MSL Director Helps “Reinvent the Grid”

MSL Managing Director David Breecker participated in the Santa Fe Institute’s invitational workshop, “Reinventing the Grid: Designing Resilient, Adaptive and Creative Power Structures” in April. Co-hosted by two visiting researchers on sabbatical at SFI, Seth Blumsack (Pennsylvania State University) and Paul Hines (University of Vermont), along with SFI internal faculty member Cris Moore, the workshop brought together a fascinatingly diverse set of experts from a range of relevant fields to consider the future of our power systems. These included industry and utility representatives, research scientists and engineers, policy and regulatory experts, ecologists, search algorithm designers, statistical physicists, and network theorists among others.

As the abstract states, “Electric power grids are complex infrastructures that operate across large swaths of space and time. A power grid’s planning and operation timescales can span up to twelve orders of magnitude: from milliseconds to decades. The largest networks, such as the Eastern US and European Interconnections, synchronize power plants across many thousands of kilometers. And this spatial integration is increasing: in many locations, the locus of control is moving from local electric utilities to regional entities.At the same time, power grids are being subjected to new driving forces – climate change, increased renewable power generation, and decentralizing smart grid infrastructure – that will force fundamental changes in power grid operation and planning. Each of these forces is pushing toward a different design paradigm for the architecture of future power systems, with different degrees of centralized or decentralized decision making. What designs will lead to acceptable levels of reliability, resilience, robustness and efficiency (and what trade-offs do we face)?  What do “reliability” or “resilience” mean for energy systems that are more decentralized than our current architecture? What adaptive capacity will be required to achieve socially acceptable levels of resilience (however defined) and how will we know whether any given system architecture displays sufficient adaptive capacity?  In light of the these questions, can we discover and articulate conditions under which highly connected systems will exhibit more advantageous performance, versus more distributed systems?  To address these questions, this small workshop will gather together experts in electric power and ecological systems, along with local SFI experts. In addition, we will include members of the global “Maker” movement to motivate creative thinking about energy problems. The goal will be to catalyze collaborations and new approaches to address fundamental questions surrounding the next evolution of electricity service.”

The event was a great success, stimulating a number of important and creative conversations around the grid’s evolving architecture, metrics for measuring its resilient and adaptive performance, and barriers to implementation of new technologies, policies, and system designs.