarTrek, we need to “…boldly go where no one has gone before” in disruptive thinking about sources of power, grid resiliency (not just reliability), and markets.   The extent of our successful applications of innovation will define the Smart Grid.

This is a point that more and more industry movers and shakers are making.  At a recent meeting of an angel investor group in Silicon Valley, speakers from the University of Strathclyde – Glasgow emphasized the need for innovation in grid technologies and policies; plus innovations in investments (venture capitalists take note); and a few political profiles in courage.  Professor Sir Jim McDonald, Principal and Vice-Chancellor and possessor of the Rolls-Royce Chair in Electrical Power Systems delivered a wide-ranging talk that covered the need for low-carbon networks, inversion of the traditional electricity generation to consumption value chain, and convergences of technologies, industries, and systems.

Some of those technologies include convergences of sensors, wired and wireless machine to machine (M2M) communications, and advanced data analytics to manage the bits and bytes that can help optimize grids and networks.  See these articles for more information.

The speaker also noted that there are interesting technology contributions that the aerospace industry is making in wind and wave turbine design and materials. Scotland’s policy planners estimate  Scottish wind, wave, and tidal energy potential at a staggering 206 GW.   For wind alone, Europe is forecasted to be a $100 billion market, and high voltage DC (HVDC) technologies make export of wind energy to the continent feasible.  As there are no forecasts for the ocean to stop responding to the moon’s gravitational pull, Scotland looks like it’s in good shape on the energy front.  It’s easy to see why governments and businesses such as Alstom, Siemens, Samsung, Areva, and Mitsubishi are investing in Scotland to leverage energy potential and expertise.

The European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) located in Orkney contains 14 test berths that are usually occupied with innovative products that harness “no-carbon” energy from waves and tides.  Just as important to innovation acceleration, the center is also proactive in proposing policies to streamline siting for marine energy locations.

Courtesy of Dan Lankford

Activities like these challenge the “like for like” thinking that still exists in utilities and regulatory agencies and act as brakes on Smart Grid innovations.   There’s still too much focus on the same old generation to consumption model that presumes every renewable energy deployment has to be “utility-scale” and an asset owned by a traditional generator or utility.  Microgrids and distributed energy resources (DER) completely shake up these presumptions and offer new system models that deliver resiliency as well as reliability to the electrical grid; and create new markets and market entrants.  The current grid system, like the space shuttle program, has served us well, but it is time to be put into mothballs in favor of new systems that have the highest energy return on investment with the lowest environmental impacts in terms of carbon, water, and waste.  Scotland is moving in the right direction, so instead of “beam me up”, US policy-makers and utilities should say “beam me over” and learn more about the exciting work there.