It has been said that revolutions are the locomotives of history. If this is true, then technological revolutions are the engines of progress. And, like all revolutions, they have their consequences. Digitalization and smart grids are essentially a revolution in their own right and their impact was discussed in-depth at the most recent #EnelFocusOn talk in the worldwide series organised by the Enel Group. This seventh outing, which featured a group of influencers from Italy, Spain, Romania, Peru, Colombia and Brazil, was streamed live by over 50,000 people when it took place on 8 March at Goiânia, the capital of Goiás, one of Brazil’s states. The host city was a deliberate choice, as Enel’s Director of Communications Ryan O’Keeffe pointed out when opening the debate – that same evening Goiânia also provided the venue for the launch of the new branding of CELG (Companhia Energetica de Goiás), a Goiás-based electricity company acquired by our Group last year. On 9 March its name was changed to Enel Distribuição Goiás.
The Brazilian #EnelFocusOn event also welcomed a very special guest, academic and techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci. The associate professor at the University of North Carolina and Harvard, and New York Times Contributing Writer is known for her research into the social implications of new technologies such as smart grids and digitalization. “A key theme for the world we live in now and the future we will be living in, which is already much more real than we imagine,” declared O’Keeffe.
From pipeline to platform
The first speaker to address the #EnelFocusOn forum was Livio Gallo, Head of Enel’s Global Infrastructure and Networks, who reminded his audience that the network our Group manages in the countries in which it is present stretches almost six times the distance between the Earth and the Moon. “Using this grid as our starting point, we can imagine a radical transformation of the flow of relations between ourselves and our clients,” he said. “We want to do this in line with the ‘from pipeline to platform’ concept. This means transitioning from a one-way flow in which we generate energy and our customers avail of it passively to a two-way flow in which customers are no longer mere consumers but also produce energy through, for instance, private photovoltaic panels and grid-connected e-cars.”
Livio Gallo also stressed how incredibly rapid change is in this sector and the importance of keeping pace with it: “Our strategic response is the digitalization of every single component of the grids. In Italy, for instance, we are in the process of installing 41 million smart meters and we started doing so in 2001, well ahead of the times. The result is that Italy has the most advanced smart grid in the world. We know that within the next 15 years, 65% of the population will be living in megalopolises. We are creating digital models of the big cities we are present in to ensure we harmonise the development processes of the grid with those of the cities themselves. This will allow users to exchange more information all the time and take an active role in the market that will extract value from relationships with other ecosystems. One example is electric mobility, in which cars are not just a straightforward means of transport that need to be charged but, once connected, also a battery that stabilises the grid and can even become a source of income for their owners.”
“We will continue to implement this strategy with massive investments, perfecting new technologies which we will then gradually apply to the grids to turn them into complex ecosystems capable of boosting cities’ sustainability and cutting energy costs”
Livio Gallo, Director of Enel’s Global Infrastructure and Networks
A new industrial revolution
In her 40-minute address, Zeynep Tufekci reiterated that smart grids bring huge advantages, adding that they promise to be “the equivalent of a second industrial revolution.” But, as was the case with the first one, this may have social impacts that prove difficult to manage. Like everything computer and digital-based, there is a series of ethical dilemmas and implications similar to those resulting from the rapid spread of smartphones, social networks or artificial intelligence. But what are these dilemmas and how can they be solved or at least foreseen while the transition is underway and is it impossible to stop it?
“In certain areas of the world, for example, the electricity grid is a mix of legal and illegal with a lot of people stealing power out of necessity from overhead powerlines,” continued Tufekci. “So how is it possible to transition to smart grids in these cases? Would the people stealing electricity be permanently cut out of the new grid? Or do we need to find a system of subsidies to include them and make them part of the transition process? That’s a political question that only the government or local authorities can answer.”
Tufekci continued: “Smart grids produce an enormous amount of data, so electric utilities essentially become data companies with all the associated privacy problems that entails. Artificial intelligence has the potential to turn that data into information on people’s habits and their behaviour patterns.”
“The next step is, once again, socio-political: can smart grids become instruments of social control, a part of the security apparatus, because they allow you to work out what is happening in cities home by home?”
Zeynep Tufekci, sociologist and new technology expert
Tufekci feels that the real question is what we should do with all this data. Data is vital to managing the grid efficiently and providing users with greater benefits over time, but it is also a huge responsibility. “Whose responsibility is data and how that responsibility should be managed are questions we need to answer fast because the transition is already happening and the future is much closer than we think. Smart grids should make energy more democratic, much in the same way as the internet did with information and knowledge. But, as happened with the web, we need to make sure that this evolution is driven by the key players in a responsible and transparent manner.”
Towards smart clients
“Aside from the fact that current legislation in the countries in which our Group operates allows data to be used only with the written consent of the customer,” said Livio Gallo, echoing Tufekci’s words, “we believe that creating the perfect smart grid, which would be capable of cutting the cost of energy and services and even helping the consumer-producer make money, can become a reality only if the legislation, the market regulations and the customers are all smart too. These aspects all need to evolve at the same pace. To us, educating our clients and making them smart is as important as developing the technology but we don’t necessarily want to be educators. Smart clients are people who know how to use energy intelligently, maybe even thanks to real-time information on their consumption levels which shows which devices they are keeping on unnecessarily.”
This is exactly the type of information that smart grids will soon be capable of providing. The future is coming fast and we have no choice but to tackle it full on, but we need to equip ourselves in order to do so. We need to heed the words of Nelson Mandela, a man who knew a thing or two about change. As he once said, “When the water starts boiling, it is foolish to turn off the heat.”