Navigant Research Blog

Are We Approaching the Energy Singularity? Point

Mackinnon Lawrence — June 27, 2016

CodeElon Musk, doing his best Elon Musk, offered the provocative statement recently at the Code Conference that our existence is actually just a simulation being run by a highly advanced civilization. While a fringe theory, behind the statement is actually a rich vein of academic and philosophical thinking suggesting that we are approaching a point in human history at which the innovation that will occur in the next 5 minutes will outpace everything invented in the last 5 million years. Futurists like Ray Kurzweil describe this point in human history as the singularity.

The energy industry is no exception to this phenomenon. With the pace and scale of innovation accelerating across the energy landscape, grid 2.0 will be unrecognizable from the one we know today. More importantly, the inevitability of significant industry transformation is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore (see my colleague Jan Vrins’ Industry Megatrends blog series), begging the question whether we are approaching an energy singularity. This post suggests we are very likely catapulting toward such an event. In a companion post, my colleague Neil Strother argues a more skeptical approach.

The Energy Cloud and the Energy Singularity

As the end result of rapid innovation, much of which lies beyond our immediate purview, the Energy Cloud describes the confluence of many concurrent disruptions wreaking havoc on conventional ways of doing business. The full realization of the Energy Cloud’s potential as a highly networked grid ecosystem would only be accelerated by such an event.

The future grid will be cleaner, more distributed, and increasingly intelligent. These trends are expected to penetrate all corners of the industry: customers, regulation and policy, technology, business models, and grid operations. These advances will come in fits and starts and evolve differently in accordance with on-the-ground realities across various markets. That being said, the propensity for innovation and change is undeniable; the prolific (and sudden) rise of distributed energy resources (DER) server as a reminder of the destabilizing impact of innovation.

We cannot predict or anticipate all the disruptions that will be triggered by emerging technologies within the Energy Cloud and beyond. However, if you start with a potential endpoint—an autonomous, self-healing, and artificially intelligent grid emerging within the next several decades—we can begin to understand the far-reaching implications of the energy singularity.

The Neural Grid

While today’s grid is a highly transformative machine that has done a fine job powering innovation across the global economy, the crank of history has come full circle as a perfect storm of significant technological leaps that are beginning to take root and transform the industry in dramatic ways.

There is an inevitability to innovation that cannot be ignored. Consider that it was just 2013 when the Edison Electric Institute predicted in its oft-cited Disruptive Challenges paper that DER adoption, fueled by economic trends and policy, would likely cause a disruption of the utility industry, even suggesting the traditional utility could go the way of Kodak, the U.S. Postal Service, or telephone companies if they failed to adapt. Just last year, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz noted that we are in the [energy] revolution today.

Fast forward to 2016, and the World Economic Forum is predicting that we are in the throes of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, in which the pace, scale, and impact of innovation will rapidly outpace anything we’ve seen in the past. The Fourth Industrial Revolution suggests that human intervention across the grid as we know it today will be mostly a relic of the past. It’s not far-fetched, for example, to consider Siri, Alexa, and Viv as the primary customer contact points for utilities behind the meter. Taking this a step further, a “conscious” grid could obviate the need for regulators or system operators altogether.

With artificial intelligence attracting $17 billion in investments since 2009 (and $2 billion in 2015 alone), machine learning innovation is on the march. Increasingly, this development is going open-source, which is the equivalent of putting innovation on steroids.

  • DARPA sponsored a driverless car challenge in 2004 that resulted in the winning car traveling 7.2 miles. In 2007, the winning entry went 60 miles driving under city conditions. Fast forward to 2015, where you have individuals building self-driving cars in their own garage.
  • Google’s self-driving car logged 1.5 million driving miles in 6 years; Tesla’s autopilot feature has logged 47 million miles in 6 months.
  • Google search processes 12.1 billion queries per day; each provides multiple data points to help understand what makes us human.

If you take these trends to their logical conclusion, grid learning could propel us toward an energy singularity event within the next several decades. Such an event would mark the dawn of the neural grid, with the potential to be far more transformative to human civilization than the dawn of the light bulb.

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