EC-MAP’s Digital Energy Q&A Featuring Jimmy Jia.
EC-MAP’s Digital Energy Q&A Featuring:
Jimmy Jia, Center for Sustainable Energy and EC-MAP Advisory Board Member
March 11, 2019
EC-MAP’s Digital Energy Q&A is a blog series where we ask thought leaders from across energy, digital technology, and government to share their views about how policy can align with a digital energy future. You can view previous Digital Energy Q&A posts here.
EC-MAP: When and/or how did you first hear about digitalization and energy? What was your first reaction, and how have your ideas about digital technology in the energy sector evolved since then?
Jimmy Jia: It was probably around 2008 or 2009 that I began thinking deeply about the intersection of energy, information, and finance. At the time, I was researching and writing my book, “Driven by Demand,” and I realized that the convergence of these three concepts wasn’t a new thing. From the days of the telegraph in the early twentieth century to Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) control systems of the 1960s, energy companies have always looked for ways to gain an advantage through information.
What’s different now is that we can monitor anything and store enormous amounts of data. As a result, we have more granular data and increasingly sophisticated technologies to access it. There’s a perception that the convergence of energy and data is speeding up, but I think it’s just that technology makes it more noticeable these days. I think a problem is that our ability to comprehend data has not matched the speed of data creation. We are behind, and we know it. Most importantly though is not just to speed up our data comprehension, but to do so in ways that bring value to society instead of merely creating the next new app.
What digital energy trend, technology, or application are you most enthusiastic about? Why?
I don’t really have a favorite technology, because technology itself is not what I get excited about. Technology is a tool to achieve a desired end state. I like to say that, fundamentally, we all want three things: comfort, convenience, and quality of life. These end states don’t necessarily require technology, but any technology that can achieve them will spark my interest and enthusiasm. Anything that doesn’t is just a solution in search of a problem.
Much of today’s energy policy was designed well before digital technologies existed. Do you think energy policy needs to evolve to better align with digital technologies? Is there a specific policy or regulation you believe should be refreshed, reformed, or repealed?
Absolutely, 100%, policy needs to evolve. Even though the evolution of the energy system has been going on for over 100 years, policy has not kept pace. One of the biggest issues is that as innovation has erased boundaries between traditional sectors and silos, policy has maintained or even strengthened them. One of my favorite lectures to give was a joint class between the Energy Certificate and the Agriculture Certificate at what is now Presidio Graduate School, Seattle Campus. The Dean at the time, John Gardner, would give a lecture on aviation biofuels while I would talk about the energy it took to run a farm. We both pointed out that a century ago, energy and agriculture were much more joined in the minds of policymakers and in the market, but in later decades, they became more and more separated. The two most recent Farm Bills have sought to bring energy and agriculture back together by supporting emerging technologies where the interests of farmers and fuel producers (as well as transportation and the military) all converge.
Digitalization presents new opportunities for policymakers to break down other silos like these across the government. Perhaps counterintuitively, we may even find best practices and methodologies from before the industrial revolution, when energy was more integrated into decision-making rather than treated as a separate issue.
The digital transformation of the energy sector will inevitably face challenges along the way. Do you think the biggest challenges will be related to: technology? markets? politics? or something else? Why?
Easily, politics is the biggest challenge. Innovation will continue to happen everywhere in the world, and likewise, people everywhere are always looking for new ways to make a buck. But energy is a resource, and resource allocation is a political issue. Policymakers understandably are concerned with the impact of resource allocation on their constituents. Digitalization will enable new approaches to resource allocation, and inevitably new winners and losers. Those positioned to be winners will push to go faster and those at risk to be losers will fight to keep the status quo; policymakers will have to sort out a path forward.
What will we need to do to overcome these challenges? Do you have specific ideas for actions we (EC-MAP, other stakeholders, or you) can take to better accommodate and accelerate a digital energy future?
Policymakers and stakeholders need a unifying vision to rally around —a moonshot, perhaps. This vision must be something that brings together advocates of different goals, whether global decarbonization, local environmental protection, or national economic security. It must also clearly lay out expected outcomes as well as the strategies and coordinated action needed to achieve them.
So far, countries in Europe and Asia have been more successful with this kind of approach, in large part because their political systems are more conducive to centralized governing. In the U.S., measurable, goal-oriented policies are much more preferable to prescribing pathways that achieve a policy outcome. This approach has an advantage because it’s not uncommon for new technologies to disrupt a prescribed pathway written into law. My advice to policymakers is to set a measurable goal, create penalties for missing the mark, and allow businesses to innovate the most practical approach to achieving the goal.
Jimmy Jia is an innovator, author, educator, and strategist. He chairs the Strategy Committee as a member of the board for the Center for Sustainable Energy. He is also a Visiting Scholar at George Washington University and teaches Strategy and Energy programs at Presidio Graduate School. His book on the topic, “Driven by Demand: How Energy Gets its Power” has been sold in over 15 countries. Jimmy received his B.S. and M.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an MBA from the University of Oxford. He holds five patents, has authored numerous publications, and is a frequent speaker on topics of energy futurism and leadership.