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Information Batteries: Using Computations to Store Surplus Energy

As we look towards more sustainable energy source, one of the barriers to overcome is intermittency. As the image below depicts, natural energy resources are not ‘always on’ the way that fossil fuels are–so they are unpredictable. This can create an issue for power grids that need to maintain a balance between supply and demand at all times to avoid surges, blackouts, and other complications. When energy supply exceeds demand, it can be difficult to store and conserve excess energy, while at other times, the supply of renewable energy may fall short of demand, leading to the need for backup energy sources.

In order to address the intermittency problem and increase the reliability of renewable energy sources, researchers are exploring a range of technologies, including batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, and information batteries, which are designed to store excess energy and make it available for use during periods of low energy production.

It’s a big friction point. Solar panels can only generate electricity during the day when the sun is shining, while wind turbines depend on wind conditions. The unpredictability of these energy sources creates problems for energy grids, which must constantly balance supply and demand to prevent blackouts and surges.

One possible solution to this problem is better battery storage technology. By storing excess energy generated during peak hours, batteries can release energy during low demand periods, effectively smoothing out the peaks and troughs of renewable energy supply. However, current battery storage solutions such as lithium-ion batteries and pumped hydro are expensive and difficult to scale.

Unpacking Information Batteries

Information batteries are a new system proposed by Barath Raghavan, an assistant professor in computer science at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, and Jennifer Switzer, a Ph.D. student from UC San Diego. Their idea is to store surplus renewable energy as computation instead of traditional electrical energy. Let’s break it down.

When renewable energy is available in excess, it is used to perform large, energy-intensive computations in data centers. These data centers consume 10 to 50 times the energy of a typical commercial building, according to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. The results of these computations are then stored for later use when green energy is less plentiful.

The advantage of this system is that it takes advantage of task predictability. For example, YouTube data centers transcode more than 700,000 hours of videos to different resolutions every day. Many of these computations are predictable and can be performed when there is excess green energy available. The results are then stored on servers for later use, essentially moving electricity consumption from one time period to another.

For certain types of workloads, the information battery system offers better efficiency than lithium-ion batteries. The specific efficiency depends on multiple factors, such as the types of computation conducted and the predictability of power. Unlike lithium-ion batteries, storing data is cost-effective in terms of both money and energy. This could help to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, which are responsible for three-quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Is there a catch?

Kind of.

While the idea of information batteries is relatively simple, the challenge lies in determining what computation to perform, where and when, and how these computations should be done to efficiently retrieve the results later.

In the paper titled “Information Batteries: Storing Opportunity Power with Speculative Execution,” Raghavan and Switzer provide a design and proof-of-concept implementation of the zero-carbon system, which includes recurrent neural networks for predicting the future availability of renewable energy and upcoming tasks in data centers. The infrastructure would be geographically distributed, comprising many small, distributed data centers, each located in a region of the country where wind or solar production is known to be high. With this kind of system, companies would be using power that would have been wasted, and the grid operator wouldn’t have to spin up natural gas power in the evening hours to compensate for demand. However, there are certain limitations to the system, which the researchers explore in their study. 

In sum, Information Batteries are yet one more emerging technology suited to help us solve the complexities of renewable energy. And Raghavan shared, “In the civilization-scale challenge of sustainability,” said Raghavan, “we need every tool we can get.”

Reference: Switzer J, Raghavan B. Information batteries: storing opportunity power with speculative execution. SIGENERGY Energy Inform Rev. 2022;1(1):1-11. doi:10.1145/3508467.3508468

By evee Life Contributor

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