A report from the IPAM summer school

This is an amazing few months for programs at the intersection of computer science and economics.  IPAM just finished up a summer school and the Simon’s institute is just about to start a long program.

Lucky for us in LA, both are very near by, so many of our students spent the last few weeks over at IPAM for the program, which included a parade of great talks, and are now getting ready to head up to Berkeley for the Simons program.

Now that the IPAM summer school is over, the videos have all been posted at this point, so go take a look!  There are lots of really interesting talks there, including a great sequence of talks on matchings from Rakesh Vohra & Itai Ashlagi…

I was given the dubious honor of starting off the summer school, so you can check out my sequence of talks on Networked Markets as well.  It was the first time I’ve gotten a chance to talk about our work on networked Cournot competition and networked Stackelberg competition, so it was a lot of fun (and a lot of work to put together the slides).  It was nice to do it in the context of the summer school since it gave me a chance to start from the beginning and build all the way up from standard Cournot competition models, through some of the interesting recent work on networked Cournot in a generic setting (e.g. these two papers), all the way to our work on the role of market makers in networked Cournot competition (which is motivated by electricity markets).

Now that the summer school is done, I’m looking forward to heading up to Berkeley for the Simons program this fall…

A good news / bad news week for renewables in the press

These last few weeks, the news has been full of lots of seemingly conflicting messages about renewables, so I figured it was worth talking about things a little bit in a post.

First, the good news.  The old conventional wisdom that solar can never match prices with conventional generation is just plain false at this point. Deutsche Bank recently released a report highlighting that rooftop solar will reach grid parity (i.e., be as cheap, or cheaper, than the average electricity bill in the US) in 47 states in 2016, and that it has already has reached grid parity in states accounting for more than 90% of the US electricity consumption.  Now, 2016 is a pivotal year because those numbers assume the 30% subsidies that are present today for solar, which goes away in 2016.  However, even if these drop to 10% parity will be maintained in 36 states, as this plot from the report shows (the x-axis is the electricity price /kwh – cost of solar/kwh, so positive means savings from solar):


Of course, that still includes a subsidy, so solar costs aren’t matching those of other sources yet.  However, that will happen soon if current trends continue for even a few years.  Here’s one of my favorite plots in that regard (from a World Bank analysis).  I still think it’s crazy how quickly the technology advancements and economics are working in favor of solar.

Now for the bad news. An interesting analysis emerged from some of the folks that were behind Google’s RE<C initiative, that went looking for breakthrough approaches for renewable generation that could make renewable energy cheaper than coal.  Their conclusion: no current forms of renewable energy are enough new approaches to solve climate change, even in best case forecasts.  Thus, in their words, even if RE<C had reached it’s goal, that goal was “not ambitious enough to reverse climate change.”  “To reverse climate change, our society requires something beyond today’s renewable energy technologies.”  So, in some sense, we’re too late.  But, engineers and inventors can do amazing things, so who knows what breakthroughs will come over the next 20 years. For example, one approach that would be a game changer for the models typically used would be a way to pull CO2 from the atmosphere and store it…

A report from “The mathematics of planet earth”

The mathematics of planet earth is a joint initiative from a consortium of mathematical sciences organizations around the world (organized nominally by DIMACS) that has the goal of showcasing how mathematics can be useful in tackling our world’s problems.  It started last year as a year-long focus, but has now expanded and will continue for the coming years as well.   I’ve been to a few events organized under this program, but the reason for this post is to highlight the recent workshop on “Data-aware energy use” organized at UCSD a week or so ago.

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A Network of Intelligent DER

Energy and the environment are probably the most critical and massive problems of our time. The transformation of our energy system into a more sustainable form will take decades, determination, and sacrifices. In the case of power networks, several powerful trends are driving major changes. In this post, we will look at two of them.

The first trend is the accelerating penetration of distributed energy resources (DER) around the world. These DER include photovoltaic (PV) panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles, storage devices, smart appliances, smart buildings, smart inverters, and other power electronics. Their growth is driven by policies and incentive programs. California, for instance, has ambitious policy goals such as:

  • Renewable Portfolio Standard (2002): 33% of retail electricity will be procured from renewable sources by 2020.
  • Global Warming Solutions Act (2006): Reduce greenhouse gas emission to 1990 level by 2020.
  • California Solar Initiative (2007): Offers solar rebates for customers of three CA investor-owned utilities, from 2007 – 2016.
  • ZNE homes (2007): All new residential construction will be zero net energy by 2020.
  • Energy storage target (2010): The three investor-owned utilities will deploy 1.325 GW of non-hydro storage by 2020.

