Digital Future Carries the day at Schneider Electric Innovation Summit

(CNBC reporter Contessa Brewer, left, talks with Darktrace’s Justin Fier and Carlyle Fund’s Andrew Marino during a panel Tuesday at the Schneider Electric North America Innovation Summit).

The name of a certain company product was name-dropped more times than anyone could remember, but another word surfaced even more Tuesday during the first day of the Schneider Electric North America Innovation Summit in Atlanta.

Digital. It’s the key to the energy grid of the future. Sure, they talked a lot about their multi-faceted EcoStruxure product and its many new capabilities, but the digital economy and its connection to an ever changing energy landscape was the major theme at Schneider Electric’s marquee event attracting more than 1,400 customers, partners and media.

Digital. It helps regulate the flow of energy on the grid. It helps sensors communicate. It overcomes and warns of system failures. It is here and it is going to dominate in the future. We can’t live without it at this point.

And CEO Jean Pascal-Tricoire, the French CEO of Schneider Electric, said it was fitting to focus so much on digital in North America.

“This is the birthplace,” he said in the opening keynote at the Hilton Atlanta downtown. “This is where it all started.”

North America certainly can no longer claim a hold on the digital revolution now that is adopted through developed nations and is being deployed in the less developed world at an exponential rate. The ones and zeros are priceless for their ability to make sense of the growing complexity within the power grids globally.

“More has happened in the last five years than in the previous 100,” Pascal-Tricoire said during his keynote. “AI (artificial intelligence) spending alone will grow six times from 2017 to 2022.”

Various impacts of the digital revolution in energy was discussed all day. Mark Feasel, Schneider NA’s vice president for the smart grid, talked about the company’s growing involvement with microgrids, including one that went operational in Montgomery County, Maryland earlier this fall. It keeps the county’s public service sector connected and communicative even in the event of a disaster.

Montgomery County has endured three such weather events in the past seven years, two so bad that fire and ambulance could not be dispatched. Schneider Electric delivered the microgrid as an as-a-service model, eliminating the huge upfront cost for the county which was borne by Duke Energy Renewables.

The way the deal was structured also enabled Montgomery County to finance $5 million worth of infrastructural upgrades, including major electrical switchgears.

“The site has predictable energy costs for the next 40 years,” Feasel said.

The summit also went outside the company family, with five experts from various sectors such as education, finance, renewables and cybersecurity joining reporter Contessa Brewer for the CNBC Panel focused on the benefits and challenges of the new energy and digital waves.

Andrew Marino, co-head of the Carlyle Global Instructure Opportunity Fund, noted Carlyle has hundreds of companies within its portfolio and is stepping up its investment in both digital and renewable energy sectors.

Other infrastructural challenges, such as limitations of the 100-year-old grid, have slowed down the pace of that investment.

“The big reason why there’s not more renewables today is that the distribution channel was not ready,” Marino said.

With increasing connectivity, of course, is a larger surface for cybersecurity attacks. Justin Fier, director of Cyber Intelligence and Analytics at Darktrace, is worried that the enthusiasm over the Internet of Things is clouding collective vision on the bad actors.

“We’re accepting all this technology and we’re not recognizing the danger it brings,” Fier said. “First and foremost take the FBI warnings seriously. .. I’m starting to see change but I’m not seeing it fast enough.”

In the end, the connections are growing exponentially, adding billions of new devices annually, whether they are sensors or thermostats or breakers or yet another cell phone.

At the outset, Schneider CEO Pascal-Tricoire put it in the basic terms as a challenge that has to be met.

“Energy is a fundamental human right,” he said. “Connectivity is the foundation of a decent life in the 21st century.”


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