Transmission and Storage on the Enernet

The other day, I wrote about the Internet and the analogous evolution of energy networks, also known as the Enernet. Today, I’d like to delve into one facet in particular, infrastructure for the new network.

Let’s first jog down memory lane to look at what transpired in communications networking as the Internet emerged.

As the Internet grew, there was massive expansion in investment around new transmission lines and delivery networks. Local telcos and cable companies began an ongoing, multi-decade investment cycle in upgrading connections into homes and businesses. It started with upgrades of existing plant with DSL and evolved into replacement of twisted pair lines with fiber, a la Verizon FIOS. At the same time, there was (and continues to be) massive investment in backbone from companies like Level3, Global Crossing, NTT and AT&T. We’re talking billions upon billions of dollars.

One might assume that such massive investment would solve capacity issues and constraints on the network. But it hasn’t. Over the past 20 years, Internet traffic exploded. Despite these investments, we still get regular predictions that “The Internet will crash to its knees in 2 years.”

In order to deal with the explosion of traffic on the network, many new technologies emerged to address the constraints. Routing improvements and advanced compression. Like Pied Piper.

In 1998, Daniel Lewin, then a graduate student, entered a competition at MIT with a business proposition for a content delivery network. The idea involved optimizing content flows by caching highly-requested assets at high-traffic nodes and the edges of the delivery network. The goal was to improve quality of service and minimize loads across the entire network. That idea evolved into a company called Akamai.

If that sounds confusing, let’s keep it simple and talk bananas. When you need bananas, you go to a grocery store that bulk ships bananas to distribution centers and to a specific location in anticipation of your need. The store does not send a request to Costa Rica every time you place an order for bananas.

I’m oversimplifying, but Akamai basically exploited the same notion for content delivery. Knowing that everyone is going to request the new season of House of Cards from Netflix, Akamai removes the need to go back across the entire network to Netflix’s servers for every viewing. Akamai stores copies of the shows at users’ local telcos and cablecos, where those requests can be intercepted before traversing the entire Internet.

With both bananas and content, it boils down to using strategically-placed storage to optimize delivery across the network.

The benefits of such caching are not just distribution network effciencies. Consumers also enjoy considerably higher product quality (fresher bananas and lower lag times) because demand is fulfilled much more quickly.

The Enernet is a very different network than the Internet, but there are reasons why the network may evolve in analagous ways.

On the transmission side, utilities like Con Edison and National Grid are investing in upgrades to their local distribution networks to accommodate the impact of intermittant renewables and changing consumer demand. Just like telcos and cablecos did.

New backbone investments are also being made every day. The recent approval for the Plains and Eastern Clean Line presents a good example of these backbone investments and the exciting upgrades they will bring... Wind farms from Oklahoma will be able to service much broader populations. Such upgrades are both exciting and critical to the ongoing progression of renewable energy in the US.

Some have asserted that all issues of intermittency might be addressed by investments in new transmission lines and dynamic balancing across the network. Esteemed energy expert Amory Lovins from the Rocky Mountain Institute presented exactly that question… Is Storage Necessary for Renewable Energy? Lovins grants that storage is necessary for EVs and off-grid solutions, but largely puts weight on transmission investments over storage.

I take a slightly different view.

Whether we’re talking bananas, movies, or energy, there is massive value to the delivery network from storing resources near the consumers that need them.

For energy, storage needs go well beyond “off-gridding” and EVs. It is about the need for diverse tools to balance the dynamic nature of a network undergoing rapid change. We are witnessing the beginning of an explosion in electricity networking. We are moving towards the electrification of everything.

Those 325,000 pre-ordered Tesla 3’s will put massive new electrical demand on the grid. By my estimates, that’s just the start. We’re talking about global migration of energy delivery from oil industrial complex to electric industrial complex. To address that, we need new technology on all fronts.

It’s not going to be a case of either transmission or storage investments. That’s a false choice. It’s going to be about both storage and transmission investments, and how they will work together to deliver the Enernet.

References and Further Reading:

Brian Lakamp