Saturday, October 26, 2013

Operations Research for the SmartGrid - 1

A popular joke in my undergrad campus at IIT-Madras used to be "why is the large water tank in our campus not used? Answer: the design engineers did not take the weight of water into account". The legend may be as real as the croc in the campus lake, but newspaper reports a few days ago quoted a US government spokesperson saying that the 'heath insurance website worked correctly, but just did not take the volume into account'. I'm sure a lot more attention was paid to the voters within the sophisticated analytical models used during the 2012 elections. Volume was not a problem then, somehow. Actions reflect priorities, as Gandhi said. So what are the priority areas in Smart-Grid research?

I recently attended the IEEE SmartGridComm 2013 international conference in the beautiful city of Vancouver, Canada. (A very brief historical tangent: From my Indian-American immigrant perspective, Vancouver is also a somber reminder of the discrimination that was once practiced by the US and Canadian governments, exemplified by the Komagata Maru incident). The paper presentations were refereed entries, uniformly of high quality, and largely focused on the dizzying science and technology associated with the various elements of the smart-grid (electric vehicles, batteries, wind, solar, communications, security, ...). Marry this with 'Big Data' and you get the convoluted buzz of two 'hyperbolic' distributions. Personally speaking, the glaring problem was this: the tech part felt overcooked, and the human part, somewhat overlooked, save for this five-minute talk, and the excellent keynote talks, which emphasized the latter (a favorite keynote comment described the important and immediate practical problem of 'transmission optimization' as the drunken uncle of the smart grid - largely ignored, but full of smart ideas). I found that several others at the conference too shared an opinion: the single most important component of the Smart-Grid remains the people for whom it is being built in the first place. If anything, understanding their behavior and impact is more important than ever before.

The world of electrical system modeling is full of elegant math that manage electrons that flow through circuits obediently as dictated by the equations. These models match up relatively well with reality (even imaginary numbers work here). In contrast, real world ORMS projects usually begin with people's real and changing requirements, and culminates in finding lasting solutions for real people, using noisy and incomplete SmallData. Unlike widgets, packets, and electrons, the goal of accurately modeling human response largely remains an open challenge, and the temptation to simply ignore this component of the SmartGrid is strong. However, the empirical, perhaps paradoxical, lesson I've learned the hard way is that the more effectively we want to mechanize, automate, and optimize systems by reducing or eliminating manual intervention (i.e. save humans from humans, a la Asimov's robots), the more practically important it becomes for our optimization models to take into account the behavior of, and the implications for all the human stakeholders, upfront. Be it workforce scheduling, Big data analytics, or the SmartGrid, an ahimsa-based multi-objective approach that also minimizes harm or maximizes benefit to the human element and blends harmoniously with the environment is likely to be more sustainable. Which is another way of saying: SmartGrid is one heck of an OR opportunity and I'm glad to be a small part of this journey.

The next part of this series will review some interesting SmartGrid optimization problems.

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