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The rule of Moore’s Law is rapidly coming to renewables. This “law” — predicting that the processing power of a computer chip doubles ever year while the cost is halved — is coming to the manufacturing process of renewable technology, to the infrastructure built into renewables, and to the systems that drive renewable use.

From an article I wrote for GE Reports, a global publication of General Electric.

From advances in renewables to data-driven efficiencies and empowered consumers, 2016 offers the opportunity to shape the future of energy.

In my view, 2016 will prove to be a watershed year when it comes to sustainable energy. Years from now, we’ll look back and realize that a variety of technological, design and demographic trends drove the power sector forward, accelerated by one key event — the Paris climate accord.

The accord will prove to be a huge motivating factor for both individuals, as well as the industrial and utility sector, to start to think bigger in terms of what can be done with smart energy systems and non-carbon technology.

For the first time, we have a global consciousness that the time is right to try to accomplish something unique — to apply our technological, design, architecture and analytical capabilities to come up with solutions that will help to drive down our reliance on a carbon economy.

It’s happening at two levels. Individuals and small energy cooperatives are leading the charge through small crowdfunded initiatives, or through what has come to be known as the “maker” economy.

In addition, Paris will encourage large utilities to move faster with alternative energy opportunities. They’ll take a closer look at what they can do to help to achieve the bold goals of a cleaner energy future. They’ll be less willing to take criticism over those who might browbeat them over economic models that might sometimes be marginal. But going forward, it won’t just be the financial return on investment that matters — but the social return as well.

Here are a few predictions for the energy sector in 2016 and beyond:

The most promising breakthrough in renewable power will likely be a massive amount of innovation throughout every aspect of the sector. This is coming about because of our ability to apply more connectivity and computer intelligence to every single aspect of renewables — whether it’s generation, transmission, or deep analytics into the efficiency of operations.

Essentially, what I think is happening is that the rule of Moore’s Law is rapidly coming to renewables. This “law” — predicting that the processing power of a computer chip doubles ever year while the cost is halved — is coming to the manufacturing process of renewable technology, to the infrastructure built into renewables, and to the systems that drive renewable use.

It’s almost as if it’s 1981, when arrival of the personal computer caught the imagination of thousands of hackers and developers — and the rest is history. I think we are at the same tipping point with renewables, particularly small-scale energy generation.

Some of the most fascinating innovations are occurring in the global “maker” and crowdfunding initiatives. People interested in solar development are building small communities in which shared insight is accelerating the pace of pure science. This globally connected mind is turning itself toward solving some unique challenges in the world of energy and renewables.

Big Data will enable the power sector to add far more intelligence to the grid, and to have far better insight into operational conditions. Most of the grid today is pretty dumb — it’s built for one-way transmission, from big energy production facilities out to homes and industries. But there is a tremendous amount of investment in creating a two-way, intelligent and interactive grid. This changes everything, allowing us to more easily accommodate and utilize the energy production occurring in a more distributed world.

In homes across the world, the Internet of Things will enable energy consumers to build their own micro-climate monitoring systems, and better manage their personal energy infrastructure usage.

Consider this: it’s entirely feasible today for someone with just a little bit of technical knowledge to build their own local micro-climate weather monitoring system. Now imagine that you can link it to your intelligent home energy thermostat, one of the fastest-growing home-based IoT categories. Go a step further — add some solar, wind or biomass energy-generation capability — and link your own personal Big Data to that technology, in order to come up with the most optimal time to generate your own power.

Expand that to what’s possible in the industrial sector. Global companies with large-scale facilities now have the ability to monitor and manage all their energy infrastructure worldwide from one central data viewpoint. They can see what it necessary to reduce usage, avoid cost and be more intelligent about how energy is deployed.

I’m a big believer that we are on the edge of “real magic” when it comes to the future of energy and utilities. It’s not just the trends above; it’s the fact that we have new solutions that didn’t exist before — such as intelligent lighting technology that is so advanced that it is hard to put the efficiency it provides into perspective.

From my view, the future of energy is all about opportunity.

Trend: The Future of Energy
April 11th, 2012

I’ve recently been the opening keynote speaker for two major energy events, with talks that focused on the future trends that will impact the energy industry, primarily from the perspective of energy utilities.

The first was for Accenture’s International Utilities and Energy Conference held in San Francisco, with a global audience from over 35 countries. My keynote was translated in real time into Russian and Chinese — that’s how diverse the audience was.

The second was for Enercom 2012, Canada’s leading energy conference held in Toronto, which featured a similar senior level audience from across Canada.

Both keynotes took a look at some of the key trends which will provide accelerating opportunity to provide for a more efficient energy grid, more rapid adoption of alternative energy sources, and respond to changing energy consumer profiles, among other trends.

One of my key messages? Opportunities for innovation are increasing because of a rapid acceleration in the velocity of knowledge.

