Greatest Innovation Ever

I like silly Top Something Lists. In a more serious state of mind I wondered what a list of the top inventions or top innovations of humankind might comprise.

Random googling yields list items such as The Internet, Money, Plumbing, and The Power of Story.

This list contains what my biased mind was searching for: Electricity, Water Power, The Light Bulb, The Steam Engine, The Electromagnet, The ElectronSemiconductors, The Transistor, and of course again The Internet. I argue the greatest innovation uses all these and is as important as Plumbing – actually our toilets and water supply would not work without it today: I nominate …

The Power Grid

(If this were TV, you would now see this.)

You might say that I am cheating because the power grid is not a singular invention but rather a conglomerate of diverse inventions, held together by the glue of standardization, politics, and committees. I picked the grid for that very reason.

The more I learned about the power grid the more I wondered that it works at all – at that amazing level of availability. In Austria the average downtime per customer is about 45 minutes per year, that is electric power is available 99,99% of the time. Experts state that this even has a negative impact of our ability to cope with sudden blackouts. This is called the paradox of vulnerability: the less vulnerable you are as per statistics, the less you care about very improbably but disastrous events.

At every moment the consumption of electrical energy needs to be balanced with the demand. This sounds trivial but it means that if you turn on your oven, somewhere in your country (actually: in your control area) a gas turbine needs to spin a bit faster. In Austria the gates at a pumped-storage hydropower plant will open a bit more.

If you turn on your computer or other electronic device the compensation needs to be more sophisticated as modern devices distort the nice sine function that alternate current used to be in the old times.

Storage lake, Malta power plants in Carinthia, southern Austria. Maximum power is 1,3 GW which is more than 10% of Austria’s peak power. (Photo taken by myself)

If consumption rises faster than demand the frequency of AC power decreases. All generators rotate in sync – most of continental Europe is one large synchronous area. The energy ‘stored’ in rotation is proportional to the square of the frequency. If the energy is not consumed the rotating masses can’t get rid of it. Since the factor of proportionality is the moment of inertia you can compensate for changes in demand by tweaking the generator, e.g. by controlling the flow of water. The grid codes agreed upon by all countries in a control area state that the operators of generators need to respond within seconds.

If something goes badly wrong the synchronous area would split into regions where generators spin with different frequencies – preventing to flow energy between these areas. This had happened in a blackout in 2006 in Europe, which was triggered by a – planned – disconnect of power lines in Germany: allowing for a ship to pass.

What amazes me even more is that the system does still work so well, even after introducing feedback loops governed by a ‘capitalist’ market. I consider the power grid a combination of at least three networks: the network of electrical power, the communications network (stuff for cybersecurity nightmares), and a market of suppliers and customers. We can expect many new types of participants in this market as the producing consumer – the prosumer – and intermediaries aggregating demand and supply.

I am sometimes worried about the consequences of adding more smartness, intelligence and automation for technical and, above all, for commercial reasons. I am not that concerned about hackers changing the frequency of generators, but about perfectly well-controlled computers running mad at the electricity stock exchange (or by some harmless test command wreaking havoc – as described at the bottom of this post.).

In February 2012 is was really cold in middle Europe for about two weeks, and basically all power plants were up and running – not much reserve left for controlling frequency and power. There had been rumors on speculations impacting the stability of the power grid in Germany: Since the stock exchange prices of electricity were high, the balancing group representatives were said to have tweaked their forecasts. As a result the power needed was not standard power to be purchased on a market designed for that but precious energy that should have been dedicated to providing stability. The German regulator explained later that these alleged speculations had not made sense in hindsight but it cannot be ruled out that representatives were tempted to do that beforehand.

The blackout in California in 2003 is often quoted as a textbook example of a software bug affecting infrastructure, as well as the market manipulations causing the Californian ‘electricity crisis’ have been considered an unintended side-effect of market liberalization.

This is all very interesting for the engineering, physics, and IT geek (even including the geek who indulges in applying physics-style differential equations to economics). But the consumer of electrical power in me simply concludes that at all odds you should try to make yourself as self-sufficient as possible.


