Sunday, 24 June 2012

Smart Energy: Information Explosives

We’re beginning, indirectly, to get a view of the volumes of data that smart energy systems may generate or consume. Already, even the data requirements of the functionally simple smart metering programme in the UK appear to be massive. There may well be an awful lot of smart energy data around.Some people talk a lot about an ‘information explosion’, and this might sound like one, but I’m not so sure. There are certainly a lot of ones and noughts being generated. But information is what they perhaps aren’t.
Claude Shannon demonstrated back in the 1940s that information is the opposite of uncertainty. Shannon defined the unit that we call the bit by saying that the information content of a message, stated in bits, is measured by how much it reduces somebody’s uncertainty about some question that interests them.Data, also, is measured in bits. But data, per se, never helped anybody. When a message is useful, when it answers a question, then it delivers information. When it doesn’t, it’s just data, and what good is that?We have the problem in smart energy management that we don’t know yet exactly what questions people are going to want to answer. For a simple example, take the storage batteries that so many homes will have. There are obvious questions about momentary charge state and capacity, but there are many more questions that may become important to storage controllers. For example, the anticipated future energy capacity; the current offered price per stored Joule; storage futures offers; and the distribution network’s upcoming current and voltage constraints. We are only guessing at what intelligent capabilities storage systems will have to support in the future, and so we are only guessing at what information they’ll generate, or what they’ll need.In our present ignorance, we may underspecify the information needs of smart energy systems, and leave them unable to operate in the cities of the future, or we may overspecify, and end up trying to shift huge volumes of mostly pointless data around the place. It’s something that needs some proper analysis, and soon.People talk about solving the problems of storage information management by the trendy technology called ‘big data’. ‘Big data’ means that if a business has acquired a huge volume of individually meaningless data, then by dint of massive data analysis computing, it’s possible to extract some useful information. But the ‘big data’ isn’t the solution, it’s the problem; and it’s a problem that only arises when people haven’t thought properly about what information they need to be gathering.

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