Paul Hines (left) and Seth Blumsack are spending their sabbaticals at SFI studying the social and physical inter- actions relating to energy supply systems.

A British power plant operator watches a popular sitcom in his control center. As soon as the show ends, he will need to dial in more power from plants from France to Scotland to meet a surge in demand from a million viewers who suddenly turn on their tea kettles.  

Together, Blumsack and Hines study the interconnected social and physical variables that influence whether people get electric energy services when and where they need them.

Electric power networks share many traits with other complex adaptive systems. The sizes of large blackouts, for example, follow power-law distributions. That the output of a power grid can be diminished by adding new transmission lines resembles an emergent phenomenon observed in the study of street traffic. Further, the potential for local changes to ripple across the grid at multiple temporal and spatial scales is a classic complex system phenomenon.

There is still much to learn, though. Hines and Blumsack observe, for example, that as more consumers install solar panels on their homes, power sources are becoming less centralized – and more complex. They predict that electrical utilities will soon face a rapid and extreme change in the patterns of demand for their product.

“For these networks to continue to perform in the way that we want them to, they're going to have to become much more adaptive,” Blumsack says.

One way is to change consumer behavior. Hines and Blumsack are analyzing data from incentive programs to assess whether new pricing schemes can mitigate demand spikes during peak hours, as in the British sitcom example. They also are working on a way of understanding a network that connects its topological structure to its behavior.

“In energy, the interaction between physics and social systems is quite pronounced,” says Paul Hines, a professor of engineering and computer science at the University of Vermont. He is spending his sabbatical at SFI with his colleague Seth Blumsack, who teaches energy policy and economics at Penn State University. 

In collaboration with SFI Professor Cris Moore, Hines organized two past SFI workshops on power grid modeling and plans a third this spring. The two also co-authored an opinion piece for PNAS on the need for transdisciplinary electric power grid science.

Among other pursuits, Blumsack hopes to collaborate with SFI VP for Science Jennifer Dunne to explore the power grid and the rivers that feed it from an ecological perspective.

“There are people here [at SFI] who have really creative ways of thinking about networks, to tease out the things you want to know about,” says Blumsack. “I think [we will be] sponging off of that creativity as much as possible.”