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Massoud Amin on fixing the whole system

I’m blogging from Camden, Maine, at the wonderful Pop!Tech conference. This year’s a special treat. My wife, the lovely Velveteen Rabbi, and I are team-blogging, trading off posts. You can read her posts on her website, or just read all of ours on the Pop!Tech site, where Michelle Riggen-Ransom has been doing brilliant work thus far. There’s lots of bloggers in the crowd and on twitter – follow the #poptech tag for lots of different perspectives.

Massoud Amin has a vision for the future of energy infrastructure in North America – smarter, sustainable, more resilient and secure. We’ve learned a great deal in the last 15 years about complex “lifeline” infrastructures – not just powerlines, but anything that absolutely, positively needs to survive failure.

To give us an example, he tells us about an Israeli pilot who managed to land an F-15 after losing a wing. Losing a wing is a big deal in an airplane – you lose symmetry and control surfaces. The airplane was damaged during air combat manuevers. The wingman realized what was happening and ejected. But the pilot – who lacks a rear-view mirror – somehow managed to “turn the aircraft into a missle” and landed at twice the normal speed. “He finally turned around, saw how much damage he was under and said, ‘Holy cow, had I known that, I would have ejected.'”

McDonnel Douglas, who’d built the aircraft, spent years and several PhD thesis analyzing the aircraft. Based on what they learned, they’ve build aircraft designed to survive complete hydraulic failure, like the failure that recently led to a crash in Buffalo, NY. (Hydraulic failure means failure of control surfaces.) As Amin’s research continued, he moved from studying the survival of individual aircraft to the survival of squadrons and networks, looking at how groups and networks can keep mission effectiveness when critical components like fueling go down.

Massoud Amin, photo by Kris Krüg

Amin’s work went on to studying intelligent transport and highway systems. This work was moved dramatically forwards by EPRI – the Electric Power Research Institute – which involved 240 graduate students and 108 professors who jointly studied complex interactive networks. The goal was to build networks that were secure, robust and self-healing. “The mother of smart grids is the self-healing grid.” These systems have a normal, undisturbed state, an alert model that senses precursors to an emergency state, and then attempts to restore from these aggravated states to the normal ones. The key is to build systems that are simple and smart, that focus on security, reliability, robustness, efficiency, and security. Security became even more important in the wake of 9/11, when the focus became on dynamic risk assessment, analyzing threats to these infrastructures.

At the nexus of national security, environmental security and financial security, there is energy security. He shows an extremely complex graph which shows energy inputs on the left and usage on the right. 40% of total US energy comes from petroleum, 22.6% from gas, a similar amount for coal, 8% for nuclear, and small amount from alternative energy, like .15% for wind. We don’t use this power very efficiently – overall, end to end efficiency in our energy system is 43%.

How do we waste all that energy? “I’m an engineer. I drive a muscle car. It’s got 380 horsepower. It’s a little old now, so it might be 380 horses and some donkeys. It’s 14% efficient.” But it doesn’t make sense just to focus on subsystems like transportation – as his work studying resilience from aircraft, to squadrons, to networks suggests, we need to look at big systems.

We lose energy from transportation – 29% of our losses comes from inefficient transport. Electricity production and transmission is responsible for 25.% of losses. It’s more efficient to produce AC electricity outside of cities and transmit it in – the grid loses 6-7%. Most of the loss is at the generation and usage side – traditional light bulbs are only 7% efficient. We’re moving in the right direction, though – refrigerators are 50% larger than 1970s, but use 30% of the energy. We need much more of this type of improvement.

We need stronger and smarter electrical infrastructure. We need to focus on transforming and electrifying transporation. We must green the power supply, using smart nuclear power and developing consistent, reliable designs for reactors. (With 104 reactors in the US, we’ve currently got 103 designs.) We need to increase efficiency and use sources that are sustainable and more secure.

The key technologies are new systems for storage, like electronically-controlled flywheels or advanced batteries. We need better transmission because sources of energy are far from our population growth centers – superhighways that represent a retrofit our existing, remarkable system. We need to retrofit buildings to integrate power generation and storage. Those buildings represent a $1 trillion system – it’s operated like a 1960s aircraft in terms of control and sensing. Each of these nodes needs to be smart, ecosensitive, adaptive.

Unfortunately, our energy systems are badly underfunded. The electricity industry invests very little in R&D – 0.3% of revenues during 1995-2000, which has dropped to 0.17% of their revenues during 2001-2006. This compares to close to 12% for computer and drug companies. Only the pulp and paper industry invest less. We need to refocus, align our efforts and commit to working together to transform our old electric infrastructure to meet a networked, digital economy.

1 thought on “Massoud Amin on fixing the whole system”

  1. Dear Etahn,

    Many thanks for your efforts and insightful and on-target summaries.

    Just one minor correction to one of the number in the very last paragraph- instead of:

    “Unfortunately, our energy systems are badly underfunded. The electricity industry invests very little in R&D – 1.7% of their revenues…”

    The actual number is:

    “Unfortunately, our energy systems are badly underfunded. The electricity industry invests very little in R&D – 0.3% of revenues during 1995-2000, which has dropped to 0.17% of their revenues during 2001-2006…”

    Many thanks for your efforts and please let me know if I may be of assistance.

    Best regards,

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