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SHI: The elements of a Self Healing Power Grid

In a recent discussion I had with a friend of mine, the topic of evolutionary fitness and the emergence of highly resilient systems of repair inside biological organisms was the impetus for me to explain an aspect of capitalistic systems that I've touched on in previous posts but had not fully explored in a post.

The discussion originally started with my describing how a Self Healing Infrastructure (SHI) for Energy purposes can free us from one of the major survival needs of all human beings.

A Self Healing Energy Grid

The Zeitgeist of late has been filled with the idea that the autonomous future will make work non existent, any of my readers know I've been pioneering such talk going as far back as 2006 and the technologies I've built in the form of the AgilEntity platform and the invention of Action Oriented Workflow in 2004, are first steps toward making such systems of efficiency effective for the needs of machine human interaction. One of the many SHI related posts I've written covers the elements of the SHI that must be constructed in order for us to be freely liberated from the need to work. In the past, others have talked on these ideas prior to the invention of the internet and web but the necessary infrastructure in terms of software technology didn't exist, nor did the actual fundamental breakthroughs in physical technology (such as efficient solar panels). The Energy grid is about means for turning one form of energy into the electrical energy that is the life blood of much of the modern world, unfortunately our means for doing this involve burning the liquefied or compressed  remains of 300 million year old+ animal and plant life.



Often we forget what it is about energy production that allows us to survive orders of magnitude more efficiently than species which do not directly harness such energy stores to enable their survival. The coal and gas and oil we burn directly enables our internal combustion engines to ignite and our crank shafts to turn and produce acceleration in our cars and boats, the same happens with the fuel we burn in the turbines of our planes to take across the across the planet, the same again are burned and then the heat is conducted to pipes filled with water...that then turn turbines of steam to produce electricity. 





Finally, after delivery of this generated energy to our homes by companies that charge us for the exchange, we use it at our sockets to turn on microwaves to cook our food, to energize ovens to boil our cabbage and to light up the world by connecting to it via the internet on our electricity driven computers. The former examples are quite clearly survival aspects...eating is a requirement of direct survival for all human beings and our burning of coal and gas and oil directly enables us to prepare the foods we gather...but what of their gathering?

The food we cook is often prepared and processed using systems similarly energized by electrical means, the industrial meant processing plants  that chop the chicken, pork and cattle into our cold cuts...depriving those conscious animals of their lives in the process, are all reliant on the delivery of electricity to run their blades. The refrigeration units that store the cut mean for days or weeks or months in order to equalize demand and supply and ensure that optimal profit can be made by the meat processing company via distribution are also fully running on coal/gas/oil derived electrical energy.



We can run this game down the line across everything we eat and drink and find that the utility provided by such technology to our survival is great however it is by analyzing what exists as an alternative that we truly come to deal with why it is so much better. Prior to the establishment of electric grids, an invention that was the vision of Thomas Edison in the early 1880's, people had to....on a daily basis, procure the elements necessary to produce energy for cooking their food. Food cooking, a practice that can be seen going  back nearly 2 million years as performed not by Homo Sapiens Sapiens but further by our ancestors Homo Erectus was a critical innovation in our ability to survive. 
Cooking the flesh and sinews and skin of the animals we hunted allowed them to be broken down better and enabled ready digestion. It also enabled us to eliminate the effects of many forms of disease in the form of bacteria or fungus that may have otherwise grown on meat killed hours or days before it was actually eaten. The invention of cooking provided a significant boost to humanity above other animals as the percentage of energy we needed to internally spend digesting what we ate went down...but also because the amount of energy we could extract from cooked food was greater than from raw (meat in particular).

So what does this have to do with the self healing grid, well first...because we have been developing technologies incrementally over time and liberating ourselves a bit at a time of necessary labors to ensure survival, we have also been carving away larger and larger percentages of our day away from survival tasks and toward leisure ones. A leisure task is one in which we can think deeply about pressing problems that are NOT directly survival related, like how to design better wind mills, or better ox carts or better water aqueducts. 

These innovations by degree are what enabled the ancients to slowly but consistently expand their power as they conquered one another...for the most part taking in much of the innovation created by parallel civilizations. The Greeks learned much from the mathematics and engineering of the Egyptians, The Romans learned much from the politics and philosophy and mathematics of the Greeks. The process wasn't always a smooth one (Library of Alexandria) and there were great losses of mountains of human acquired knowledge (and thus implicit ability to survive) that were lost to the errors of war and strife that have been a main stay of humanity for several thousand years but for the most part we continued to grow, continued to subsume the innovations of the past into the innovations of the present and grow.

