Is the answer to the energy demands of our digital world to unify information and power in one standard for sharing data and energy over an ‘enernet’ – an internet of power?
The idea for an internet of power came from the Open Data Institute chief executive Gavin Starks. Gavin subsequently explained the concept to the electrical engineer and venture capitalist Bob Metcalfe, who then developed his presentation explaining the enernet of power back in 2009.
I certainly think the fledgling smart grid concept can take many lessons from the development of the successful internet architecture seen over the last 40 years. For a start, we need to think digital. Digital devices are the biggest source of power demand in offices, and they require digital direct current (DC) rather than analogue alternating current (AC) power.
As distributed technology such as fuel cells and solar PV spreads, a far larger proportion of our energy supply will come from DC. So shouldn’t we be designing a decentralised DC internet of power instead of a centralised AC smart grid?
The enernet concept would take this further by combining this DC power network into an architecture that also includes data. Client devices (power demands) and servers (power sources) could request and share both power and data over this ‘enernet’.
Eventually, we could create a world wide web for energy where it would be possible for a connected device to share and receive energy from any other device. The opportunity to request power from any Internet Protocol addressable location using the equivalent HTTP “GET” command could create brand new businesses opportunities.
We could see the emergence of energy search engines that deploy web crawlers through the enernet to find published power sources, indexing the results for easy searching and prioritisation.
Social networking sites could allow friends, family and neighbours to share local power generation. Firewalls could be set up to stop people from stealing power.
Like the internet, the enernet relies on the end-to-end philosophy, meaning there is no fundamental role for a utility company middle-man. On the other hand, many people might want utility companies to act as an energy broker, to find the most cost-effective or low-carbon deals.
Certainly, to make the enernet a reality, power networks need to be rethought at every level. At the physical level, power should be distributed around buildings over digital direct current networks. Standards should be relaxed to focus more on the functionality of the network, rather than setting fixed voltage levels. And more focus should be put on inbuilt energy storage to enable buffering between supply and demand mismatches.
At the application layer, power should be delivered from multiple sources simultaneously depending on a higher-level priority list of available sources. For example, the priority list could request that power be routed to a building in London from the nearest 150 low-carbon power stations.
This is an approach that I think would open up a world of possibilities. But could we ever make it happen?