Just found this amazing article on New Atlas. It concerns a small island being powered almost exclusively by a micro-grid made up of solar panels and Tesla batteries. The batteries can be fully charged in 7 hours and can keep the grid running for 3 days without any sun at all:
Why do I find this so exciting? Distributed systems, that’s why.
“And what’s that?” you ask, eyes glazing over as you speak.
In computing, which is where I first heard the term, a distributed systems is:
… a model in which components located on networked computers communicate and coordinate their actions by passing messages. The components interact with each other in order to achieve a common goal.
Distributed computing also refers to the use of distributed systems to solve computational problems. In distributed computing, a problem is divided into many tasks, each of which is solved by one or more computers, which communicate with each other by message passing.
Okay, okay. Here are some nice, juicy examples instead:
- the internet,
- your mobile phone network
- MMOs [massively multiple player online games] like the one I play,
- virtual reality communities, and even
- the search for extra terrestrial intelligence [SETI].
There are heaps more examples I could name, but the point is that all these systems rely on the fact that the power of the group is greater than the power of its individual components. In fact, the world wide web could not exist at all if it had to be run from just one, ginormous computer installation.
So distributed systems can be insanely powerful, but when it comes to powering our cities, we seem to be stuck on the old, top-down model in which one, centralised system provides energy to every component in the system – i.e. to you and me and all our appliances.
Opponents of renewables always cite baseload as the main reason why renewables won’t work in highly developed countries. What they don’t tell you is that to create baseload, they have to create electricity all the time. That means burning fossil fuels all the time and creating pollution all the time.
Centralised power generation also does something else – it concentrates the means for producing this energy in one place, so if there is a malfunction, the whole grid goes down. But that’s not all. If all power is produced in one place, it’s all too easy to strike at that one place to destroy the ‘heart’ of the whole system. It can happen. If you read the whole article on New Atlas, you’ll learn that the supply of diesel to the island was once cut, for months. When the diesel ran out, so did the electricity. Now imagine an act of sabotage that destroys the power supply to a city of millions. It hasn’t happened yet, but I think it’s just a matter of time.
By contrast, distributed processing means that you would have to destroy virtually every component of the system to shut it down completely. A good example of this is our road system. In most areas, if one part of the road is closed for whatever reason, we can still get where we want to go by taking a detour. It may take us a little bit longer, but we get there in the end. Something very similar happens with the internet. Digital information is sent in ‘packets’ which attempt to find the quickest route from point A to point X, usually via point B. However if point B goes down, the packets have multiple alternate routes to get to X. Why should power generation be any less efficient?
In the past, electricity could not be stored, so it had to be generated by big, expensive power plants. That volume of electricity still can’t be stored, but in the future, it may not have to be. I foresee a time when neighbourhoods will become micro-grids, with each house/building contributing to the power needs of the whole neighbourhood. Surplus power generation will be stored in some form of battery system [it doesn’t have to be Tesla batteries, but they obviously work well in distributed systems] to provide power 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. More importantly, the type of micro-grid used could be flexible. Communities living inland with almost constant sunshine would obviously use solar, but seaside communities might use wave power, others might use hydro or geothermal.
But what of industry?
I may be a little optimistic here, but I think that distributed power generation could work for industry as well. Not only could manufacturing plants provide at least some of their own power, via both solar and wind, but they could ‘buy in’ unused power from the city. The city, meanwhile, would not generate power but it’s utilities companies could store excess power in massive flywheels or some other kind of large scale storage device. And finally, if none of that is enough, companies could do what utility companies already do now – they could buy in power from other states.
In this possible future, power generation would be cheaper, cleaner and much, much safer. All that’s required is for the one-size-fits-all mindset to change.
Distributed is the way of the future, start thinking about it today. 🙂