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This article is part of a series celebrating the 20th birthday of the Isaac Newton Institute in Cambridge. The Institute is a place where leading mathematicians from around the world can come together for weeks or months at a time to indulge in what they like doing best: thinking about maths and exchanging ideas without the distractions and duties that come with their normal working lives. And as you'll see in our articles, what starts out as abstract mathematics scribbled on the back of a napkin can have a major impact in the real world.
When the mathematician AK Erlang first used probability theory to model telephone networks in the early twentieth century he could hardly have imagined that the science he founded would one day help solve a most pressing global problem: how to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and switch to renewable energy sources. But the unlikely convergence of the two fields lay at the heart of the Energy Systems Week, which took place at the Isaac Newton Institute in May 2010. It was part of a larger programme, Stochastic Processes in Communication Sciences, exploring how the theory of randomness can be used to solve problems arising in the telecommunications industry.
A mathematical understanding of stochastic processes is essential in communications science, because a large number of users gives rise to an essentially random pattern of calls, emails, or other information sending requests, which a network has to be able to deal with. "If we integrate renewable energies, such as wind power, in the electricity grid, there will also be uncertainty, as we don’t know what the wind will be doing tomorrow," explains Stan Zachary, who co-organised the Energy Systems Week. "This will make planning and scheduling much more challenging and it will take sophisticated mathematics to get it right."
The Isaac Newton Institute provides an ideal meeting ground for experts from different backgrounds, who may not normally have the chance to interact. "Energy systems do not traditionally fit into the world of communications science," says Frank Kelly, one of the organisers of the larger meeting on stochastic processes. "However, the powerful mathematical language developed for communication networks may have applications for this new area. The presence at the Institute of a collection of people that were interested in random processes and networks made this an ideal setting for a meeting on energy systems that reached out to industry. "
The Energy Systems Week attracted 93 participants including mathematicians and engineers, as well as economists and representatives from industry and from regulatory bodies. They were particularly interested in how the uncertainty of supply from wind farms can be balanced out by traditional power plants and how smart meters and new energy storage devices can be used to spread demand away from peak times to prevent the system from overloading.
The programme heralded a new synergy between power systems engineering and economics. "These days the energy network operates as a free market," explains Zachary. "For example, whether or not a supplier can take advantage of a temporary shortfall of supply to make what some might call an excess profit depends very much on such engineering issues as the speed with which a power station can be started up. There is an unusual interaction here between economics, mathematical game theory and engineering. The function of the Energy Systems Week was to bring together experts from these areas and I expect to see an ongoing dialogue between them."
Interdisciplinary dialogue is indeed the most important impact of the Energy Systems Week. Participant Sean Meyn from the University of Illinois has presented lectures given at the Energy Systems Week to the New England ISO, who coordinate electricity supply in the north east of the US and have expressed interest in funding further research. Meyn has also joined a team of experts from academia and industry to debate future energy research policy at the US Department of Energy (DOE). "My interaction with researchers at Cambridge during Energy Systems Week has given me a great deal more expertise and credibility to advise the DOE," says Meyn.
Back in the UK, the Energy Systems Week has led to another promising pointer to the future: a successful application to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council for a grant totalling nearly £1 million. The grant has been awarded to Frank Kelly at the University of Cambridge, Phillip Taylor at Durham University and Serguei Foss at Heriot-Watt University and will support joint research at the three institutions into the mathematical foundations of energy networks, focusing on buffering, energy storage and transmission. There have also been initial exploratory discussions with the National Grid.
Such large-scale projects spanning several disciplines require the time and space for experts to interact, and this is what the Isaac Newton Institute can provide. "Everyone who enters the Institute feels suddenly distanced from their day-to-day lives and able to fully engage with others," says Kelly. "The Institute provides a way of getting a critical mass of people together who can then concentrate on the problems in the area."