Blog Archive

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Of the Internet and Glasgow

Way back in 1991 we discovered that our new broadband network was capable of being used as a local area network (LAN). That means we were able to establish communications between a few folks that already had home computers and the new file servers and educational software that the Glasgow schools had bought. It was very cool and novel. The technology we were using meant that we had to actually crack open the computers and install a communications card manufactured by IBM that was intended for connecting computers in a large building. Once we discovered that they would work across our network connecting thousands of buildings, things really started to happen.

In those early days one of the coolest things we could demonstrate was the ability to access Encyclopedia Britannica which Glasgow Board of Education had purchased and installed on a file server in one of their schools. Thinking back on it now, it seems pretty lame, but in 1991 it was a big deal. That demonstration drew a lot of nationwide attention. A lot of that attention came from the telecommunications giant (now deceased) MCI. After a few years of visits to Glasgow and discussions about why a city might decide to build its own broadband network, we got a very important phone call from an MCI executive named Vinton Cerf. He asked me to meet him for lunch in Reston, VA. During that lunch he asked if Glasgow had considered connecting its broadband network to the internet. I admitted that we had, but that we had no idea how to accomplish that. He offered to help us and, within a few weeks, MCI established the first connection between the internet and Glasgow’s broadband network. That was late 1994 and everything since then has been a bit of a blur.

That first connection was a T1 circuit. T1 is telecommunications jargon for a 1.5 megabit per second (Mbps) pathway between Glasgow and the internet. Today such a circuit would be suitable only for a handful of medium sized businesses, but from the beginning in 1994 through about 1996, one T1 circuit carried all of Glasgow’s internet traffic. If the internet is represented as the interstate highway system, the T1 circuit would be similar to a gravel driveway, but it was our only connection to the interstate. Glasgow has always suffered some from its geography. I-65 passed us by and so did the main line of the railroad, and, to a large extent, the internet passed us by as well. Even though today our connections to the internet are big and getting much bigger, we still are not a major node on the world wide web, and that is at the center of most of the internet service interruptions we sometimes experience here in Glasgow.

While our initial gravel driveway connection to the world has now grown from 1.5 Mbps to 150 Mbps (perhaps now the equivalent of a pretty wide two lane road with occasional passing lanes included), we still have issues with that road. For example, we had a problem with that road just Friday past. Continuing on the road metaphor, Glasgow EPB owns the broadband roads all over Glasgow and parts of Barren County, but our “interchange” with the nationwide interstate network is inside our network operations center right at our offices. There, Windstream and AT&T take ownership of the highway and transport all of our traffic to a massive toll booth in Louisville. There, all of our traffic encounters an AT&T router which examines each piece of email, gaming, news, pictures, or anything else you think of as internet traffic. That router then decides if the traffic is allowed to pass and gives it directions on where to go. The router is sort of like the gatekeeper guy in the Emerald City when Dorothy and the scarecrow and others (Toto too!) knocked on the door and asked for an audience with the Wizard. The router decides who gets to come in and who has to stay outside where that really spooky witch is cavorting about. Well, on Friday the router/gatekeeper guy got new orders from the Wizard (AT&T) that no one from Glasgow was allowed in. That is why you were unable to utilize your internet connection from about 2:30 p.m. until about 7:00 p.m. that day. Within an hour we were certain that the problem was with the instructions AT&T had given the router, but, since we neither own, nor control, AT&T, we simply had to call and beg and plead for several hours while they took their own sweet time sending new orders to the router.

Obviously, we don’t like being treated this way and we are constantly striving to provide redundancy and greater capacity on our local “roads” as well as our roadways connecting Glasgow to the world. We also want to free ourselves from the tyranny which exists when we allow one gatekeeper (AT&T) to control all of our access to the world. What we really need is multiple roads leading out of Glasgow which lead to multiple gatekeepers so that one set of bad instructions cannot render us unable to communicate with the world. For that matter, we really need the same sort of architecture for electric power as well. It might surprise you, but Glasgow has only one source of electricity today just like we have only one internet roadway to the world. Luckily, our electric power gateway, operated by TVA, is a bit more sorted out and less likely to get bad instructions than the guy operating the door at AT&T. Of course we would really like to have redundant feeds for both electric power and internet connectivity, and, that is precisely what we are working on. The only real problem with providing this redundancy is that it is expensive, and folks in Glasgow have grown accustomed to high speed, high reliability, and low cost. . .three things that are very difficult to arrange at the same time. Still, we are trying to accomplish them all.

