Robots Become the Customer of the Future for Utilities

Build the Grid for Robots – Your New Customer!

By: Eamonn McCormick, Chief Architect, Energy Blockchain Consortium, LLC and Stuart McCafferty, Managing Director, Black & Veatch Management Consulting

The energy industry is about to be reshaped by a new robotic customer. Look around! The robots are coming and they are here to stay.

The growth in robotics and artificial intelligence is quickly finding its way into everyday life. From consumer products to transportation to how we are targeted for advertisements, AI and robots are becoming commonplace. The automobile industry is racing towards autonomous robotic decision-making and control of driving and maintenance responsibilities that had previously been human roles.  There’s no denying self-driving cars are not only coming — they’re coming fast. Robot cars can (or soon will) park themselves, come pick you up, drive you where you need to go, and even take themselves to the repair shop when they need a checkup.   It won’t be long before the Jetson’s is a reality where cars drive us to work and Rosie the Robot cooks, cleans, and manages our electricity needs for us!

The utility industry is facing a similar future where autonomous, intelligent “robots” are key actors in the ecosystem.  The grid will serve robot consumers controlled by artificial intelligence which will autonomously operate electrical and electromechanical systems that consume and produce power.  This new future is profoundly different from the past one-way system of electricity delivery to human consumers followed by a monthly bill based on usage.  The entire delivery system, markets, and how/when end users are billed is likely to change.

Imagine a world where the electric power system serves businesses and homes (and the grid itself) with intelligent, electromechanical systems that consume and produce power based on supply and demand, creating increasingly efficient and optimized energy distribution.  This is happening faster than you think.  Technology leaders like Amazon (Alexa), Apple (Home Pod), and Google (Google Home) are creating consumer platforms that can be extended to interoperate with the enormous array of home automation devices that are now available. In fact, according to Dave Limp, Senior VP of Amazon Devices, Amazon currently has more than 10,000 employees working on its Alexa virtual assistant and Echo devices.  He further claims that Amazon has sold approximately 47M of these virtual assistant devices since 2014.

Texting human customers that there will be a peak power event tomorrow and reminding them to turn their thermostat down at 1 PM by three degrees is a losing strategy for utilities.  Sending this same information to a robot would have a different and predictable result.

Robots will provide a new level of control for electrical usage and spend. It will also be able to determine what type of power is purchased by the consumer. While humans may set general policy rules, like a preference for clean energy or a focus on availability at certain times, it is the robots themselves that will directly interact with the “energy cloud” to procure and deliver energy services to and from the grid.  Let’s face it, robots are frankly going to be bored most of the time – just waiting for some policy or command message to give them something to do!

As an industry, we have spent more than a hundred years building an energy ecosystem based on the assumption that human beings were our customers and that the customer’s load was “dumb”. The traditional view of the electricity consumer was that the human customer controlled the thermostat, the human operator operated the machinery etc. However, the future for the energy industry will be vastly different than today. Artificial intelligence, in whatever form and wherever it may live, will be a very integral part of the day-to-day, second-to-second management of electricity supply, demand, delivery, and efficiency.

The biggest shift for the industry will be that the front-line consumer will be robots. It is still true of course, that the robots will act as an agent on behalf of their human consumer, but essentially will become the new customer to the electric utility. The robot’s job will be to optimize the human’s needs based on acquired learnings and eventually reduce or nearly eliminate the human’s need to directly interact with their power provider. Energy sustainability, efficiency, cost and convenience will be part of our robot’s mandates, they will abstract humans from the behind-the-scenes “internet of energy”. Robots will control electricity usage and spend, as well as when and what type of power they buy.

Black & Veatch Management Consulting President, John Chevrette, shared this great perspective.

“The convergence of IT and OT in the electric power industry will require fundamentally different systems, devices, and communications interoperability.  The centralized command and control structure of the past century are rapidly approaching their end.  The future reality is 21st century IoT technologies that include big data, cloud-based systems, cyber security, and artificial intelligence (among others) in highly distributed systems of systems.  The system intelligence and new market opportunities will transform the grid to an efficient, transparent, DER-rich, clean energy paradigm.”

Central to this transition will be how we implement artificial intelligence and robotics into grid transformation. For all intents and purposes, the future customers of the energy industry will be robots and they will be far more complex than they are today.

The robots are coming.  And, we should be designing and building our electric power grid and markets for them – not just human beings.

“Hey, Alexa! Minimize my electricity bill.”

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