As we record a Zpryme on the Grid podcast in SAP’s beautiful Distributech studio, something catches my eye. A phone pops out from behind the studio’s massive LED screen and takes a picture of me. For a split-second, I’m in the Black Mirror episode where a woman is chased down by people recording her demise via their phones. Then I realize it was just my colleague Ricky Murray snapping my photo for Zpryme posterity. No reason to freak out about my life documented in a dystopian TV series—yet.

I’m a writer who fancies long-form articles, but my “young” colleagues (I’m the second oldest at Zpryme) Erin HardickErin AutinDylan LockwoodEric Swanson and Ricky Murray challenge me every day to think differently about telling the story of energy’s transformation. I’ve learned to embrace podcastingTweetingInstagramming, and Snapchatting. (My misadventures in business, and life generally, make me a star on Erin Hardick’s Snapchat feed. Maybe I’m part of a TV show after all.)

Like me, the energy industry is learning to embrace what’s next—but what is really next? Distributech reminded me there’s a lot of hope, a lot worry, and a lot of confusion about where things are heading. Let’s explore a few examples from my adventures on the Distributech show floor.

This year’s “it” term: Platform

In the decade-plus that I’ve covered Distributech, I feel like each year brings an “it” term—something that is plastered across nearly every booth on the show floor. The once-fashionable terms of smart meters and smart grid are long gone. Then came the onslaught of behind-the-meter terms, like smart thermostats and home energy management. More recently, we’ve seen the rise of terms like DERsIoT and smart cities. Those latter terms are still certainly out there, and growing in importance.

This year, I really noticed the term platform. The use of platform represented to me the industry’s progress beyond deploying one hot device or another, but also the haziness about what’s next. Building a platform means the opportunity for software, devices and data to come together, but how does that really look? Although many solution providers touted the importance of platforms to integrate the breadth of newer devices coming online—such as IoT devices and DERs—it’s important to not forget all the existing technologies and systems that must be integrated as well. As you can see in the chart below from our Fourth Annual Municipal Utility Outlook, legacy systems still play a very important role in utilities and will continue to do so. Platform offered a way to wrap our minds around the messiness of bringing together all these technologies, some of which been around a long time. There’s much work to be done to integrate today’s and tomorrow’s technologies into a cohesive platform.

An “it” term not there: Blockchain!

The “it” term that wasn’t on the show floor: blockchain. I think it is an important topic, so I’d spring the term upon people during the event, and they were either horrified or elated. Like many folks, I’m still a little hazy about blockchain, but believe it’s one of those lurking areas that could be a game changer in the industry. I’m not convinced yet of its impact, but I continue to buy into it more and more. We’re going to dive into blockchain more deeply with a workshop at ETS18, so I’m looking forward to that.

Unleashing utilities into smart cities

It used to be that uncertainty about what’s next for electricity was contained within the realm of the utility. However, cracks have formed around the utility sphere with the introduction of things like DERs, IoT, third-party energy providers, and so on. At this Distributech it felt as if that utility sphere might finally be broken. On top of new platforms, IoT devices and transportation electrification, organizations like Itron, Siemens and Black & Veatch are really honing the concept of how utilities will fit into the bigger picture of smarter cities and connected communities. Like our recent smart cities paper pointed out, both smart utilities and smart cities projects are taking place, but the connections between the two efforts are starting to change. Still, what role will utilities play in smart cities? That’s a question that will take the next several years to answer.

So, even with all the buzz and excitement at the event, there still are so many unanswered questions about where the industry is heading. If you were at Distributech, what stood out to you most in terms of trends? Key questions? I’d love to hear from y’all.

As always, thanks for reading. HCR