The discovery of fossil fuels as a means to liberate the survival cost fed in the 19th century to the emergence of the Industrial Revolution. The coupling of this age and the Renaissance discoveries of the description of electricity, the explanation of how it was exchanged by various media, how it could be stored (Leyden Jars) and then later used to power all types of mechanical devices continued to pump efficiency of survival into our lives. As the 20th century came about, it seemed that there was no limit to the types of innovation that could be created using electricity in particular derived from the burning of fossil fuels and the conduction of super heated steam through turbines.

Unfortunately, the consequences of this process of gathering energy soon showed its other face in the form of massive increase in pollution in many of the major cities of the world, of smog thickened to cloud like opacity in NY, London and Paris. As governments rushed to place boundaries on the methods that companies could use to burn their gathered fossil fuels in order to exercise commerce the world choked on the results of our largess. It wasn't until half way into the 20th century that people started wondering if there were another way.

Time to make the Solar

The process of gathering the suns light using materials of various transmitive or reflective characteristics is an old one, examples go back as far as the Greeks in the form of the Ptolemy's optics. The use of lenses to induce the formation of heat goes back to the middle ages, yet as a means for producing consistent energy these devices simply had no application. There was no way to transmute the gathered energy so that it could be stored say in an intermediate fashion...either chemical or electric, those didn't happen until the 16th century or so with the invention of the Leyden Jar the first known chemical battery. 

During the Industrial revolution the ability to generate electrical energy was critical to allowing mechanical energy in the form of water or steam flowing over turning turbines to be transmuted into electrical energy that could then be used to directly power motors and other electrical devices. In the 1880's Thomas Edison embarked on the process of building an entire electrical distribution system (called "the grid") this system would allow him to provide a context under which the value of an electric light for consumer and business purposes could be demonstrated and made real. It wasn't until the 20th century, in the first two decades that it was discovered that electricity could be gathered via means of current generated when light directly falls on a surface of a given material construction. 

Albert Einstein explained the fundamental physics behind how it (photo voltaic effect) and a related process (photo electric effect) worked. It took several decades more before it was realized that this process could actively generate electricity by simply shining light on a properly produced surface (the actual discovery of the energy production method goes back to Becquerel)...the dawn of semiconductor chemistry and electronics led to the first solar cells in the 50's. For the next 3 decades the technology languished, mostly as promise but unable to fulfill the necessary efficiency to counter the cost and complexity of construction. Some visionaries (like former president Jimmy Carter) saw the potential and tried to boost initiatives for funding and deployment but many of those programs were cut in the US once Ronald Reagan took office throwing research into funding darkness for 12 years. Ironically, idea that the technologies of the time were based on semi conductors was not aided by the rapidly scaling efficiency of processors, known as Moores Law, which used a photo lithographic process to make computers increasingly more powerful.

The advance of more efficient panel technologies using novel elements and dopants continued in 90's and the promise continued to grow but slowly, until the early 2000's when the idea of using nanotechnology to dramatically improve photon gathering density and conversion efficiency to motile electrons was attempted...this promise jumped through the roof with the isolation of the wonder material Graphene by Geim and Novoselov in 2005. Now the promise of solar is that by 2017 in the US, it will achieve "grid parity" generation of electricity with the fossil fuel driven methods, this will mark a critical point where the profit potential for producers will dangle as an increasingly juicy carrot relative to the *inefficient* methods extant that utilize fossil fuels. Once Solar is at that point, returns on investment can be made in a few years and there after surplus could then be sold back to the grid or via another technology also seeing revolution due to the use of nanotechnology, batteries be simply stored for the cloudy days.

Self Healing Grid On The Way

The fascinating history of the development of solar aside, we still have a few years before we see a serious kick in adoption and even then installation and repair will be an entirely human endeavor. The costs for generation and distribution will be cheaper than the same for fossil fuels for the first time in most parts of the world but they will still be present because humans will be in the process. This is where the idea of a self healing grid comes in, rather than rely on humans to produce, install and repair solar installations...we are now at a point where we can program automated systems to do every step of the process. The advance of machine learning and the integration of those methods into stationary and motile robots opens up the possibility for us to eliminate humans from the energy production and distribution cycle entirely.

This does several fundamentally game changing things:

1) It eliminates the costs that humans charge for designing and building the panels, if computers and robots do it...that can be made a fixed cost of creation once the costs for design (by humans ironically) are paid.

2) Such facilities would be running on electricity itself, which could be provided by panels first produced (when the humans are still critical to the process). This just bootstraps and pinches off humans from the solar panel production side of the equation.

3) It eliminates the cost of humans during the installation phase once we have autonomous agents installing fields of panels (for municipal, state or government installations). Once designed such robots can also be powered by the very fields of solar collectors they are installing and thus remove that costs from the total cost to human consumer equation.

4) It eliminates the cost of first level repair of the panels themselves as the robot installers can be designed to monitor, diagnose and repair panels when as they age and malfunction.

