Unleashing the Power of Networks and Data: The Electric Grid as the New Internet

13.06.2024| Christian Kreutz
European Electricity Network
Openinframap.org

I have to confess that it took me a while to grasp why the energy transition to electricity makes such a significant difference. Using electricity as the primary energy supply for electronic goods, heating, and even industrial production will move the majority of energy consumption into the electric grid. Having larger parts of energy consumption in the same network is an incredible challenge, but also an amazing opportunity to build a network with a range of effects that the fossil energy supply logic could not ever offer.

Network Size and Distribution: The Smart Grid

From a network and data point of view, fossil energy supply is quite primitive. Oil pipelines transport one way to their recipients. It is simply channeled to a refinery, to a petrol station, and then ends in a car to produce energy that is used only to about 30%. It is a small pipeline network that always goes in one direction.

Electricity is far different from fossil energy as it flows in a growing bidirectional network that is already way bigger than oil or gas networks. See the two images from Openinframap.org for comparison to see the density of the electric grid in Europe.

European Electricity Network

Electricity Network

European Oil and Gas Network

Oil and Gas NetworkSource: https://openinframap.org

Furthermore, an electric grid can be used in a highly decentralized manner. Even a household with a balcony solar panel contributes back to the network.

Most importantly, an energy network has way more participants as every person with the smallest solar module will feed back into the larger network. According to system theory, an electricity network is full of feedback loops, and that's why it is also called a smart grid.

When Denmark delivers wind energy also in the night and Spain delivers a lot of solar energy during the day, electricity networks are a lot smarter, more diversified, and more resilient. Of course, energy production and distribution is not as simple as in the example, but different from fossil energy networks, it creates a whole ecosystem of new actors that will develop services around smart grids and unleashes the power of decentralized networks where every participant can be a consumer but also a producer of electricity.

Measurement and power of data

As the Internet has shown, the rise of data has led to a plurality of new business models. Petrol is a physical substance that can only be limitedly measured. Its limited data leads to a small range of business models long exploited. There may be statistics on how much petrol was bought yesterday in a given region, but no one knows how many petrol cards consumed yesterday. No one can say on which routes or in a country how much petrol was consumed yesterday or even in real-time.

This is way simpler with electricity, where you can easily collect data on how many cars were charged last night in the country and from which energy source. How much was consumed the subsequent day on which routes? This all leads to valuable insights to understand energy consumption and mobility patterns impossible with fossil fuels.

In an electric grid, energy can be measured with great precision, which shows not only detailed consumption patterns but also triggers a whole new world of possibilities.

As a household, I can produce renewable energy, share my oversupply of energy, and get electricity from the grid in compensation when I have too little. In the near future, I should be able to see when the grid can offer renewable energy and when it is based on fossil energy.

If the Internet has taught us one lesson, it's that networks have incredible power for new ideas. We are just at the beginning of the electric grid evolution.