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Why the electric grid needs a moonshot
April 23, 2021

Why the electric grid needs a moonshot

How can we bring the grid out of the industrial age and into the age of intelligent technology?

Written by Astro Teller, Captain of Moonshots at X

The electric grid is an engineering marvel — a vast and complex system that keeps our lights on and powers all of the devices that are now essential to modern life. Designed more than a century ago for electricity to flow in one direction from fossil-fueled plants to cities and towns, it wasn’t built for what the modern world is asking of it. As countries around the world push more renewables onto the grid and consumers shift their habits to drive electric vehicles and install solar panels, it’s becoming an increasingly challenging engineering problem to keep the grid in balance. This challenge is only becoming more urgent: to fight climate change we need to achieve true 24/7 carbon-free electricity.

It’s in problems of this scale, importance, and urgency that X typically goes hunting for moonshots, and that’s why today at the White House Leaders Summit on Climate we announced that for the past three years we’ve been working on a moonshot for the electric grid.

Right now our work is more questions than answers, but the central hypothesis we’ve been exploring is whether creating a single virtualized view of the grid — which doesn’t exist today — could make the grid easier to visualize, plan, build and operate with all kinds of clean energy.

We’re announcing our work today because it’s not possible to explore this further without the close collaboration of organizations who know the intricacies of the grid — from grid operators to power system engineers to infrastructure experts, to the countries, cities, and towns who depend on it.

To that end, Audrey Zibelman joined X in January to lead this moonshot and bring together a set of early stage innovation partners to develop and test prototypes with us. A 30+ year champion of technical innovation to decarbonize the electrical system, and most recently CEO of Australia’s energy operator AEMO, Audrey knows her way around a grid control room, having navigated Australia’s grid through the 2019–2020 Australian wildfires and helped reimagine New York’s electricity system in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

The radical question: can we make the invisible visible?

Grid operators ensure that the supply of electricity to the grid stays in balance with the amount being used every moment of every day. One of the biggest challenges they face is that they have to manage and make decisions without full visibility into all the new and intermittent power sources coming onto the grid, like wind turbines or solar panels. And they don’t have visibility into how energy is flowing in real time: there is no global map or end-to-end aggregated view that gives every operator a consistent, full view of what’s happening on the grid from power plants down to the solar panels on your roof.

What you see happening on the grid depends on who’s looking and from what vantage point. Everyone who manages, builds, regulates and provides electricity to our power system — from utilities to system operators — uses their own sets of tools and models of the system. And this is becoming a huge hindrance as operators are now orchestrating novel and unpredictable flows of power from billions of new devices both contributing to and drawing from the grid.

Finding a way to create a single view of this splintered system felt to us like a promising entry point for reimagining things. We think machine learning, artificial intelligence and advanced computing tools can help; in the last decade these technologies have powered the creation of virtual representations of real-world environments that act as super-efficient simulated testing grounds for new ideas and software. Simulators have been vital to the development of everything from self-driving cars to the Mars helicopter.

Some of the questions we’ve been exploring via prototypes with industry partners include:

  • Is it possible and useful to create a virtualization of the electric grid that is so detailed it can understand all the power coming onto the grid and all the power being pulled from the grid, in real time?
  • Is it possible to forecast the weather so accurately that we could know when and where the sun will be shining and the wind will be blowing?
  • Is it possible to create tools that can rapidly predict and simulate what might actually happen on the grid, whether it’s in the next few nanoseconds or decades in the future?
  • How do we make information about the grid — in its past, present, and possible future states — useful to everyone who is involved in building, planning, updating and managing the grid?

We hope these explorations can lead us to new computational tools that could help us move the grid out of the industrial age and into the age of intelligent technology.

Seeking partners to reimagine the design, management and operation of the electric grid

To meet national decarbonization targets we need to reimagine how we design, update and manage the grid. No single organization or industry can solve this problem alone. X can bring our technical expertise, our collaboration with teams across Alphabet who are working to build a carbon-free future for all, and our experience pursuing audacious approaches to huge and critical problems in the world — but others know far more than we do about the day to day realities of energy generation, management, and provision.

If you’re up for tackling this challenge with us, please get in touch with Audrey and her team. They’re now looking for collaborators to help us with our next stage of learning and development. In the coming months and years, we look forward to learning from and partnering with the industry, policy makers, regulators and more to unlock the decarbonizing potential of the grid — so together we can reimagine how we make, move and use power.

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