Within the next month, we will be completing our own fiber optic circuit to Bowling Green and, in turn, to an AT&T router which is in Bowling Green. This will finally allow us nearly infinite capacity to the internet. It will be like having a new twenty lane connector from I-65 directly to the Bypass in Glasgow. As we move traffic off the old highway and onto this new one, it is possible that you may see some service interruptions. The only way I know to explain this is to compare it to construction on the interstate. All of those orange barrels and lower speed limits are frustrating during construction, but after it is over, man, the road is sooo nice! But still, initially our new road will still terminate at only one big AT&T router, so the possibility of bad instructions or other AT&T issues will still be a problem, but we have a plan for that as well.

Other major internet gateways also exist in Bowling Green, and we are working to establish redundant connections to them. Also, other cities like Hopkinsville, and Murray are building similar new roads to connect themselves to neighboring cities and we are working with them to interconnect our fiber to their’s. As that develops, we will eventually have fiber routes all the way to Nashville, and that will open the door for us to interconnect with many other competitive major internet gateways. So, the time is coming when one provider will not be able to totally cripple our internet access, but it is not coming tomorrow. There is work to do and money to be spent before we arrive in internet nirvana.

Peering a bit further over the horizon, it is possible to imagine a time when the interconnected cities might band together to establish themselves as a major internet gatekeeper on our own! If we are successful in bring that about, we may see the major internet content providers like Google, Yahoo, CNN, and others actually seek to locate some of their servers and connections on our fiber backbone. At the same time, if our infotricity idea takes hold, Glasgow might become the provider for advanced electric power metering services for all of the cities connected via the fiber backbone. All of these thing may lead to Glasgow having the most robust internet speeds and capacities in North America. All of these things are possible, but not guaranteed. Still, it is our intention to keep working on our roads and improving their capacity. This work will continue to provide benefits for you, and the occasional frustration. The former should far outweigh the latter, but don’t expect perfection. While no one works harder than we do to deliver the very best internet service possible, we are still human and we do sometimes make mistakes.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009

What Things Will Come

Hot on the heels of our recent posts about how broadband and electric power could be combined to offer solutions to the energy crisis we all face, comes this article from American Public Power Association. It is an interesting read as it paints the scene we have been describing from a totally new and independent perspective.

One thing is certain. Change is coming. We can try to steer that change by utilizing our network and our ideas about altering the way everyone uses energy, or, as the article below implies, we can all just prepare to pay a lot more to keep doing things the way we have for the last one hundred years. I know which choice makes the most sense. I hope you agree...

The next few years will be exciting for people in the electric utility business, as utilities struggle to decarbonize their portfolios and as consumers struggle with rising energy bills, a panel of CEOs agreed yesterday at an energy conference in Washington, D.C.


"If you're not up for an exciting time, you're in the wrong business," said APPA President and CEO Mark Crisson. The next decade or so will be a transition period that will make the difference as to what the electricity sector will look like 40 years from now, he said.

"The next five or 10 years will be exciting," agreed Richard Kelly, president, CEO and chairman of Xcel Energy.

"It will be interesting to see how we can decarbonize electricity over the next couple of decades," said Hank Courtright, senior vice president of the Electric Power Research Institute.

"It may be more than exciting," said Glenn English, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. "There many be moments of sheer terror."

The electricity sector faces Herculean challenges, said Tom Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute. "How to build transmission lines that will cost billions?" he asked. "How are you gong to reduce carbon emissions 80% by 2050?" he said, calling climate change "the mother of all issues."

They spoke at the EnergyBiz Leadership Forum, a two-day conference sponsored by EnergyBiz Magazine, USA Today, Energy Central, Oracle Utilities and several other companies.

"We've only got two objectives: to make sure consumers have enough power, and make sure they can afford it," English said. But both of those goals look increasingly hard to carry out, he said. Even with multibillion-dollar annual investments in carbon capture and storage technology, 2020 is the earliest anyone can expect CCS to be operable, he said. Until then, and perhaps beyond, utilities have to eliminate coal as a choice for new power plants, because Congress is bound to pass legislation soon that will make coal-fired power much more expensive, he said.

"We are removing our primary fuel of choice for the last 20 years," English said. "How in the world are we going to get through this?"

On climate change, APPA "would like to see the right bill" come out of Congress sooner rather than later, Crisson said. In today's economic environment, Congress is likely to be more sensitive to consumers' concerns, he said.

