Friday, 23 September 2011

Don't let the energy company kill my pet


There's an intersting article on the privacy issues present in much of the current thinking on smart grids over on Miller-McCune's blog.

There is indeed a fundamental problem with the model that energy companies are going to be poking around in our homes switching things on and off - the problem I refer to as "don't let the energy companies kill my pet".

Here's Frankie; he's a bearded dragon and likes a daytime temperature of about 33C; he also likes to bask - this is done by placing a 150W light bulb in his vivarium housed in child no. 1's bedroom. Last thing I need is the energy company switching off the lights in my house because it's daytime and the fools have left their bedroom lights on (*). They simply cannot know that Frankie will die and I, and more importantly my kids, will be somewhat annoyed. We need to move beyond this omniscient energy company model to understand what information the energy company needs to supply to each property where local decisions can be made by my personal energy agent - the pure economists would say this could be simply price. Maybe; although perhaps with something a bit richer than simply current price, for example a pricing plan for the next 24 hours, we might get there.

In electrical theory, we can figure out the the voltages and currents flowing in a network of resistors by using Kirchoff's laws, or, by applying Maxwell's equations. The former is a global solution (and simple - GCSE physics) whereas the other can be calculated locally (and is gnarly for most - undergraduate physics...); however, they result in the same solution; indeed Kirchoff's law can be derived from Maxwell's equations.

So rather than trying to solve the "simple" global problem let's set to figuring out how to get the same solution with local (and hence private) optimisations (+)... we'd better expect it's not going to be easy, we can only hope it is as beautiful and powerful as Maxwell's work, but it is certainly seems like a fit topic for research.

Think global act local!

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(*) Other examples include:

  • don't discharge my electric car when my wife is 8 months pregnant and I may urgently need to get her to the hospital
  • it a dialysis machine not a TV you buffoons
  • etc
(+) This insight was used in telecommunications call routing (Dynamic Alternative Routing) - perhaps the review article in +plus magazine is an easier read! In any case I am indebted to Frank for sharing this insight many years ago.