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Utility Customers of the Future Will Need a Lot More Energy. Like a Lot, Lot More.

Created 6/1/2018 by Denis DuBois
Updated 11/13/2018 by Denis DuBois
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At Efficiency Exchange 18, Steve Brown, “the Bald Futurist,” told us about some amazing possibilities for future technologies and how they will affect the energy industry.

Computers keep getting smaller and cheaper. Everything in our lives is becoming smart and connected. We are just scratching the surface of how technology will change our lives in the next 10 to 15 years, Steve Brown told an audience of energy utility representatives.

Mr. Brown is a futurist who helps large companies and industry organizations understand trends so they can plan for where the world is going. He gave a keynote address at the 2018 Efficiency Exchange conference hosted by the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance and Bonneville Power Administration.

Six technologies will shape the near future for every industry, including energy utilities, Mr. Brown said, and “each technology is about building more bridges between the physical world that we inhabit and the digital world where technology is constantly advancing.”

The big six technologies of the future

In his 15 years at Intel, Steve Brown, an engineer by training, worked at the forefront of digital computing, so he knows about technology. He also worked for a cultural anthropologist at Intel, so he understands how people think about and react to change. And he worked on early Energy Star standards for PCs.

Artificial intelligence tops his list of the big six technologies of the future.

“Artificial intelligence is a big, big deal,” Mr. Brown said. “AI is a completely different type of computing than the digital computing we use today. You program AI computers by training them and showing them data.” AI enables the digital world to learn and imagine.

I caught up with Mr. Brown after his talk and asked him how he would prioritize these six technologies. Is there one we should be paying the most attention to? “If I had to pick just one, it would be AI,” he told me. “If we thought the last 40 years was amazing, in the next 10 years we are likely to see more change in our lives than in the last 40 because of AI’s capabilities. The energy industry should be paying attention to it.”

“You can think of AI as the second coming of computing,” he said in his keynote address, “one that is able to solve a completely different kind of problems.” Self-driving cars would not be possible without AI.

The internet of things is giving the world a nervous system by implanting sensors everywhere. You’re already carrying 8 or 9 sensor that are built into the phone in your pocket. Mr. Brown said there will be around 100 trillion sensors in the world by 2030, telling digital systems what’s happening in their and our physical environment.

“With IoT you can create control loops, where I sense something in the physical world and use that to make a decision and act on it in the digital world,” Mr. Brown told me later. “If I can use AI and sensors to look for patterns in the way people use energy, I have more of an ability to optimize the usage of that energy.”

He said several companies are starting to use AI to look for patterns in people’s usage of energy and coach consumers on how to use less. One IoT example in his presentation was a wallet that becomes harder to open when the owner’s bank balance is low.

In an audience of 400 energy efficiency experts, I wasn’t the only one wondering how we could make a switch harder to turn on when electricity is more expensive.

Autonomous machines are AI inside of robots. Mainstream robots today can’t understand much about the world around them, but with AI they will be able to safely interact with humans in more meaningful ways. Autonomous machines enable the digital world to act.

Blockchain is the technology underlying crypto currencies. “I prefer to think of blockchain as a new platform upon which people will create incredible new value,” Mr. Brown said, “and crypto currency is one of the tricks that make blockchain work.”

Mr. Brown described blockchain as a fancy database, distributed across many computers, with no central owner, and all the data is stored with military-grade encryption. “Blockchain allows us to create decentralized applications, like a social media platform without one central company in control of it.”

Blockchain also enables distributed open-source development of applications as well as shared ownership in small portions of projects. Think community solar, with many owners of small shares coming together to make the project a reality.

If you’re tired of your mobile phone’s slow and intermittent internet connection, hang on, Mr. Brown said, 5G is coming. “The Internet of things will need a constant connection and low latency,” he said. “5G networks don’t just make data go faster, they make connections more reliable.”

One technology that will need 5G’s always-on broadband is augmented reality.

(Photo D DuBois for Energy Priorities)Augmented reality takes digital content and overlays it on the physical world,” Mr. Brown said. “Essentially the world becomes your display.” He showed a short video illustrating some of the many possibilities for augmented reality, which goes far beyond virtual reality in its capabilities.

How the big six technologies combine to shape the future

Mr. Brown gave some examples of how these six technologies will come together to change the world we live in a decade or more from now.

“Cobots” are robots that will work alongside humans. These AI coworkers will be able to train people on the job, perform quality assurance in manufacturing, and alert equipment owners to upcoming maintenance needs.

AI-enabled autonomous cars will become a shared resource. “We are about to make a major leap in transportation,” Mr. Brown said. We won’t need nearly as many cars, but they will all be electric. Makers and nations are committed to zero emissions vehicles. Uber is experimenting with air taxis.

“Things are going to flip quite quickly, and that’s going to mean people want a lot more electricity.” Electric vehicles and blockchain, among other upcoming technologies, consume enormous amounts of energy. But these trends portend some good news for renewables: more storage.

Electric cars are a giant battery, Mr. Brown said. “Utilities could get into the car fleet business. Why let Uber do that? EVs could become grid level storage.”

What about all that data privacy and cybersecurity stuff?

I asked Mr. Brown about privacy and security, given the challenges we already have without these new technologies.

Steve Brown“Privacy matters, and security matters more,” he told me. “People are willing to give up privacy so that companies can gather the data they need to better serve their customers. Make it opt in. Promise security. Explain the benefits and be transparent.”

In his keynote speech, Mr. Brown said that regulation is one tool for keeping up with these technological advances – and keeping them out of manipulative hands – “but fundamentally we need to have a cultural conversation about how we embrace technology,” he told the audience.

“I deputize you as deputy futurists to go have this conversation about the world we want to build and the world we want to avoid. Conversation before regulation.”

“You have a very bright future,” Mr. Brown said in closing. “Your customers are going to go through rapid changes, and so are you.”

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Comments (2)
Lars Henrikson on 06/14/18 on 10:14 AM (Pacific Time)
I was surprised by Mr. Brown's failure to recognize that a lot of the new electricity needs he's forecasting are going to be met with the inherent efficiencies involved in electrification. 

Changing from petroleum powered transportation to electric, doesn't mean a 1 to 1 load shift.  internal engines are typically 20% efficient at best, moving to more streamlined vehicles with electric propulsion means 400 - 500% improvement in efficiency.   Changing from a 80 or 90% efficient gas furnace to a 300% efficient heat pump or a 65% efficient oil furnace to a heat pump has a similar efficiency gain. 

Moving the ~30% of US energy use that's currently powered by petroleum fuels to electric mean that we're really looking at changing that 30% to  ~8-10%.  Granted that's still a big number -- it might represent as much as 25 - 30% of current electricity delivered, or about as much as middle-of-the-road estimates for what we'll save through new electric end-use efficiencies over the next 25 years. 

Will they find a more energy efficient way to deal with block-chain computing?  Count on it; computers have been getting more energy efficient every year and that's not likely to change for a while.  

Taking a slightly bigger perspective means his forecasts for dramatic increases in load quickly become much less impressive.  Something to keep an eye on and plan for, yes.  An opportunity for new services and DSM integration, yes.  Something that's going to drive a need for large increases in power production and increases in wholesale power prices, don't count on it.
Carol Lindstrom on 06/15/18 on 07:01 AM (Pacific Time)

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