"We think it's important to minimize the impact on the consumer," Crisson said. That is why APPA is opposed to a proposal in the Obama administration's budget that calls for the federal government to auction off carbon emission allowances to the highest bidder. Under that proposal, the government would sell 100% of the allowances.

"We don't like this approach at all," said Crisson. "We think a cap-and-trade system is a thinly veiled tax and we have concerns around auctions," he said. One of those concerns is that prices may be volatile. Another is how the market could influence the auction process. APPA also is concerned about where the revenues would go, he said.
"We'd rather see a direct fee or tax," he said.

If a cap-and-trade system is used, all of the allowances should be allocated, rather than auctioned, at least in the beginning, he said. Then, the auction process could "grow at a pace that ensures protections for consumers," he said.

"We think it's extremely important that any climate bill isn't a tax collection bill," and that any auction revenues stay within the energy communities, said Kuhn. Price collars should be built into the auction system, "so the price doesn't fluctuate wildly to the benefit of traders," he said. EEI has endorsed a set of principles for climate change legislation that calls for half the emissions allowances to be allocated, and the other half auctioned. Gradually, the allocated allowances would be scaled back, he said.

How to handle allocations may be the biggest issue in the debate over designing a cap-and-trade program, Kuhn said. He agreed with Crisson that it will be important to avoid rapidly escalating electricity prices, which would cause a backlash by customers.

Marty Rosenberg, editor in chief of EnergyBiz Magazine, asked English whether he thinks Congress understands the issues involved.

"I don't think they get it," English replied. "I don't think they've focused on it. That's scary, when you realize how short a time we have. If we are going to have a strong climate change bill, that will severely limit the options available to us. Some time during the next decade, we will see brownouts and blackouts in some areas," he said. "We will see large price increases. I don't think the public is prepared for that."

Some people think their bills will go down because of the new emphasis on renewable resources such as wind and solar power, and there is a perception that "the wind and sun are free," English said.

On the contrary, he predicted, "We're going to see rates go up very steeply."

"We need time to inform consumers of what is coming because I don't think they have a clue," Crisson said.
Monday, March 2, 2009

Electric Power Version 2.0

This post is a bit technical and likely of little interest to most of our customers, but we thought some of you might like to understand a bit more about smart grids and how they might work. Most local folks would be surprised to learn just how deeply involved the team at Glasgow EPB is in the work to change everything about how electricity is generated, distributed, and consumed. So, here goes...

CONCEPT

We owe much of our prosperity over the last century to our discovery of electricity and the ways to generate, transmit, and use it to perform work. However, it turns out that nearly every method we devised to generate electricity has also generated problems with our environment and our weather. Perhaps it is time to upgrade electricity to release 2.0 and give it a new name, infotricity.

Infotricity is a product we have been experimenting with in Glasgow, Kentucky for many years. It is derived by combining the regular flow of electricity (think of it as the inorganic chemistry) with a flow of information which we know as the internet (think of it as sunlight), which results in a new product, infotricity (think of it as organic life). This is a virtual solution, not one where the actual wires are twisted together. Rather, it is a philosophy that all electric power delivery should be accompanied by a robust broadband connection which provides the intelligence for the workhorse. Once electric current is combined with, and controlled by, the river of bits, our theory is that the sum is much greater than the individual parts. If we are correct, then infotricity is to electricity as blood is to water, as a symphony is to a metronome, or as a summer breeze is to an air compressor. Infotricity is nearly organic.


THE TROUBLE WITH ELECTRICITY

Electricity is infinitely strong, but the resources we use to generate it are clearly finite and diminishing. Electricity is also infinitely mindless and clearly inorganic. If you come up with a way to generate an electromotive force, give that force a conductor, and connect that conductor to a load, and electric current will flow into that load and work will be accomplished until one of those elements is removed.

So, since electricity is unable to restrain itself from doing work until its fuel source is exhausted or the conductor is cut, we have turned the job of controlling it over to a number of equally dumb devices, mainly thermostats and timers. These guys are not in the mensa club either, yet we have entrusted them with making all the decisions about how we use billions of dollars worth of electricity each day. Further, they get to decide how much coal we burn, how much enriched uranium we need, how much water is released from hundreds of hydroelectric plants, and how much natural gas we burn to make electric power. Even though the electric bill comes to you and me, the decisions on how much energy bought were made by a $30 thermostat on your wall and a whole bunch of its $9 cousins in all of your other home appliances. And here is the real problem with that; these guys never talk to each other.

