Santa Fe Institute

Workshop: Rethinking the power grid

April 13, 2015 11:41 a.m.

Whenever a storm as powerful as Katrina or Irene hits, we expect at least a temporary power outage. Nowadays, though, due to increasing energy demand and aging infrastructure, the reliable supply of power can become a concern even when the skies are clear.

And with the nation’s power grid under increasing stress by a number of forces – from heavier and less predictable weather disturbances due to climate change to increased demands for renewable energy and decentralized smart-grid technologies – the business of delivering electricity is in need of a rethink, if not an out-and-out overhaul.

Which is why SFI Professor Cris Moore, along with sabbatical visitors Paul Hines (University of Vermont) and Seth Blumsack (Penn State), put together an SFI workshop this week: “Reinventing the Grid: Designing Resilient, Adaptive, and Creative Power Systems.”

“Traditionally,” says Blumsack, “this has been a world characterized by old guys with suspenders. It’s been very isolated for a long time. We just want to mix in some new ideas to reinvent the grid. One thing the power grid needs is fresh thinking.”

“What does the next generation of electrical service look like?” asks Hines. “It’s wrapped up in a lot of things: It needs to be affordable. It needs to be environmentally benign. Those are the criteria future systems are going to have to meet. And this may need to happen in a more decentralized way than [has been seen in] the entire history of the industry, which is more than a century old.”

The invitation-only workshop focuses on such issues as resilience, robustness, efficiency, and highly connected versus distributed systems. It includes experts in electric power, ecological systems, network theory – even representatives of the global “maker” movement to motivate creative thinking.

More about the workshop

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Image caption: Simulated large blackout in a model based on the Polish power network. Links represent transmission lines. Link thicknesses indicate power volume. Red links indicate overload. Black links indicate a failed line. Node colors show sections of the network that have separated. (Credit: Paul Hines)

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