Here there be dragons
Early in the eighteenth century, England passed The Longitude Act, promising 20,000 pounds sterling to the man who could reliably calculate longitude anywhere on the planet—a remarkably important issue to a country whose wealth depended on reliable shipping.
A board of experts adjudicated all claims, and not long after convening, one man produced proof that his invention worked. But it took him 40 years to collect. The board was composed of astronomers, dedicated to the promulgation of complex and arcane calculations with equipment only trained (certified, no doubt, paying a handsome fee for the requisite paperwork) personnel could operate.
John Harrison, a clockmaker, had merely invented the mechanical clock. At the time, only pendulum clocks existed, and they didn't work at sea because of the ships' rocking motion. Harrison showed that by knowing what time it is aboard ship and also the time at the homeport or another place of known longitude—at that very same moment—one could convert the hour difference into geographical separation.
Energy engineers and analysts alike are spreading out over a similarly broad intellectual landscape, posing the same questions: If the electricity distribution system moves from the well-worn tracks of a centrally planned, centrally managed hierarchy, what will it eventually look like? How will the wire companies collect fees for the profitable operation of their networks? How do we prevent "out of sync" events from immediately cascading out of control when we produce and consume this commodity at the speed of light?
"Well, that's the rub, isn't it?" noted David Chassin, chief technical innovator for Battelle's Energy Systems Transformation Initiative. "The very models we use to understand dynamic energy networks can only capture what they were designed to represent."
Models employed today for electricity demand management, contingency planning, and long-term investment work in three dimensions: infrastructure/capacity, system management (power flow, load control), and time.
For example, generation would include turbine operation models. Transmission might include load flow simulations, whether performed for subsecond intervals or to establish spinning reserve margins (minutes to hours). But we don't have discrete models for everything, and we only have just those—discrete models. "We can only model specific cross sections of this continuum," said Chassin. "And every time we have a question that falls outside the realm of these models, we have to build a new model at great cost. Hence, there aren't many questions we can answer right now."
Such an approach to system management worked well in regulated, integrated systems. But both deregulation and the advent of new technologies—on-site power generation—coupled with new business propositions go uncaptured in the models utilities employ today. Little wonder utility engineers find the deployment of systems they cannot even see, let alone interact with, troubling. And the new technologies disrupt the experiential systems themselves. For example, thousands of privately controlled on-site power generation systems affect load (consumption) and distribution while moving through all three system management and time scales. No tool currently exists to reflect that.
So the energy earth now curves, but it's doing so years (or decades) before our regulatory systems can manage the new information comfortably.