The Internet of Solar Power

TED Talks are a huge source of inspiration for me. I tend to watch dozens of them a week, covering a broad range of topics from sixth senses, sustainable developing, musical performance and radical sciences. The talks keep me sharp by constantly challenge my view on the world. If your someone who thrives on the possibilities of this world, I encourage you to include TED Talks in your regular routine. This week I watching Elon Musk's interview from earlier this year, titled 'The mind behind Tesla, SpaceX, and SolarCity.' Many of us are aware of Tesla and SpaceX, Elon's radically and ambitious ventures to change humanity on large scales. But it was the third initiative that captured my attention, SolarCity. Something that blew me away, wondering 'why have I not thought of this before' a common sentiment when we see the simplicity of an idea in hindsight.

Put simply, SolarCity looks to create the distributed utility. In this case, solar power. SolarCity is an American provider of energy services to homeowners, businesses, and government/non-profit organizations. Among its primary services, the company designs, finances and installs solar power systems, performs energy efficiency audits and retrofits and builds charging stations for electric vehicles.  SolarCity has been the leading provider of residential solar power in California since 2007, its first full year of operation, according to the database kept by the California Solar Initiative and was the number one residential solar installer in the U.S. in 2011, according to Greentech Media Research.

The part of Elon's talk that grabbed me wasn't that notion of affordable solar power. Solar power can actually cost less than you pay now with low, predictable, locked-in rates. The savings can add up to thousands. You don’t need thousands to buy a solar power system, you only need a good roof, because installation is free. Instead, I was two words that created my light bulb moment 'distributed utility'. Think about that for a second, distributed utility.

The World Wide Web is a large distributed system.  With large transfers of streaming media and p2p, no longer a majority of bytes, but is in terms of flow. The word distributed in terms such as "distributed system", "distributed programming", and "distributed algorithm" originally referred to computer networks where individual computers were physically distributed within some geographical area. The terms are nowadays used in a much wider sense, even referring to autonomous processes that run on the same physical computer and interact with each other by message passing. While there is no single definition of a distributed system, common traits include autonomous computational entities(nodes), which communicate with each other by message passing. A distributed system may have a common goal, such as solving a large computational problem. Alternatively, each computer may have its own user with individual needs, and the purpose of the distributed system is to coordinate the use of shared resources or provide communication services to the users. The true power of distributed systems lies its' amazing scale, and fault tolerance.

Imagine power as a true distributed system. Each node is a household or building that produces its own power, in the case of SolarCity the power generation is through solar. Each node can create, store and consume, creating a compelling case for the 'internet of power.' Could we actually live in a world where power generation moves from a hierarchical producer & consumer model, to a utopian distributed system like the Internet?

The energy industry has partially started to act on this trend through the creation of smart grids. The idea behind smart grids is to use information to improve the efficiencies and effectiveness of electrical power generation, transmission and distribution resources. It's easy to see why this makes sense for utilities. By reducing electrical demand during times when resources are heavily taxed, the existing grid infrastructure can be used more efficiently, controlling costs for all while maximizing usable power for energy consumers. Sound familiar? It's nearly word for word the justification for clouding computing. Building owners can partner effectively with the grid to control and schedule their power demands to serve their operational needs while helping utilities achieve their goals.

Smart buildings that incorporate intelligent energy storage enable smarter grids. With local storage capability, a building can become part of the generation resource that helps support grid demands.

So all the theory is real, and some industries have started to make the shift. Could we see very soon society dramatically reduce, or even removal, the need for large scale power plants and shift our power generation to a collaborative model similar to that of the internet?

Great interview Elon, keep pushing us to think.