For German readers – and actually in order to keep track of that myself – I add some sources only available in German:

Statistics of disruptions by the Austrian regulator, incl. exact definitions for calculating the minutes of disruption quoted in the post.

Malta hydropower plants in Wikipedia.

Stability of the German power grid in February 2012:
Austrian newspaper article – translating to ‘Gambling until Blackout’, a bit sensationalist.
Evaluation by the German regulator, see page 61. They really use the term temptation.

14 Comments Add yours

  1. SRKS says:

    Ignoring cooking and flint knapping, I would put writing as the crucial innovation/invention. Up to that point objective knowledge was limited by the capacity of human memory, handed on from generation to generation through oral tradition. With writing, virtually unlimited expansion of objective knowledge became possible.

    1. elkement says:

      Putting down the ‘engineer’s spectacles’ I used when writing this post I fully agree with you. In my most recent time-out from social media I revisited lots of books on the history of technology, in particular Nicholas Carr’s tech-critical review of the way the internet has changed the way we think. Carr also states that writing – in particular the availability of books for common people after the printing press had been invented – as a singular innovation that changed the way we think and process information.
      Ironically, ‘the internet’, the information snippets shared on social media, and our skimming instead of deep reading seems to erode these profound changes.

  2. Claus says:

    Hi Elke, as far as I remember you can fix in a Power grid either the frequency or the voltage – while in the old days the western european countries were sticking to the 50Hz but have 230V+- 10%, in Eastern Europe it was 220V and 48-52Hz. So indeed, not for each PC switched on or off a Power plant has to be triggered. But the smaller your network (on an island, a small village in the mountains) the more critical is the load or change in the load (8am, the ski lift is started and the lights go down). For a while machines were controlled by the network frequency, so the western model had advantages, today, electronics is so advanced, that big loads are controled by a microcontroller anyway.
    Todays challenge – how to restart your power grid after a crash without getting unstable !
    so long, claus

    1. elkement says:

      Hi Claus – thanks for your comment! Yes, that’s right – my explanation of the control mechanism was rather sloppy!
      As far as I know voltage has to be controlled together with wattless power (…phase angle between the magnetic fields in the stator and the rotating part of the generator…angle changes with load… resulting voltage changes with angle…) but this should not be an issue for nearly purely resistive power consumed by home owners (?) Effective power / frequency is controlled by the turbine, reactive power / voltage is controlled by the excitation of the generator.
      Today the requirements for AC power are defined a European standard for power quality which demands that 95% of the 10 minute averages of the voltage must not deviate by more than 10% – I don’t know which countries hold their utilities accountable to the standard. China allows for larger variations in frequency which requires different inverters for Chinese wind turbines.

  3. And, this is calculated to help me sleep better? Given the inherently precarious nature of the system (too many variables changing in potentially stochastic ways) your last statement about self-sufficiency is clear. I have also looked at what Maurice had to say and agree. The best solution then, for the individual, would be to blend the ideas of these great minds … individuals need to be more self-sufficient, less reliant, and one would hope for a departure from fossil-fuel-based electrical generation. Austria is lucky to have such plentiful hydroelectric resources. What would you suggest for the rest of us? Maurice was right when he said, “Thanks to oil we’ve polluted the place, wrecked much of our groundwater, killed millions of non-combatants and made evil people rich.” What do you suggest Elke? It seems that all non-petroleum-based technologies fail at the largest of scales .. neither wind nor solar nor geothermal can support populations equivalent to those now supported by the petroleum-based-generation systems. So, it seems to me that you are even more correct than perhaps you were aware. We have to rely on individual self-sufficiency. Each of us needs a wind-generator our out back door. Perhaps this is going back-in-time … but would that be all that bad?