IT’S A CYCLICAL THING.
Since these thermostats and timers never talk to each other, one might then assume that they would then command the flow of electric power in a totally random and chaotic fashion which, in turn, would produce a demand for electric power in such a diverse pattern that the summation of all electric loads in a home, plotted against time, would produce a relatively flat horizontal line. But that is not the case. Instead, left on their own, these devices conspire to produce a demand for electric power which is rhythmic and tuned. In fact, an average day of electric power consumption for your home likely looks a lot like a simple sine wave. Surprisingly, there is a geometry to this chaos.

Does that mean that electricity is alive? Hardly. Does that mean it has intelligence? Absolutely not. However it does mean that our circadian rhythm has a great deal to do with our home’s use of electric power also having a circadian rhythm of its own. It means that those thermostats in your home are responding to the residents, the temperature and to the time of day by acting totally on their own. The result is a demand shape that is shaped like a sine wave, and that is very problematic. And it gets worse.

IT’S ALSO A FRACTAL THING.
It turns out that, much like in nature where a microscopic examination of a leaf reveals tree and branch structures that are a miniature copy of the totality of the tree, the sine wave shape of energy usage at your home is similar to the shape of total daily energy usage on your street. This energy usage is nearly identical to the usage for your community, and that shape is the same as that of the total energy demand on the utility that serves your home. Hundreds of millions of dumb thermostats somehow, without talking to each other, conspire to produce a sine wave shape for the total daily energy consumption of North America. For example, the largest public utility in our country, TVA, has a daily load shape that looks exactly like the simple sine wave previously described for a single house.

Fractal geometry is at work here, and the result is that we have a very high demand for energy, which results in large amounts of coal being thrown in the fire to produce the energy needed to meet that peak, which only lasts a few hours per day. This is another huge issue, because it is far more efficient to operate generation in the sweet spot of each generator’s efficiency curve twenty four hours a day, instead of trying to force them to follow this sine wave rhythm. So, what we really need here is some chaos. We need to de-tune this circadian rhythm and flatten out the load shape.


THE THEORY OF INFOTRICITY

In each of our bodies, fifty trillion cells live in harmony sharing energy, information, and purpose. They are united by a robust communications network and they are organized by a spectacular piece of software running on a powerful processor carried between our ears. In 2009 is it not possible to use a broadband network and some slightly less complicated software to convince twelve million motors and appliances within a region like the one served by TVA to live in similar harmony? If we replace the electricity, which powers those appliances today, with infotricity; if we replace water with blood, then we should be able to enjoy a symphony instead of the rhythmic ticking of the metronome.

BUILDING A BETTER SINE WAVE.
Each time slice of the daily demand curve for TVA is made up of two hundred eighteen blocks representing the energy demand from each of TVA’s distributor utilities and the other directly served industrial customers. Those blocks are made up of the nine million smaller blocks, which represent the individual homes and businesses that connect to the distributors. Finally, each of those nine million blocks is made up of the discreet loads; the appliances, motors, heaters, and lighting loads, which live in each of our homes and businesses. It is the chance stacking of each of those blocks that adds up to create each point along the sine wave shape of our daily demand curve.

The daily infotricity demand curve could be shaped differently, with much lower peaks and more shallow valleys, resulting in dramatic reduction in the amount of generation necessary at the hottest and coldest parts of the day and the virtual elimination of the most expensive and least efficient generation sources. A broadband network and some very good software would make this possible.

While today’s electric power demand curve is established by the cadre of deaf and dumb thermostats and timers, the infotricity demand curve would be sculpted by fully conversant software and telecommunications. Each of the discreet loads could be assigned an IP address. Each IP address could, in turn, be assigned a geometric form, a polygon. Then, all the software would have to do is organize the polygons like the pieces of a puzzle, into a daily demand curve that has a lower amplitude than the wave we experience today wherein none of the loads are controlled.

Of course, this would be far from simple. The music for this symphony could not be written overnight, but today’s high speed telecommunications and processors seem to have plenty of capacity to make the calculations and deliver the messages. Surely we can also assume that the same folks who write software and applications like iGoogle and Google Earth can also pull off Electricity 2.0.

HERE IS HOW IT MIGHT WORK.
Using historic energy consumption information for each meter combined with historic weather and calendar data, an algorithm could be developed for predicting the anticipated load shape on a day-ahead basis for each meter. Once robust broadband and IP based thermostats, appliance controls, and water heaters are installed to the home or business, and an inventory of the individual loads and the associated predictable usage information and other thermodynamic data about the location are collected, the software could start ascribing a two-dimensional model of each discreet load.

