The most profound technologies are those that disappear,” says Sophie Hackford, citing Mark Weiser’s The Computer of the 21st Century. Sophie, an Oxford-based futurist and researcher, is addressing a roomful of thousands of electric utility personnel and product vendors at DistribuTECH International 2020 in San Antonio.

Utilities are notoriously averse to early adoption, often prioritizing security and reliability over innovation. But as the traditional utility model becomes disrupted by new technologies like behind-the-meter solar, the electricity industry is opening its ears to unorthodox voices.

In another context, Sophie’s audience – there largely to showcase and trial new transmission and distribution software and hardware – might have been uncomfortable with the prospect of their technology disappearing. But while technology might disappear, says Sophie, it doesn’t necessarily go away. Because when technologies become sophisticated or ubiquitous enough, they “weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”¹

There are several ways that technology can disappear, according to Norbert Streitz, Founder of the Smart Future Initiative:²

  • Physical disappearance refers to the miniaturization of devices and their integration in other everyday artifacts as, e.g., in clothes, so that you don’t see them anymore.
  • Mental disappearance refers to the situation that the artifacts can still be large, but they are not perceived as computers because people discern them as, e.g., interactive walls or interactive tables. Thus, technology moves mentally into the background.

There are multiple examples of this happening in the electricity sector already, and they were on display at DistribuTECH. Innovations in infrastructure and asset monitoring are blending aspects of both physical and mental disappearance while improving the speed and reliability of information-gathering. While utilities have traditionally relied on ground crews and various aircraft to inspect and assess vegetation along their electricity networks, improved satellite technology is now making that data accessible with a simple internet connection.

New solution providers are leveraging commercial arrangements to repurpose existing data for their customers – so that a weather satellite serving the aviation industry, might also be used to help monitor vegetation along transmission lines. 

Similarly, companies like Digital Engineering Ltd. are leveraging satellite weather data and predictive modeling to help utilities plan for and manage the degradation of their assets due to environmental exposure. This predictive approach to asset management has the potential to save clients a significant amount of money. And as the hardware fades into the background – or more literally, into space – ease of access to information on earth continues to improve.  

While the technology we use to plan and operate the grid “disappears,” the impact of events like DistribuTECH International as a showcase for these technologies is apparent.

“DistribuTECH is a great opportunity to survey the state of electrical grid technologies for our existing and future grid,” said Uzma Siddiqi, Automation and Relay Supervisor at Seattle City Light. Uzma was one of some 9000+ representatives of electric/gas/water utilities from around the world who attended the conference this year.

“DistribuTECH is huge,” says Tracy Rolstad, Technical Director at PSC. “It’s not just a distribution thing, either. All the players are there. It really is a T&D conference with a heavy emphasis on leveraging new thoughts and technologies to make the grid work better.”

DistribuTECH International 2021 will be in San Diego, CA, February 9-11. Mark your calendars to catch up with PSC there!

¹ The Computer for the Twenty-First Century” Weiser, Mark. (Scientific American, 1991, pp. 66–75)

² Streitz, N. A. (2001). Augmented Reality and the Disappearing Computer. In: Smith, M., Salvendy, G., Harris, D., Koubek, R. (Eds.), Cognitive Engineering, Intelligent Agents and Virtual Reality. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001. pp. 738-742.