Leading the world, in terms of percentage share of non-hydro renewable generations (at approximately 20% now), is Germany.  Its relentless push for renewables, in the face of technical and financial challenges, will no doubt help find a way forward and benefit us all.  See a recent New York Times article, where a proud German reader commented, “And that’s what I love about my country, it is a pain, it causes frustration and malice, but nobody questions the vision.”   The question is not whether we should move to a sustainable future, but how we overcome the many challenges on the way (e.g., see Adam’s earlier post about Germany’s challenges), and the earlier we start, the less painful the process will be.

The second trend is the growth of sensors, computing devices, and actuators that are connected to the Internet. Cisco claims that the number of Internet-connected “things” exceeded the number of people on earth in 2008, and, by 2020, the planet will be enveloped in 50 billion such “Internet-of-things.”  Just as Internet has grown into a global platform for innovations for cyber systems in the last 20 years, Internet-of-things will become a global platform for innovations in cyber-physical systems.  Much data will be generated at network edges. An important implication on computing is that, instead of bringing data across the network to applications in the cloud, we will need to bring applications to data. Distributed analytics and control will be the dominant paradigm in such an environment. This is nicely explained by Michael Enescu (a Caltech alum!) in a recent keynote.

The confluence of these two trends points to a future where there are billions of DER, as well as sensing, computing, communication, and storage devices throughout our electricity infrastructure, from generation to transmission and distribution to end use. Unlike most endpoints today which are merely passive loads, these DER are active endpoints that not only consume, but can also generate, sense, compute, communicate, and actuate. They will create both a severe risk and a tremendous opportunity: a large network of DER introducing rapid, large, frequent, and random fluctuations in power supply and demand, voltage and frequency, and our increased capability to coordinate and optimize their operation in real time.

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Data centers & Energy: Did we get it backwards?

The typical story surrounding data centers and energy is an extremely negative one: Data centers are energy hogs.  This message is pervasive in the media, and it certainly rings true.  However, we have come a long way in the last decade, and though we certainly still need to “get our house in order” by improving things further, the most advanced data centers are quite energy-efficient at this point.  (Note that we’ve done a lot of work in this area at Caltech and, thanks to HP, we are certainly glad to see it moving into industry deployments.)

But, the view of data centers as energy hogs is too simplistic.  Yes, they use a lot of energy, but energy usage is not a bad thing in and of itself.  In the case of data centers, energy usage typically leads to energy savings.  In particular, moving things to the cloud is most often a big win in terms of energy usage…

More importantly, though, the goal of this post is to highlight that, in fact, data centers can be a huge benefit in terms of integrating renewable energy into the grid, and thus play a crucial role in improving the sustainability of our energy landscape.

In particular, in my mind, a powerful alternative view is that data centers are batteries.  That is, a key consequence of energy efficiency improvements in data centers is that their electricity demands are very flexible.  They can shed 10%, 20%, even 30% of their electricity usage in as little as 10 minutes by doing things such as precooling, adjusting the temperature, demand shifting, quality degradation, geographical load balancing, etc.  These techniques have all been tested at this point in industry data centers, and can be done with almost no performance impact for interactive workloads!

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A report from (2 days of) Stochastic Networks

June is a month that is dominated by conference travel for me, with three of my favorite conferences all typically happening back-to-back.  The third (and final) of these this year was Stochastic Networks.  The little one at home prevented me from being able to join for the whole conference, but I was happy to be able to come for the first two days.

Stochastic Networks is an applied probability conference that is the type of event that doesn’t happen often enough in computer science.  Basically, it consists of 20-25 invited hour-long talks over a week.  The talks are mostly senior folks with a few junior folks thrown in, and are of an extremely high quality.  And, if you do the math, that makes an average of 4-5 talks per day, which means that the days leave a lot of time for conversation and interaction.  Because of the quality of the speakers, there are still lots of folks that attend even if they aren’t presenting (which makes for somewhere around a 100+ person audience, I’d guess), so it becomes a very productive event, both in terms of working with current collaborators and in terms of starting up new projects.

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Energiewende is giving renewables a bad name

Germany has been ahead of the curve in terms of pushing the integration of renewable generation. Its so-called “energy revolution,” or Energiewende, is something it has been both heralded and criticized for over the years. In my opinion, the impacts of Energiewende on the energy industry have to a large extent been positive, since the investment has served to motivate and fund a lot of technological advances, especially for solar. However, Energiewende has certainly made some big mistakes over the years which, in a few cases, have threatened to hurt investment in renewables in other countries.

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