Episode 10: The Making of a Megatrend – New Technologies, Artificial Intelligence, and the Delayed Arrival of the Future

Reading news headlines, I can’t decide if I am living in an episode of The Jetsons, Star Trek, or a prequel to The Terminator. What’s clear is that we are in the midst of significant technological leaps; leaps that will come with both great promise and cascading consequences.

As discussed in prior episodes, The Prologue is an exploration and analysis of the drivers that form the alternative energy megatrend. The advances of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and artificial intelligence give the alternative energy megatrend momentum and ensure its longevity. However, despite advances, there is a relative impatience with the alternative energy phenomenon prompted by expectations of greater technological advancements. This urgency will not go away, as the heightened anticipation of technological advances today is creating a persistent sense that alternative energy developments have lagged behind their rightful position. The intensity and urgency that underpin support for renewables reinforce this impatience with the seeming postponement of the promised energy future, creating societal pressure that suggests, and sometimes dictates, the actions of policymakers.

At the height of the Industrial Revolution, technological progress and thirst for innovation inspired imagination and vision of the likes of Jules Verne. Similarly, alternative energy’s potential has captured modern-day public imagination. That said, counter to Alvin Toffler’s view of technological advancements as a development that exceeds societal expectations, the alternative energy megatrend does not represent a “premature arrival of the future.” Rather, the anticipation of the delayed arrival of alternative energy’s future is actually making this future more assured by fostering a certain level of “preparedness” for progress.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution’s exponential changes impact our physical and digital worlds and create fundamental shifts in the industrial paradigm. It encompasses ultra-automatized production, and the growing role of robotics and artificial intelligence in economics, business, politics, management, and private life.

Massive AI advancements are propelling the “Internet of Things,” the network of interconnected devices embedded in everyday objects that share data, as well as smart devices, sensors, and industrial equipment that use mobile networks. 5G mobile communications hold together many of the technological innovations that will define the world in the decade to come. It will provide services across all key disruptive technologies, including alternative energy technologies. The ability to control and access these technologies is playing a critical role in the Great Power Competition.

Unlocking the full potential of today’s alternative energy technologies largely rests on energy storage solutions and advancement in the digital grid. An energy storage revolution will have tremendous implications across the electricity value chain because energy storage can replace peaking plants, alter future transmission and distribution investments, restructure power markets, and help digitize the electricity ecosystem. Technological advances in the energy grid such as visibility at the grid edge; integration of sensors and data analytics for distributed generation; smart contracts for energy management; flexible demand; and intelligent control systems will also propel the alternative energy megatrend. However, as the people of Texas know, we’re not there yet.

The forces unleashed by the Fourth Industrial Revolution and its unaddressed impacts on inequality, energy security, economic security, and defense reinforce the need to find a way to govern the new technological world order. The question of how it will be governed and how the Grand Energy Game will unfold remains elusive and current political trends towards nationalism, protectionism, and zero-sum relations do not bode well for its impacts on global security.

Finally, renewables are entrenched in the positive connotations of the very “idea of progress” since they are viewed as one of the precursors of the next technological breakthrough. Advances in alternative energy developments are labeled as “progressive” and “beneficial,” regardless of whether they are embraced by broader society. These, and other “ethical imperatives” will be discussed in Episode 12 – so stay tuned.