Scalable Energy Networks to Promote Energy Security

By Roege, Paul E. | Joint Force Quarterly, July 2011 | Go to article overview

Scalable Energy Networks to Promote Energy Security


Roege, Paul E., Joint Force Quarterly


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In an age of fluctuating energy prices and environmental concerns, engineers and scientists are locked into a worldwide race to improve energy technologies. Through hard work and investment, these innovators are creating more efficient photovoltaic cells, responsive energy management software, and wireless energy transmission devices. Some of the greatest potential gains, however, remain to be harvested through energy system integration and networking, which ultimately will transform all forms of energy into a fungible commodity. Consider current challenges of converting energy and synchronizing sources with loads--for example, capturing solar energy to provide hot water and heat at night, or supplying transportation fuel. We need a paradigm shift that dissolves existing boundaries and enables us to manage energy seamlessly and interchangeably.

Modern information networks enable data conversion, distribution, and access through flexible hardware/software components that readily integrate into an endless variety of applications. This network approach has evolved rapidly in recent years, and may offer a useful example for energy systems. Two decades ago, only a few imagined the capability to check out a book or rent movies online; today, school children routinely download entire movies onto their telephones with high-resolution screens that are too small for older adults even to watch.

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Imagine replacing today's taxonomy of discrete energy components and machines with a pervasive, integrated architecture, akin to modern information systems. Energy would be collected, stored, converted, redistributed, and used in a plug-and-play manner. Transcending even the latest concepts for smart electrical distribution grids or devices, this construct would encompass all forms of energy--electrical, chemical, thermal, or kinetic--enabling seamless conversion and exchange. Such scalable energy networks could help mitigate some of our most urgent energy challenges, such as operational instability and vulnerability of the domestic power grid, especially considering the incipient proliferation of dynamic influences such as distributed micro-generation (1) (for example, roof-mounted solar panels) and plug-in electric/hybrid vehicles.

The imperative extends to our national security when one considers American Soldiers who defend us by patrolling rugged, remote areas of the world while carrying tens of pounds of batteries; (2) combat vehicles with insufficient capability to power onboard systems in an extended silent watch mode; and combat forces diverted to secure resupply convoys, largely delivering water and fuel. (3)

Historical Context

Energy concepts have evolved over the centuries, but have not achieved a maturity level that provides for the flexible architectures and seamless integration such as those that have transformed information and knowledge. Since the industrial revolution, energy systems such as vehicles, lighting, and manufacturing equipment have reflected a steady progression of performance, efficiency, and reliability improvements, benefitting largely from advancements in materials and manufacturing. Unlike modern notions of information as a ubiquitous and fluid medium, however, we still conceive of energy in terms of basic components:

* sources: oil reservoirs, coal mines, wind, geothermal wells, nuclear fuel

* storage: batteries, fuel tanks, thermal mass, flywheels

* conversion: boilers, generators, compressors, transformers, battery chargers

* distribution: pumps, pipes, switches, cables

* applications: lighting, automobiles, personal electronic devices.

With increased public awareness and an apparent inflection point in both the importance of (and global competition for) energy, the time has come to advance holistic and systematic energy concepts, using an analogy of modern information networks. …

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