So what are some of the issues I focused upon? I framed both talks in terms of the insight I’ve developed into “what world class innovators do that others don’t do.” Here are just a few of my key points:

1. World class innovators keep the goal in sight despite pushback

To a degree, it’s a bit tough to keep an innovative spirit in the utility industry today, as a number of trends seem to work against the need for continuous new thinking:

  • in many areas of the world, there is a massive pushback on solar / wind / alternative energy sources by the public, for a variety of reasons (which some might conclude is driven by an overstimulated by “Internet-fact” driven NIMBYism)
  • political turmoil over the incentive structure around alternative energy projects
  • well publicized major failures around the same (call it The Solyndra Effect)
  • growing public and government skepticism over the pace of change

Consider the latter point. In some areas of the US, there is significant pushback against the implementation of smart meter technology — 47 cities and counties have adopted resolutions opposing smart meters for various reasons. At the other extreme, there are some areas where people are impatient with the pace of adoption of alternative technologies. In Boulder Colorado,  there is a citizen inspired initiative to take over local power generation because of a belief that Xcel Energy is not moving fast enough with green and smart energy tech!

How can you win in an environment in which there are such dramatically different views? Keep focused on the goal! The International Energy Authority suggests that energy demand will grow worldwide by 35% between 2010 and 2035; in the US, by 22% alone. Globally, Shell suggests energy demand will grow 60% in developed countries by 2040.

Clearly there has to be a continued effort to focus on the need to continue to develop and implement alternative energy sources. There is a need for continual, relentless innovation!

 2. World class innovators aren’t afraid of thinking boldly

We live in a period of time that involves massive, sweeping transformations, and thinking longer term is always critical. I pointed out that Exxon Mobil believes that one out of every two cars will be either hybrids or some other alternative-fuel vehicle by 2040 – up from just 1% today. Clearly there is going to be a lot of innovation with the energy grid and everything that helps to generate power around in order to keep up with such a massive shift.

Big ideas lead to big opportunities – I spoke about the Gemasolar plant outside Villanueva del Ray in southern Spain — the world’s first  24 hour solar power plant. It involves a unique molton-salt heat storage system that solves one of the key problems with alternative energy : how to storage generated power so that it can be used at off peak periods. The slide from my deck tells it all: this was a big, bold project.

3. World class innovators ride rapidly accelerating science

That’s what the video clip above was from. In Canada, the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of Waterlook recently brought together a group of experts touching on every aspect of the energy industry. They issued the The Equinox Blueprint, with one of the key points being that we are going to see “.….extremely rapid advances in battery storage, enhanced geothermal, advanced nuclear, off-grid power and smart urbanization….

The MIT project I refer to in the video clip above? It involves “…organic photovoltaics … solar cells which are sprayed or painted onto surfaces.”

Cool stuff!

4. World class innovators ride generational acceleration

There are huge opportunities to drive efficiency in the global energy grid by shifting demand — the oft-cited example being if consumers use their dishwashers during off-peak hours when demand is lower and generation costs are reduced, we have a smarter system.

The challenge is that efforts to encourage this type of activity through smart meters has not met with great acceptance. But I pointed out that is simply a transitional issue, as the current generation of iPhone-weaned Gen-Connect individuals comes to buy their own homes — and bring their different technology-based lifestyle to the energy grid.

I pointed out that we are quickly going to witness four key trends come together:

  • energy costs continue to increase, continuing to drive the need for consumers to change their energy usage behaviour
  • system connectivity accelerates in the global energy grid, particularly with the consumerization of energy technology, as witnessed by the Nest LearningThermostat
  • the current “App generation” buys houses and installs such devices
  • and the incentive structure around power consumption matures with this generation

Think about it: this is the XBOX generation! They’ve grown up in a world of instant rewards for activity. In Call of Duty, you get a series of continual rewards based on actions. The same type of thing will happen with power consumption — if you use the technology that surrounds your personal energy infrastructure, you’ll get a cost reduction.

This generation will take advantage of Nest thermostats to a huge degree. They’re daily activities with simple activties such as dishwashers and dryers is changing :

  • Imagine your washing machine sending you a text when it’s time to move your clothes to the dryer…” Connect Home Appliances, PC Magazine

Smart appliances are emerging faster than ever before as Moore’s law comes to the industry:

  • Whirlpool recently announced it will be producing 1 million smart-grid compatible clothes dryers by the of 2011” Total home control. Residential Design & Build

These are appliances which are linked to the intelligence in the smart-grid, and which will automatically schedule themselves to run when rates are lowest, according to a defined set of consumer preferences.

In other words, consumer behaviour and interaction with the rapid emergence of smart grid technology is going to accelerate faster opportunities for efficiency in the grid.

The key message for global energy utilities? The future belongs to those who are fast!

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