As mentioned above, the two dimensional models could be described as polygons, with the height equal to the projected load in watts and the base equal to the anticipated run time. Of course, the run-time would also have a certain amount of flexibility depending on the thermodynamics of the home, the habits of the residents, and the efficiency of the appliance. For example, the polygon ascribed to a water heater would not be simply the wattage of the heating elements and the length of time necessary to fully heat the volume of water in the tank. The polygon would be described by the wattage and time necessary to warm the water from its present temperature to the target temperature at the time predicted by the resident’s next likely need for the hot water. Obviously the same would be true for the HVAC needs of the location. It is assumed that the residents would offer a certain bandwidth of acceptable temperature for the air in the location, and that this acceptable bandwidth would also need to be recognized by the operating software. This would allow flexibility in the dimensions of the polygon ascribed to the HVAC load for the location. Thus, the software assembling the puzzle pieces would also have the option of re-sizing the polygons to make them fit.

It is the complicated nature of the variables and the need for IP based temperature sensors, and other IP based controls necessary to predict the need for energy, that makes it reasonable to assume that very high capacity broadband networks will be required for an organic smart grid. Further, it is clear that an exceedingly complex piece of software to operate over that network and connect generation plant and end user devices will be required for the creation of infotricity. The transactions described here are far from simple command and control conversations, rather, infotricity delivery and the endless number of calculations necessary to make it perform organically will approach the complexity of a living organism.

Once data and algorithms are developed that result in the definition of a polygon for all of these discreet loads, the software would be tasked with assembling those polygon puzzle pieces into a daily load shape. This shape would likely still be a sine wave, but one which is dramatically dampened, as the individual fractals that support it are each detuned and scattered.

Each load would communicate its status and its need to operate via an IP address through the broadband network to the control software. At the same time, the software would be studying the weather and the predicted load shape for the address. Then, its job would be to organize the loads into a shape which is flatter than the one predicted. As this is done for individual addresses, the software would also predict the new controlled load shape for the individual home and all of the homes at the various fractal levels; the street, the town, the region, and the utility universe, attempting to arrange the new sine wave peaks to occur at different times so that the load shape for each fractal area is as flat as possible. This is how an organically modeled infotricity network might function. Obviously, this is a daunting task, but impossible? Not likely.


LIVING BETTER WITH INFOTRICITY

For the first one hundred years of our utilization of electric power, the work done by electricity had no understanding of the source or limitations of the energy. To a large extent, neither did we, the consumers of the work and the designers of the electric power networks. Electricity 1.0 was inorganic and we allowed unsophisticated devices to decide how high our peak demands were. We looked at those peaks as impossible to change. In fact, we established rates and growth policies that added to their height, and we simply burned more coal and natural gas to meet them.

Infotricity (Electricity 2.0) could forever change this unwieldy and inefficient way of accomplishing our work. The robust broadband networks are available. The IP addressable thermostats, controllers, sensors, and appliances are within our reach. The software can be written. Sophisticated interfaces that will help us all visualize our infotricity usage are being written, and we will be able to get them on our computer screens, television screens, and wall displays.

Where the electricity network has been built in huge rectangular blocks that are ill-fitted to provide power for sine wave shaped demand, the infotricity network will assemble demand to closely match the output of our cleanest and most efficient generation units. When more wind power is available, the infotricity network will maximize demand when the wind output is available. When electric vehicle production grows, the infotricity network will recognize these new loads and assign them polygons of capacity which will fit within the targeted daily load shape.

Clearly, some of this discussion is theoretical. Telecommunications and technology can no doubt reduce peak demand, but just how much is not known. We can visualize discreet loads as polygons, but can software be designed to assign those polygons to run times in anything like the way our circulatory system distributes oxygen to vital organs? If not, how close can we get?

It seems plausible that we can make dramatic improvements. Such improvements might mean that nearly all of our least efficient generation sources, combustion turbines that burn large amounts of precious natural gas, might be moth balled. If the software is just a little bit better than that, then we can start retiring some of the oldest and dirtiest coal fired plants. By the time we get to Electricity 3.0, maybe we will be smart enough to actually start fueling our total needs with nuclear power, and the remainder with totally renewable resources like hydroelectric power, wind power, geothermal power, and biomass power. Perhaps infotricity will power a totally sustainable way of life for us all.

Is anyone ready to write that software? If so, let’s call it Sunshine, because inorganic chemistry plus sunlight equals organic chemistry, and we certainly need some new life around here.

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