Smart Grids and World Game

One of the many interesting sessions I attended at OSCON today, before burning out thanks to information overload (and wanting to visit with my house guest some more), had to do with all those big fires in California.

Yes, grid failure was to blame.

The power generator facilities play a dicey game, given supply has to meet demand on a moment by moment basis. There’s not much slack in operating this “greatest machine ever made” and we’re lucky to have only blackouts and brownouts, versus lines literally melting, transformers exploding and so on, and setting fire to the trees.

These failures have galvanized new efforts to smarten up the grid some more. The reason we learned about this at an OSCON was a lot of the modeling software will be open source. People need to understand the proposals, in some technical detail, if they’re to be adopted and implemented.

Our speakers spoke of an uphill battle to get this stuff out in the open, not for cybersecurity reasons, but because intellectual property (i.e. patents) are involved.

The “money slide” showed how tightly the transmission frequency would be attenuated using the new technology, versus the status quo.

The talk was heartening on several levels.

Mainly I was thinking “this is World Game” meaning the quality of discussion Fuller was aiming for, regardless of who showed up, was at this level.

The engineering is far from trivial, given the AC to DC conversions, the voltage ups and downs, the demand side, and supply side, fluctuations.

Especially challenging: all the DERs (I learned a new acronym) meaning the Distributed Energy Resources, meaning such as solar and wind power.

The grid of our grandparents was not designed with DERs in mind. This idea that wind farms should be able to sell power to the grid looks good on paper, but as I heard on research Youtubes later, when I immersed myself in the topic, why would a wind farmer want to run at anything less than full capacity? Isn’t that giving up “free energy”?

With a coal fired plant, outputting less means burning less coal. But wind is free. Why skimp? But then why not say the same about hydroelectric?

When the demand just isn’t there, the price drops immediately. The price of power is fluctuating by the hour. When demand soars, so does the cost.

The smart grid is about modulating demand in real time, not just supply, and letting the internet play a big role in computing pricing. If you set your air conditioner to not run beyond a specific price point, that might help flatten out some spikes, multiplied by a million.

Passive cooling solutions might look more appealing when you have more direct appreciation of costs. Demand side management has been big in peoples thinking for quite awhile now, but the internet adds a new dimension: real time modulation and incentivization.

If people are taking a cold hard look at their infrastructure, that creates a sense of shared responsibility and a more realistic awareness of the challenges. However politicians may be looking to play a blame game instead.

We’re getting used to planted stories about how the Russians, or in other cases the anti-Russians, are into deliberately meddling with the grid, ala ENRON.

Instead of thinking at the World Game level, about hard problems, we could always take the “easier” route and go with blame games.

Use the rickety, dated nature of the grid to stoke rage, much as rage was stoked against people living in Baghdad after the attacks on New York City and the Pentagon.

In the latter case, real attacks occurred, but the resulting rage was then channeled and deflected. Baghdad was behind neither.

I bring up the Russians (and anti-Russians) on purpose, because as World Game players all know, Fuller made a big deal out the possibility we could tie the two hemispheres together across the Bearing Strait. The idea being: peaks in demand were naturally out of phase, and therefore power could be shunted back and forth.

When Asians were mostly sleeping, the power could be sold to the Americans and vice versa.

That’s a science fiction idea right now. The HVDC specialists all know about it.

World Game workshops attracted a lot of curious participants, but a lot of the ideas became memes, taking on a life of their own.

In Critical Path, Fuller spends a lot of paragraphs talking about the spread of the various grids to date, starting with the Roosevelt Administration in North America. He also talks a lot about global surveying, what he calls “omni-triangulation” and how this was being done with satellites more and more.

He suggested at one point in time, the Russians might have more accurate maps of the Americas than vice versa.

Some people called him a cold warrior, but I always took that to mean the obvious: that wars should remain cold, meaning psychological, not thermonuclear. He didn’t dodge his responsibilities as a spin doctor, which we may associate with both philosophy, and poetics.

Google Earth and Google Maps would come along some decades later. In early versions of World Game, the players could only imagine such tools.

Our future dependence on GPS was only hinted at.

When your primary vision is of humans all on the same team, as crew of Spaceship Earth, struggling to make a success of themselves, then of course you do not want to see them as winners versus losers.

You do not want to see the admirals of this ship all trying to sink one another.

You look for projects and narratives that might bring all the factions together. World Game was such a project.

Would our getting along mean undoing the Tower of Babel myth? Or was the point of that myth that humans would have to see themselves on a spherical planet first, before they could begin to achieve their aim, of closeness to God?

I enjoy listening to engineers more than lawmakers, as I understand physical laws better than I understand the more contrived legal fictions. Now that a huge class of American has been defined as “illegal” I’m even less able to follow the “logic” of the political sphere.

I understand in what sense World Game was “apolitical” and why Fuller was averse to showing a lot of political data on his world map. “Make sense or make money” was his difficult dictum. He wanted us to thinkingly approach the future, not back into it with eyes closed.

Lots online.