    1. elkement says:

      I advocate exactly that type of self-sufficiency you are referring to: Supply reasonably small units with their island-style renewable resources. Probably one generator per home is too fine-grained because not any individual would prefer to be accountable for maintenance of all the machinery. But making small villages self-sufficient should make sense also from an economic perspective (Costs of maintenance). In particular this is true for anything biomass-based as transport is too expensive. For larger cities we need a “smart” approach though.
      I have found a stunning example recently: There is a small region in Austria that had operated in off-grid “island” mode until the 1970s (!) until they had been connected to the grid. Today they are happy about having an infrastructure that is still built to support island-like operations – and they plan for making their region self-sufficient again. Going back in time would not be that bad in this respect.
      But the first step should be the reduction of energy consumption. Checking statistics for consumption and CO2 emissions I feel that ‘mobility’ is the real problem – fuel consumption seems to be hardest to reduce. I believe tons of fuel and related CO2 could be avoided by changing the way the majority of people works (is forced to work) and the way many people spend their vacations. I have never understood why it is the standard thing to do to travel 100s of kilometers to show up at a meeting that lasts for two hours. It is a matter of corporate culture as the technology for remote work is available. During the economic crisis many companies were much more travel-cost aware and promoted working “online”.
      The vacation thing is trickier – because spending your vacation at the other side of the globe is still considered an indicator of social status … though I feel this is gradually changing.

  4. M. Hatzel says:

    After reading your blog for a while now this post does not surprise me, and I was looking forward to one day encountering your thoughts in a post. I agree with you in the end, ‘do your own electric lighting.’ (I am very curious to see how this fourth element, the DIY producers, will impact the grid as they add their own electrical contribution… but of course, this is hoping the contribution is significant enough to be of consequence!) Great post.

    1. elkement says:

      Yes, I am also interested in the impact of DIY producers, too – in part the smart grid is built in order to support them. But there are some real challenges due to the volatility of wind and solar power. In Germany distribution system operators are already allowed to disconnect DIY solar power plants from the grid in order to maintain stability and keep the voltage within an allowed range.
      Currently customers are motivated to go for self-sufficiency instead of having electricity fed into the grid – even the utilities offer turn-key solutions such as solar panels + batteries + energy management systems.

      1. M. Hatzel says:

        When we were considering alternative energies to use on the farm we often wondered how we would store the unused energy. Of course, batteries were an option, but we needed many to make ourselves fully independent of an external power supply. It would have been ideal to sell the excess energy back to a service, and bank that power as credits against our future consumption. This wasn’t an option at the time, probably due to the logistical problems you’ve explained. Even though the time has passed and we no longer have need of a storage system (due to having moved) it was exciting to first read about the way you were storing energy and using it with heat pumps.

        1. elkement says:

          Thanks, Michelle! You remind me that I should post an update about the performance of the system after nearly a full year of operation – including the summer season when our storage tank had been used for cooling.

  5. As a tech head, electrical / electronic engineer and author, I looooved this article. Great viewpoint.

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks – I am honored!

  6. Now you know me–I did take the time to look at all those links and came to this conclusion: there’s no one best invention as we really need all of them :-)
    Else we’d be rather different.
    Now I will go as far as to say that I remain skeptical that the decision to go with petroleum as a preferred energy source was, in the end, something that was good for us all. Thanks to oil we’ve polluted the place, wrecked much of our groundwater, killed millions of non-combatants and made evil people rich.
    Oh, and made other excellent sources less important than they should be.
    Now, of course I am bound to like your choice. After all, without electricity I would have no toys–no toys at all–to play with. No instruments by which to pursue physics. No decent communications technology.
    On and on.
    What we really need, though, is to stop energizing it through coal and oil.

    1. elkement says:

      I fully agree with you, Maurice! I am saying this as an inhabitant of a country which is rich in hydropower – so it is ‘easy’ for me to advocate renewable energies. Germany, for example, is more dependent on coal. However, the ‘smartness’ of the grid to be developed should compensate for that and distribute wind power generated in the north of Europe and solar energy harvested in the south of Europe.
      As I said, I am just worried by the side-effects introduced by complexity – in particular by (mis)using that smartness for gambling or by considering home owners energy storages (such as electric vehicles or heat dumps) just as a buffer to be used in times when the costs of electricity are high. I would rather use my personal storage for myself only and renounce of the money to be earned by buying electricity only when it is ‘cheap’.

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