Dream in Digital >> A Human’s Journey to ETS18

Dream in Digital >> A Human’s Journey to ETS18

Friday afternoon I meandered through the airflow of wind turbines. Streaming blue and yellow clouds surrounded me as I walked up to the turbine. Going in for a closer look, I—watch out for the screen! The NREL folks reminded me to not smash my face and 3D glasses into an expensive-looking screen now mere inches from me.

I was walking through a 3D visualization of wind turbine data at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado. As I emerged from the digital haze, I thought about the journey we’re embarking on for ETS18, Zpryme’s annual event in Austin, Texas. This year, we’re exploring the theme: Dream in Digital.

We often talk about digitalization on a grand scale, but the digital dream isn’t just something happening to energy or cities, but something happening to every one of us on a personal level. ETS18 will explore the human journey to make the world digital, and we’ll have plenty of time to dive into augmented reality, intelligence at the grid’s edge and the regulatory aspects of digitalization. To kick things off, however, I wanted to share a few musings, as a human, as we dive into the digital dream.

Vision versus reality >> The complexity of truly realizing digitalization

As I thought about the rise of digital for this article, it reminded me of Game of Thrones.

<<< WARNING! Mild Game of Thrones spoilers ahead >>>

I’ve spent the past several years watching and waiting for this whole Winter is Coming thing. The show characters keep talking about it, but just now going into the last season we’re seeing that White Walkers—essentially frozen zombies—are FINALLY crossing over from the frozen abyss north of The Wall into the real world of Westeros. Winter is here, well, pretty much.

I equate the coming of Winter to the coming of digitalization. There is so much talk about digitalization—I’ve been covering it for over a decade—but it still really isn’t here yet. Yes, there is much progress that’s been made, but how I visualize digitalization—an earth blanketed with seamless sensors and communications along with decentralized, decarbonized energy—is not here yet. The sensors, the data, are spilling over The Wall heading toward us, but when will it feel like it’s really happening? Will we be overwhelmed? Will we embrace it?

However, as the Game of Thrones folks get a better idea of what Winter means, the vision of the digitalization becomes increasingly blurry for me. Way back in the year 2005, the vision was as simple as putting in AMI meters, and now there are so many new factors coming into play. New devices, new energy providers, new regulatory structures—what isn’t involved? It makes me think of Empires of Light, the book we read last month for Zpryme’s book club. As Edison, Westinghouse and Tesla raced to electrify the world, there wasn’t a clear-cut vision of what the grid would look like during its creation. Would it look like Edison’s DC microgrids? Or Westinghouse’s long-distance AC vision?

Like when the electric grid came into being, we’re in the midst of a transformation now. Things that will seem obvious 20 years from now when we look back on this time, are things we can’t necessarily envision or understand now. How long the change will really take…think about the complexity of realizing this vision: the millions and millions of sensors and generation sources, the regulatory structure that must change, the business model transformation that will take place, and the billions of lives that will be affected. What will the end state of digitalization look like? The answer to this question isn’t here yet for me.

The blurring of people and technology in everyday life

Sunday, I spent the afternoon surrounded by card catalogs, microfilm, and those wonderfully cumbersome microfilm readers. (I was researching the Gentleman Bandit, a bank robber who lived in our Denver neighborhood in the 1980s, for our local newsletter.) What used to be commonplace tools during my schooling now feel so nostalgic.

My local history research always reminds me how digital technology has transformed my brain. Sorting through the card catalog, I started thinking, “How did someone categorize the Gentleman Bandit? By the term, bank robber? By his name, Melvin Dellinger? By Gentleman Bandit? By the bank(s) he robbed? Man, where’s the search function?” Scrolling through endless microfilm, you look at the dates on the grainy film to see where you are in the roll. I’m always great at blowing two days past the newspaper date I’m really looking for, or accidentally rewinding the whole roll of film. There’s no way to automatically jump to the right page? Sigh.

Search functions are now seared into my brain. The ability to zoom, or copy and paste text from an image seem like birthrights now. Going deep within the recesses of Denver’s main library is a simple example of how much technology influences our thought processes. Technology gets further and further engrained in our thinking, and how we perceive the world. What will this continued digitalization mean for people and how they behave going forward?

Will the digitalization of the energy—and the world more broadly—be utopian or dystopian?

I tend to be a technology optimist. Technology brings along a lot of great things—from peach pie recipes with 5,000 people who have already taste-tested it to ordering paper towels without ever leaving your home. But there is a darker side to all of this, cybersecurity issues, the loss of control over our own worlds, or dystopian sci-fi movies coming to life as we learned about at ETS15. There was always be good and bad to everything, but will the digitalization of energy—and the world—be brighter or darker than we expect? How do we measure that? And what do people mean in the digital world? How will we shape it? And how will it shape us?

There are a lot of big questions both for the industries we work in, as well as us as humans. Fortunately, ETS18 will come sooner than the next season of Game of Thrones (groan). We won’t have to wait for answers to our biggest questions, or at least better questions to ask about where we’re headed next and how to get there.

– H. Christine Richards Zpryme Community Researcher, Community Builder



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