Natural Selection and Artificial Intelligence Help Engineers Redesign the Power Grid
Tom Lombardo posted on February 04, 2018 | 8342 views

In 2008, the US government bailed out the banking industry on the grounds that it was "too big to fail." In other words, we're so dependent on the financial sector that allowing it to collapse would be catastrophic for society as a whole. While the bailout offered temporary relief, the industry and its regulations remain largely intact, which makes me wonder when the next financial crisis will be. But I'm an engineer, not an economist, so let's talk about a technology on which we all depend ...

Grid Transmission Lines (Image: US Department of Energy)
Grid Transmission Lines (Image: US Department of Energy)

The Power Grid: Too Big to Fail

The National Academy of Engineering considers electrification to be the greatest technological achievement of the 20th Century - so much so that six of the next nine achievements in their top ten depend on electricity. It's safe to say, then, that the grid is too big to fail. Yet, it was designed over a century ago and based on the technology of its day: centralized energy production that's distributed to consumers. Some of the technology has been modernized, but the basic topology is the same. The system is highly vulnerable to attacks and failures, and it stifles innovation in distributed generation and renewable energy. Of course, something that's too big to fail is also too big to redesign from scratch.


Or is it?


I'd like to think that engineers make better decisions than policy-makers. Case in point: the Swiss company Power-Blox is looking to redesign the grid as a collection of interconnected mini-grids. For guidance on the overall design, the company asked, "What Would Nature Do?" The answer nature provided: swarms. The company's proving ground: developing nations that don't have an established grid. If it plays well there, we may someday see our own power grid rebuilt from the ground up.


Swarm Technology

In nature, ants, bees, fish, and many birds exhibit a swarm mentality. Each member operates on a simple set of rules: 1) move in the same direction as your neighbor; 2) stay close to your neighbor; and 3), don't collide with your neighbor. The creatures themselves are quite simple, the swarm can scale up when conditions are favorable, and the collective is not dependent on a single member or a central controller. (Ants and bees have a queen, but that's about reproduction - she's not giving orders to the workers.) Power-Blox thinks that the swarm approach can be used to build a more robust power grid.

The Swarm Grid
The Swarm Grid

According to Power-Blox, "In a Swarm Grid, every component learns how to adapt to the current state of the grid by observing the grid parameters and adapting its behavior with the use of artificial intelligence." I asked Power-Blox founder Alessandro Medici to elaborate on that. I'll let him explain it:


"We are very early at the beginning of the Artificial Intelligence integration and just opened a huge research field. At the moment it is more a pattern matching observation and not yet a fully-fledged AI. So, the learning aspect is done manually, by observing the behaviors of the Power-Blox in the swarm and adapting the firmware."


In effect, they're still teaching the AI how to learn. 


Power-Blox Founder and CEO, Alessandro Medici
Power-Blox Founder and CEO, Alessandro Medici

"Our next step will be, to integrate an IoT communication and get real-time data from the field. With this information, we can feed the AI algorithm to learn how to adapt to the various high speed and low-speed supply and demand challenges within a mini-grid. For example, if we identify a bounce in a swarm-grid with a large number of Power-Blox, the single Bloxes could react when they observe the first bounces by slightly changing their behavior. Once the Power-Blox learned how to identify such a problem and what the solution is to counteract, each Blox can react individually and stabilize the grid."

So the first step is to teach the AI how to learn; the next is to teach it how to react.


"Our main approach is: As a smart grid gets bigger and bigger and more individual and uncontrollable prosumers get active in the grid, a centralized controlled approach will not work at a certain stage. There is a need for a mechanism, where each element that has the possibility to stabilize the grid – and storage devices have this ability – they should support it."

Distributed energy (including renewable sources) and local energy storage are integral to a more robust and stable power grid.

Energy storage is key because it has the ability to deliver and absorb power as needed, unlike pure generators and loads. Today's grid controllers are forced to perform a delicate choreography of supply and demand to ensure that all generated power is used and all needed power is delivered. Distributed generation and storage allows considerably more flexibility in that regard.

The Power-Blox
The Power-Blox

The Power-Blox

The grid started small, with one generating plant and a few thousand customers. Power-Blox is taking the same approach by designing a simple, scalable system - the Power-Blox - and installing several of them in areas that have no grid access: developing nations. The basic Power-Blox unit consists of a battery - either Li-ion or AGM (a variation of lead acid) - capable of storing 1.2 kWh of energy and delivering a continuous 200 W of power and up to 370 W in short bursts (to cover a motor's startup surge, for example). A built-in charge controller allows connection to a solar array for off-grid or grid-tied applications. The integrated inverter can deliver 230 VAC @ 50 Hz. You can see more detailed specs in the product user manual.



Power-Blox Stacked Like Legos for Scaling
Power-Blox Stacked Like Legos for Scaling


A Power-Blox can operate in three modes: stand-alone, UPS/Backup, and grid-tied. In stand-alone mode, a solar array charges the Power-Blox, which has AC outlets, USB ports, and a 12V car adapter to power devices directly. Without the solar panel, the Power-Blox works as a backup power device, taking energy from the grid and maintaining power output during grid outages. But grid-tied mode is the most interesting, as it allows a swarm of solar-powered Power-Blox microgrids to interact and share power. One of the simple rules that a Power-Blox follows is that it gives priority to devices that are directly plugged in, and then offers power to its neighbors as needed.

A Mini-Grid
A Mini-Grid

Complexity from Simplicity

Power-Blox co-founder Armand Martin says that the Power-Blox code is just a few pages long, noting that all of the data in a human DNA strand can fit on a single CD-ROM - less than 800 megabytes - while the firmware to run a typical smartphone requires two or three times that much storage space. I think we'd all agree that a person is more capable than a smartphone, so maybe the simple approach makes the most sense. So far, the company has assembled a mini-grid with twenty Power-Blox units working together in a mesh topology. In theory, that could be scaled up to any level. In practice … well, I guess we'll find out in time.


Simple Building Blocks, Simple Rules

What's the most complex thing you can imagine? For me, it's the entire universe! But at its core, it's also the simplest. The universe consists of a handful of basic particles that obey a few fundamental rules. From that, we get stars, planets, galaxies, life, and self-awareness. Nature has billions of years of experience; maybe it's time for us to heed its lessons.

"Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction."
- E.F. Schumacher (often mistakenly attributed to Albert Einstein)



Images courtesy of Power-Blox (except where noted otherwise)



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