Smart Grid Operating System: The Next Killer App?
Tom Lombardo posted on August 31, 2014 |
Programmers looking to write the next killer app might want to think about energy distribution.

Software engineers looking to make their mark should consider energy distribution control - it could be the next killer app (or series of apps) waiting to be written. The history of computing may repeat itself in the energy industry. Let’s look at the parallels to see where it might go.

Energy 2.0

Today’s electric grid consists of relatively few power plants serving a wide network of energy consumers. In effect, it’s the same “star topology” that once ruled the computer industry: one central server providing data to a bunch of dumb terminals. Even as that evolved into local area networks (LANs) with personal computers, the networks were still client-server in nature.

The early World Wide Web consisted of servers hosting information and clients accessing that information. Web servers were controlled by webmasters - skilled programmers with knowledge of HTML, FTP, IP, and other languages and protocols. Just like the client-server network, a web site was a one-to-many distribution network. In the 1990s, it was a badge of honor to have a web page.

Enter Web 2.0, which allows anyone with a computer to be a web producer as well as a consumer. Programming skills are no longer required to put content on the web. Even the most technologically inept individual can create a presence on a social media site with little more than a few clicks. The old star topology is giving way to a peer-to-peer topology. This requires updated web protocols, revised HTML specifications, and new hosting software, all of which are continually evolving as we speak.

Likewise, distributed generation such as rooftop solar and residential wind allow individuals to be energy producers as well as consumers. For now, the number of consumers who are also energy producers is relatively small, just as in the early days of the web there were a few “power users” who had dedicated IP addresses and hosted their own web sites. But the number is growing, and the energy industry will need to develop new tools to accommodate the influx of energy producers. Energy supply and energy demand need to be balanced, and the more producers there are, the more complex that task becomes.

Virtual Utilities

In his book When the Biomass Hits the Wind Turbine, Jay Warmke predicts that net-metering, which allows consumers with rooftop solar systems to sell energy back to the grid at retail prices, will disappear. This will leave homeowners will a surplus of energy at times. While on-site storage is an option, it’s costly and complex. Warmke suggests that the excess energy could be sold to other consumers over the grid, eliminating the utility “middleman.” Just as the internet gives us virtual private networks, the smart grid could allow virtual microgrids. Consumers will pay for grid access in the same way that we pay for internet access, but once on the grid, we’ll be shopping for energy much like we shop for products online. Imagine an eBay of energy, where producers (sellers) bid their prices in real time based on supply, demand, and competition. Your home control system can run an app that finds the best deal and makes the transaction. 

One Protocol to Rule Them All

Just as we have an Internet Protocol that allows networks and computers to communicate, we’ll need a smart grid protocol to enable our devices to communicate and distribute energy. That doesn’t rule out competition among operating systems though. You could be reading this article using a Mac, a Windows PC, an Android, a Linux box, or a multitude of other devices. The only requirement is that they all speak “IP” when they get to the web. Similarly, a variety of operating systems can distribute energy to each other as long as they speak a common language.

A Layered Approach

Today’s computers operate on a multi-layered software model. Application programmers don’t need to know how a keyboard or mouse operates; they just call an operating system routine to read the device. Likewise, there are too many peripherals for an OS to know them all, so hardware developers write software drivers to allow various operating systems to interact with the device.

The smart grid will need a similar layered model for its software. Users will interact with application software. The apps will communicate with the OS, which talks to hardware via drivers. Each layer provides a level of abstraction, allowing easier integration of products from different manufacturers.  

Integration of Renewable Energy Sources

The intermittent nature of renewable sources makes it necessary to predict their production capacity based on weather conditions. Forecasting tools exist and are quite accurate. An energy management OS would use that information to help make real time decisions about energy supplies.

Analogy Police!

You may be reading this and poking holes in the analogy. Fair enough, but at some point every metaphor breaks down; that’s why it’s a metaphor. I’m not suggesting that the two situations are identical or that the energy industry will evolve along the exact same path as the computer industry. But the parallels are there and there’s likely to be many similarities in the future. However this plays out, there’s bound to be a great deal of software controlling energy distribution. Software engineers, fill your coffee cups (your source of energy). You have a lot of coding ahead of you.


The ideas presented in this article represent a synthesis of opinions from industry experts such as Ryan Wartena, CEO and founder of Growing Energy Labs, Jay Warmke, author and green energy educator, and Greentech Media Research. The core ideas are theirs; I simply connected a few dots, summarized the information, and added my own interpretation of future possibilities.

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