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IBM chief: Smarter energy isn't 'futuristic'

Sam Palmisano says the energy industry must move from a tech-heavy, piecemeal approach toward modernizing the grid to a systems-wide approach focused on benefits to consumers.

WASHINGTON, D.C.--In a rare public-speaking occasion, IBM CEO Sam Palmisano said that the energy infrastructure needs to be further digitized and focused on the consumer.

Palmisano, the keynote speaker today at the GridWise Global Forum conference here, argued that modernizing energy requires a systems engineering approach, rather than the piecemeal upgrades happening now.

Smart meters and sensors on power lines give system operators more information to work with. But the system as a whole needs to become more resilient and efficient. The challenge for industry is to make sense of the enormous amount of data that this "Internet of things" puts out, he said.

IBM CEO Sam Palmisano delivers the keynote talk at the GridWise Global Forum in Washington, D.C.
IBM CEO Sam Palmisano delivers the keynote talk at the GridWise Global Forum in Washington D.C. Martin LaMonica/CNET

"We're capturing data at unprecedented volumes," he said. "The most important point is not how much data there is. It's what the data can tell us."

Even with his focus on the technical needs of the grid, Palmisano said that energy consumers have still not fully bought into the notion of a smart grid, a growing concernamong electric utilities.

"We collectively haven't cracked the code on conveying the benefits of [a] smarter energy system to consumers," he said. "Until that happens, the full potential of the smart grid won't be realized."

In other areas of life, such as making a money transfer at a bank or buying an item in a store, people assume that the computing systems behind them work intelligently but that's not the case in energy, he said.

He dismissed the idea of giving consumers "dashboards" to see their energy usage, something that several companies and utilities are doing. Instead, he said end users need ways to "control energy uses and in a way that engages their hearts and minds in taking a more active role in doing so."

Another issue that threatens the success of a digital energy grid is consumer concerns over security and privacy, which he said must be addressed by industry and policy.

To finish his talk to government and utility industry professionals, Palmisano said that making the energy system smarter is in everyone's interest because it addresses the economy, geopolitical issues related to energy, and global climate change. People in industry do not need to wait for the government or other top-down directives to get started, he said.

"Smarter energy is not some futuristic ideal. For one thing, there are real examples being deployed around the world," he said. "Smarter energy is practical because it's not ideological."