DISTRIBUTECH keynote: Big Data is not about us, it is us

Photo by Liz Erban.

There’s no doubt that technology is taking us places we’ve never been before.

Sensors, robots, machine learning, artificial intelligence, surveillance-all of this and more has given power grid operators greater technical visibility into their systems and beyond.

But they must never lose sight of the humanity at the center of it all.

Such was basically the theme of keynotes Tuesday kicking off DISTRIBUTECH International at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio. Speakers included Tom Deitrich, CEO of Itron; Paula Gold-Williams, CEO of host utility CPS Energy; and futurist Sophie Hackford.

Grid-connected devices number in the billions, whether it’s in use by a utility or a personal consumer. They predict problems, surveil and sometimes even surprise and always overwhelm us with the amount of data they collect.

And therein lies the problem.

“Our homes are becoming machines, data centers,” said Hackford, co-founder of 1715 Labs at Oxford University. “Now we ask the wiretap how to order a pizza.”

Alexa could not deny this. The world is full of sensors, drones, satellite, predictive and ever analyzing data, with a steely gaze on both the macro and the micro.

Sophie Hackford

“Big data is not about us; it is us,” Hackford pointed out, adding that we must be careful. “I think we can choose technology that is useful to us. . . We need to bring poetry and humanity to technology.”

Gold-Williams (pictured), a San Antonio native who now leads CPS Energy, believes in the power of the personal. CPS Energy has 1.9 million customers within the service territory of the nation’s seventh biggest city, yet she stressed the importance of the individual in how utilities guide their efforts.

“In the past all you heard about was “Ëœratepayers,'” she said. “You got to pay attention to customers. They look for value and quality every single day.”

CPS Energy is looking for ways to serve them that is both environmentally sound and yet reliable as a constant form of power. The utility plans to increase its use of solar power in the future, but will maintain a relatively balance portfolio including gas, nuclear and even some coal.

“We want meaningful amounts of solar. We want storage and firming capacity,” Gold-Williams said. “That’s where I think the creativity will come in: something to firm up solar.”

Tom Deitrich

Itron CEO Deitrich listed five predictions for the future that will impact the power grid. These include an increase in natural disasters, the exponential proliferation of electric vehicles, increases in the diversity of the energy mix, the growing role of utilities in cultivating smart cities and the transformation of energy via distributed intelligence.

This last part puts vast amounts of computing power at the edge of the grid, closer to the customer. And these newer customers are living in the customized word of the “Uber effect” and will hold utilities to the same standards.

“That level of expectation with the consumer-it is our world,” Deitrich said.

Itron is a diamond sponsor of DISTRIBUTECH.

DISTRIBUTECH International continues Tuesday through Thursday with more than 100 content sessions featuring dozens of utility case studies on data, digitalization, cybersecurity, smart cities, renewables, grid integration and more.

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(Rod Walton is content director for Power Engineering, POWERGEN International and the online POWERGEN+ series. He is a 13-year veteran of covering the energy industry both as a longtime newspaper journalist and trade publication editor. Walton can be reached at 918-831-9177 and rod.walton@clarionevents.com).

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