The rise of stupid electricity
21st century power systems engineers may enjoy reflecting on the comical but expensive mistakes of the telecommunications industry in the 20thcentury.
Digital technologies capable of controlling telephony services became available from the 1960s. At first the telecoms operators used the technology to replicate, more reliably and more economically, the exact same services that they’d formerly delivered with electromechanical technology.
Time passed, and it became clear that in the small private telephony networks of company offices, digital technology could do much more interesting things. In the 1980s I worked on office switches that listed literally hundreds of funky (if silly) features. Shamed by this, in 1989, telecoms operator AT&T invented a thing called “Intelligent Networks” to address this at a national level. This massively cumbersome effort aimed to deliver a few very slightly novel services: divert-on-busy, call-back-when-free, that sort of thing. The underlying premise was that no matter what services were delivered, they were going to be created and delivered by the network operator Establishment, and the Establishment was going to be In Charge. Vast sums were spent on “Intelligent Networks” by the network operators, but precious little good came of it.
Also in 1989, public commercial use of the Internet began. Smart people outside the telecoms operators realised that the only worthwhile thing that a network could provide was connectivity, specifically Internet Protocol (IP) connectivity. If one wanted to add smart features, those could be added by enterprises at the edge of the network. In 1997, David Isenberg articulated the idea in a paper titled “The rise of the stupid network”. His employer, telecoms operator AT&T, sacked him and tried to suppress the document. Even now the paper can be difficult to find.
Isenberg was right. In the succeeding twenty years, the nature of communications services has changed beyond recognition. To a telecomms engineer of the 1980s, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp or WeChat would be inconceivable.
And now we find ourselves at a time when the power industry is embracing digital technology, but almost exclusively to deliver the same old services that they have always provided. Users at the edge of the networks are adding radically new equipment: solar panels, wind turbines, heat pumps and electric vehicles. Networks are struggling to cope and suppliers are going bust. But in all of the industry’s dogged efforts to Keep Calm and Carry On The Same Way, its ideology remains that products and services are going to be created and delivered by the a centralizing Establishment, and the Establishment is going to be In Charge.
It’s an ideology that was written into law by Mrs Thatcher’s government, in the 1989 Electricity Act.
However, thirty years later, with the industry facing challenges that Mrs T could never have imagined, that way of doing things is going to have to alter. The legislation is so far stuck in the past that it’s like trying to regulate air traffic with railway signals.
Already, minigrids and microgrids have demonstrated that power can be delivered without large-scale network infrastructure. Local trading trials such as ours on Iona have shown that the conventional suppliers and long-haul networks can be relegated to use as a last resort if local solutions fail. And while the big networks’ response to increasing demand is to enforce automatic disconnection of businesses in so-called “constraint management zones”, there are clear signs that real time local negotiation systems can address network overload without disconnection and without the network operators’ involvement.
We are indeed at the beginning of the Rise of the Smart Electrical Network, but its control won’t be anything like what that we’ve inherited from the 20th century. As with telecoms before it, the smart electrical network will be led not by a centralizing Establishment but from its edges, by innovative enterprises. Come on, Ofgem! Let’s try living in the 21st century.