5) It eliminates the cost of second level repair of the robots that repair the panels, as if they are made in an automated factory that repairs robots such a factory also run on the grid would operate at near zero cost.

6) It would allow a tight coupling between the material procurement of raw materials for constructing the panels, for silicon panels the material is sand...one of the most abundant sources on the planet, for nanotube and graphene based panels the material is carbon...one of the most abundant sources in the Universe. Robots would assess based on energy utilization curves calculated from levels of human consumption, how much mining needs to be done of the various materials and the production of new fields can be keyed tightly to the demand of human consumption.

7) The mining of said panels could also be automated once autonomous intelligent robots are deployed to perform those tasks...as they could also be made to run on grid power they would also be zero cost to human deployment and use.

8) The mining bots would also have first level repair bots and those bots will have second level repair bots also powered by the grid...eliminating those costs as well. You can stop at two levels and have bots repair one another, or simply have the factory itself be smart enough to repair bots it produces, at the second level as monitoring of failure rates would ensure that a very accurate observation of deployed crews of bots...in essence this would be the establishment of a repair buffer for the two levels of repair which would make the  entire chain resistant to variation in demand at the user end.

9) Regarding distribution, once the grid is energized, the entire process of connecting it to needed human utilization centers, of constructing power stations for use by electric cars and installation and repair bots and other devices can be automated fully (also by other bots!). This eliminates the middle men of power distribution companies and again keeps the zero cost model (to humans) going.

10) Finally, at the home...for individuals that access the grid...the costs would be near zero once the entire chain described in the previous 9) points is in place, leading up to that point the costs should FALL continuously as each are implemented. The other way to get to zero faster though is to simply deploy ones own personal grid, installed and paid for with super efficient batteries on site to store all stored energy for personal use...such individuals would pinch of from the grid entirely if they wish or they can sell back collected energy to the emerging self healing grid as it continues to develop.

Summary

It is clear that if we are to perform the above we would radically change the survival equation discussed earlier, a huge part of our needs would be provided to us by an infrastructure that in a very real sense is alive and serves our need directly. That provided good and service would then allow us to focus our lives on other things and will radically change the nature of human societies. We will be free to do more art, more design, more free play, more political examination and more of what ever is most important to us in our lives. In the past when we had innovations we can see how critical they've been to boosting humanity to new levels of contentment and the ability to provide for themselves with a minimal amount of work relative to the previous generation. 
We should all consider ourselves fortunate that when just 100 years ago the majority of the population was a farmer and now they are a fraction of the population yet provide sustenance for the entire planet through their increasingly efficient methods (soon to be automated away thanks to the SHIG) that we all don't have to wake at 5 am to go water the fields or work until 10 pm cutting down brush as a consistent activity of our daily lives. The savings returned to our quality of life will reflect itself again in our leap into new areas of discovery and thought and thus make achieving this point a critical aspect of our transition into a fully Self Healing Infrastructure.



Comments

Anonymous said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
David Saintloth said…
"before 1880 there was piped-in gas and coal delivery, so nobody gathered shit, the work/leisure balance hasn't significantly changed since the start of the Industrial Revolution"

-- So to you the former statement (leaving aside if it is true or not) proves the latter, how is this logical??

" the start of the Industrial Revolution, the start of the Industrial Revolution is commonly accepted as 1750, not the 19th century"

-- I didn't state that the IR started in the 19th century, it did however see it's greatest acceleration of developments then.

"the programming for your robotic network of automated mining is beyond our reach."

-- It is surely beyond your reach, as you probably are not an engineer working in the areas of machine learning or artificial intelligence as am I. Much of my work has been focused on these problems in the last few years and I assure you, we'll have the necessary code well within the next 20 years.

"your estimation of zero repair costs only holds true if no materials are ever needed to repair the robots or panels"

-- Then I guess you missed the entire qualification of needing several layers of repair including self repair for the robot fleets. The repair buffer...but as you said you were to busy laughing at your own state of ignorance to read the entire article, a shame..it would have saved you looking a fool here.

"your estimates of grid parity are wildly optimistic based on current trends and your history is seriously inaccurate, like by claiming that the Greeks didn't know that lenses could be used to generate heat."

-- Wildly optimistic? Not at all these are estimates provided by:

http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/03/03/1664481/solar-report-stunner-unsubsidized-grid-parity-has-been-reached-in-india-italy-with-more-countries-coming-in-2014/

-- :There is this thing about the internet, it's easy to find facts if you just look. You were obviously too lazy to do that...again making you look like a fool.

Also, I never said the Greeks "didn't know that lenses could be used to generate heat." I stated that they were oblivious to know how light generation could be transmuted into electrical energy.

Finally, you'd have more credibility if you had the courage of your convictions and used your real name in the comment but I guess you weren't so confident in your responses in the first place...considering how wrong they were I can see why you chose to stay a coward to your words.

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