Dr. Ali Mostashari: Charting the Smart Grid through COMPASS
March 17, 2009
Feature Interview by Tracy Regan, Stevens News Service
When Dr. Ali Mostashari speaks of the ‘smart grid’ that will usher in a new era of efficient energy delivery, what he envisions is far more complex than a sophisticated network of generators and transmission lines.
The social network that links the system’s operators, power producers and energy traders – while ensuring a seamless interface with the grid – is just as critical to its success, argues Mostashari, associate professor of systems engineering in the School of Systems and Enterprises.
And a holistic architecture that captures all of this is yet to be devised.
“The national power grid is 200,000 miles, and the more than 500 entities managing and operating parts of the grid in the different regions must be able to talk to each other,” he notes. “But how do you coordinate this?”
As director of the newly created Center for Complex Adaptive Sociotechnological Systems (COMPASS), this is exactly the sort of intricate network that Mostashari hopes to help fashion. The center brings together researchers from across disciplines – from systems engineering, complex systems analysis, infrastructure systems and mathematics – to design infrastructure that is resilient, sustainable and adaptive, in sectors such as transportation, energy, telecommunications, health care and enterprise systems.
“I wanted to have a real impact on my field, and so we created an interdisciplinary research center that would focus on systems in which complex technological systems are embedded in sometimes more complex societal and institutional systems,’’ said Mostashari.
He joined Stevens just over a year ago following a stint as a strategic advisor to the United Nations Development Programme, where he oversaw and managed the delivery of more than $1.2 billion in annual development projects in sub-Saharan Africa and continues to serve as an organizational strategy consultant.
Based on his research and experiences, he advocates wide participation by diverse stakeholders in designing even the most complex systems.
Before the country makes significant investments in the grid, for example, government, industry and technical experts will have to agree on uniform technology and interconnection standards that ensure the optimal flow of energy throughout the current patchwork system, he says. The technicians designing the system must pay close attention to the needs of people who operate it on a daily basis, as well as plan for possible future changes in energy production and supply, including the growing number of small, on-site generators feeding in their excess power.
“If people with different backgrounds, values and experiences come together, it ends up creating a better technical model,” he says, adding that when stakeholders join the discourse, “it allows them to get a sense of what the system as a whole looks like, while their points of view allow scientists to see the project in a new way, different from a more narrow design perspective.”
Mostashari first assessed this process for his Ph.D. dissertation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he evaluated the results of wide, and in some cases non-technical, input into the design of the controversial Cape Wind energy project – a proposal to install 130 wind turbines in the ocean off Nantucket. He contacted 190 stakeholders and ultimately persuaded 40 of them to come together in a joint modeling session.
“The idea was to let the stakeholders negotiate the system’s design through consensus,” he said, noting that his proposal aroused some suspicions at first. “One of the groups hired a private investigator to look into my background. They thought maybe my parents owned an oil company.”
Unfazed, he developed a methodology, called Stakeholder-Assisted Modeling and Policy Design (SAM-PD), that allows technical and non-technical stakeholders to design different kinds of engineering systems collaboratively. The Cape Wind group succeeded in creating a model that could have addressed the key concerns, such as the visual and environmental impact of the project, if politics had not intervened. In the end, it was abandoned when one of the groups filed a lawsuit to stop the project.
“If a process isn’t collaborative from the start, hostilities and politics will take over,” Mostashari concluded. “And it’s a good idea not to start a major project by filing for permits from federal agencies.”
COMPASS faculty also analyze weaknesses in existing infrastructure and provide strategies for managing potential breakdowns. They have recently examined the resilience of the nation’s energy supply in the event the supply of oil is interrupted, and published a report that offers approaches to improve it. Another project models the region’s response should a hurricane impact Northeastern ports.
As currently designed, these critical nodes in the country’s supply chain function as individual entities, not as a system, and therefore have neither agreements nor provisions for added capacity in the event of a natural disaster or labor strike at other ports.
“There is no effective strategic agreement between the ports of Boston and New York,” Mostashari said. “It’s a mess – a crazy system where everyone has mandates over a piece of the system. This is human-caused complexity.”
COMPASS’s focus is timely, as policy makers, elected officials and taxpayers hotly debate the extent to which the federal government should invest in infrastructure to stimulate the economy, even while the longstanding neglect of basic systems from roads and bridges to health care is widely viewed as a hindrance to future growth.
“More than 40 percent of U.S. infrastructure is in a condition that would get a grade of ‘D.’ We need to rejuvenate it,’’ Mostashari says. “The question is whether we simply repair it, according to 20th-century standards, or whether we take the chance to reshape it and make it responsive to future demand. Do we invest in new renewable technologies and intelligent infrastructure systems and the sorts of things that take us to a different lifestyle, or do we continue in the status quo and hope for the best?”
Striking a balance between autonomous control and human oversight of vital systems continues to be a major design challenge.
“You can see what happens if there is a bug in the system and no human oversight, as in the 2003 blackout. And with ongoing vulnerability to hackers, we have to decide at what level we substitute technology for human oversight and how liable that makes us,” Mostashari says. “We’re so in love with technology that we’re unable to imagine what could happen if it went down.”
As a way of focusing expertise on critical infrastructure and systems, Mostashari is planning an annual event, the Global Conference on Systems & Enterprises, that will bring together top people from government, industry and academia to elaborate problems and offer solutions in areas such as health care systems, global information networks and aerospace and defense.
The first conference, scheduled for this December at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, will look at urban infrastructure from the standpoint of systems analysis and sustainability. Participants will measure, for example, the environmental impacts of highways, including sprawl development. A roundtable of experts at the conference will put together a book to serve as a reference guide for the sector that can be updated with new knowledge.
Mostashari was introduced to what he would call the “non-linear and unpredictable” behavior of complex systems early on, as the child of Iranian academics living through the Islamic revolution. His father, who served as a visiting chemistry professor at Rice University, left his job in the U.S. to support what he thought were democratic reforms only to be purged by the religious authorities who took control of the country.
After living abroad for several years, his family returned to Iran and figured out how to survive in a society that forbids organized dissent but does not stifle its individual expression. Mostashari’s father is allowed to teach doctoral students as an adjunct, but not allowed to teach on a university campus, for example. His basement is now a classroom.
“I am motivated by my experiences in the Middle East to explore how cultures grow and adapt or stagnate – what drives people to behave the way they behave, and ultimately, how a society chooses its path,” he says.