DistribuTECH might be one of the only places in the world where you can listen to futurists from tech giants like IBM talking — earnestly, and without a hint of irony — about how best to prune foliage. 

Of course, that’s because vegetation management is a big deal for energy distributors, especially as wildfires become ever-more-pressing concern. And DTECH attendees weren’t talking about foliage: walking the halls of the Henry B. González Convention Center in San Antonio last month, it was also striking to see how many of the industry leaders in attendance were eager to talk about, learn about, or evangelize about the power of AI and machine learning to revolutionize the energy sector.

That’s a real evolution from the DTECHs of old, which focused mostly on hardware — wires, poles, and all the rest. But it’s also a big step forward from more recent DTECH events, when attendees were focused chiefly on how to extract data from their systems. At this year’s event, the big conversations shifted to the vital question of what to with all the data — and there was an increasing awareness that AI is the key to unlocking actionable insights from the torrents of data now pouring out of our generation, distribution, and point-of-use infrastructure.

That was certainly true of the keynotes, which included futurist Sophie Hackford promising us a future in which we all “move inside the machine,” with AI becoming so fundamental to the way we live and work that the technology simply becomes part of our environment.

We might not have reached that point just yet, but there’s no question that AI was the answer to many of the big questions being asked at DTECH, from how best to incorporate renewables or microgrids into the energy mix, to how to identify and account for distributed energy resources across the grid.

The key, of course, is to stay grounded, and use these transformative AI technologies in ways that solve real problems and serve genuine customer needs. “Customers are the voice of what we’re trying to do and the beacon of where we’re trying to go,” said Paula Gold-Williams, president and CEO of San Antonio’s own CPS Energy, in her opening keynote, and here at Innowatts we couldn’t agree more.

What does all this mean for our industry, and for future DistribuTECH events? Well, Itron’s Tom Deitrich made a compelling case that as an industry, we need to rise to the challenges we’ll face in coming years. Natural disasters are on the increase, he pointed out, and we’ll need to leverage AI and other tools to develop the kind of resilient infrastructure we’ll need to cope. In fact, a recently announced sales and integration collaboration between Itron and Innowatts will leverage AI-driven data insights for predictive analytics, boosting grid stability and enhancing customers’ energy experience.

Another key area where AI will make a big difference: the rise of EVs, which Deitrich reminded attendees are likely to account for half of U.S. vehicles by 2040. Predictive analytics will be needed to ensure that when families come home in the evening and plug in their cars, they don’t overload the neighborhood’s transformers. “Those types of analytics, we can provide services for them today — and the need will only increase as the proliferation of electric vehicles carries forwards,” Deitrich pointed out.

The bottom line from this year’s DistribuTECH is that companies are finally getting serious about using AI to leverage data in new ways, across their whole organizations, to solve the big problems — yes, including vegetation management — that we’ll face as a society in coming years and decades. If we can keep our feet on the ground, and learn to use these AI tools effectively to develop actionable insights tailored to the needs of our companies and our customers, then we’ll be well placed to deal with whatever the future holds in store.