New Energy Partners and New Ways of Looking at Things at SxSW Eco

You may have heard that Austin is a creative, quirky city, with mottos like “Keep Austin Weird”, “Live Music Capitol of the World”, or “What Happens Here Changes the World”. You may also know Austin is the home of South By Southwest (SxSW), the global confab around interactive, music and film where 40,000 people annually gather to share innovation (Twitter was announced at SxSW), discuss trends and explore boundaries (Edward Snowden was a Keynote the year Wikileaks blew up) and engage in a sort-of knowledge exchange economy (The epic parties and panels are where the action happens). AndrewJohnstonHeadshot_lowres

In typical Austin fashion, four years ago, a young volunteer for SxSW, Chris Sonnier, suggested that SxSW stretch its legs and start solving the worlds’ problems too. Sonnier and SxSW went on to create that very idea, and the result was SxSW Eco – an event dedicated to that same vibe of creative spark and knowledge exchange, oriented around the data, design and economics of sustainable solutions.

Last week, 1,785 people met for the 3rd Annual SxSW Eco - A mix of idealists, practitioners, entrepreneurs and industry, government across everything from Biomimicry to Food System Resilience to Internet of Things. That’s where we came in. Energy Thought Summit curated the Utility and Energy Track this year. We were eager to bring our fast growing community of energy experts into this mix of ideas, because the convergences, transformations and emergences happening across our ecosystem are dizzying and the pace of change is dramatic.

From three days of listening, I came away with four action items to explore further. I’ll preface by saying I listen for signals, or nuggets of wisdom, that presage how that mix of great minds, institutions and doers can collaborate around the relentless possibilities posed by new technology across the energy and infrastructure spectrums:

  1. “Silicon is Replacing Carbon on the Grid”: That’s a quote from Global Energy Director at Intel, Michael Bates, from our Panel, “Drivers of the Next Grid”. The idea essentially, is that a connected grid equates to an energy-efficient grid. Advances in operational efficiency are enabled by silicon and advances in new technology. All this connectivity and resulting governance and accounting for the performance of the grid, makes healing the grid, and reducing congestion. That means billions of tons of CO2 not being released from dirty generation. WOW, now that is a myriad thought. Intel is growing into an essential voice on future-readiness on energy and critical infrastructure, and that’s why more than 90 percent of utilities operate on Intel systems.
  2. “How Do We Get to Realizing an IOT Platform? Digitalization of the Grid”: We are anticipating over 20 billion connected devices operating by 2030. At the same time, in the bigger picture, our ecosystem relies on legacy systems and partners. As the utility industry undergoes chaotic evolution we’re realizing the value of trusted partnerships and how they enable this massive shift into accounting for every electron, and every system interchange on the grid, all the way down to every customer facing solution. Collaboration is key, but often overlooked.
  3. “Humans are the Most Important Component of the Grid”: That’s a quote from Michael Legatt, Principal Human Factors Engineer at ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas). ERCOT has a huge challenge of integrating huge loads of generation from coal, natural gas, nuclear (combined roughly 85 percent of grid load in Texas), with new loads of renewables and distributed energy resources, such as intermittent energy storage, rooftop solar and electric vehicle charging stations. So, if you throw a wrench like a hurricane or cybersecurity attack into the system, it takes human situational awareness to mitigate or resolve critical issues. It’s the humans, not the technology, that oversee the grid, and it’s important to foster higher human performance organizationally as a cultural norm in the energy grid. Per a recent study by CapGemini and MIT, the utility sector currently lags similar large industries in adoption of new technology.
  4. “We are Crowdstorming the Dinosaurs”: Dirk Albhorn, CEO of Hyperloop Technologies urged attendees to rethink closed systems, “operating in silos without windows”, and instead build collaborative partnerships, as the key to our global challenges. He explained how 10,000 people’s collective passion around disrupting mass transportation has sparked a movement “crowdstorming” the antiquated transportation industry. Open source and crowdstorms have enabled construction of the first Hyperloop track to be built in the Central Valley of California, faster than the VC-funded traditional enterprise they are competing against. The team earns stock options in the company, the employees number thousands across the globe, and crowdsource and use agile and open source practices to develop “Some crazy ideas, some genius” is how he put it, but the whole approach and sheer scale of this nimble distributed network is worthy of a book. Anyone can participate and contribute in the process – even you. It’s a radical thought, and I expect more of it in the future. I encourage viewing the whole presentation here.

A lot of what I heard, continually came back to working with other stakeholders to achieve a bigger goal. When I sat back down to my desk on Monday morning, instead of going into my normal routine, I reached out for ideas from my partners. I realized that the diversity, and capability of all the talented and visionary people around SxSW Eco truly reinvigorated me, and challenged how I do things.

We are reaching that vision of the future through convergences, transformations and emergences amidst a sort of chaos going on right now. New ideas need friends, and we are all looking for the right partners to turn those ideas into reality. At SxSW Eco, perhaps that tag line is true, “What Happens Here Changes the World”.

What questions do you have?

Andrew Johnston is the President of Energy Thought Summit, subsidiary of Zpryme Research and Consulting, a market-research firm and energy expert network based in Austin, TX. He can be contacted at