Jim Bellingham, IAA Executive Director, shared his thoughts with the IAA community following the CERAWeek event that took place March 7-11, 2022.

Dear Colleagues,

Johns Hopkins University representatives from IAA, AI-X, ROSEI, the Center for Civic Impact, APL and the President’s Office recently attended the large energy conference, CERAWeek 2022, in Houston.  We participated in a range of sessions, from an ‘introduction to Johns Hopkins’ to a range of technical panels and presentations, all linked below.  Our participation was partly prompted by a sense that artificial intelligence (AI) is playing an ever-larger role in the energy space, that assurance of AI should surely be a concern, and that JHU should engage.  It was also prompted by my personal long-time involvement with CERAWeek.  The latter gave us both great access and a sense that the timing might be right to engage with this industry.  Having been back for a couple of weeks, and having had time to assimilate, I thought I would share some highlights. I welcome other insights and discussion.

Two topics dominated the meeting: the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the accelerating transition of the energy economy towards a carbon neutral future.  The core CERAWeek meeting is really organized around discussions with the CEOs of the major energy companies and government and political leaders (e.g. Energy Secretary, Senators, etc.).  Consequently, discussion tends to focus on the economics of the industry and factors driving large scale movements and realignments.  The Agora Innovation Forum is a companion meeting that focuses heavily on the technological aspects of the energy industry.

From a technological standpoint, the appreciation of the energy industry for the power of data to impact their entire ‘value chain’ has moved from a few lonely individuals in 2014 (when I first started attending) to everyone with the slightest bit of technological savvy.  The attention in the data domain has moved from ‘what is this all about’ to ‘how do we organize around data.’  AI and autonomy, by contrast, is much earlier in the acceptance process.  It is generally understood that AI, like data, impacts every aspect of their operations. Some companies even have hard numbers as to what sorts of impacts might be achieved.  However, they are still exploring the application of AI, and therefore are far from organizing around its capabilities.  The energy industry has not thought a lot about assurance, either as an accelerator of capability to market, or as a potential cost sink and source of liability if executed poorly.

So, from my perspective, this is a great time for the Johns Hopkins IAA and our collaborators to engage with the energy industry.

The one area where AI really is ‘closer to the surface’ is in the future smart grid.  Electrification of the economy (e.g. of cars, short haul aircraft, homes etc.) is closely coupled to this discussion as it multiplies and complicates energy demands on the grid.  The AI connection comes from the following thread: 1) a carbon neutral economy largely depends on the grid to move energy from generation to consumption, 2) the distributed and episodic nature of renewable energy makes management of the grid more challenging and increases the value of prediction, 3) the U.S. grid is antiquated and rickety, and 4) monthly, daily, and instantaneous energy markets provide significant advantage to smart consumers (and generators).  Having said this, a significant barrier to progress is the gap between the traditional energy players and the tech community.

The hydrogen economy was also a topic of discussion and appears to be a favorite route to carbon neutrality for many of the established energy companies, perhaps because its infrastructure looks similar to the existing infrastructure, and high energy density fuel is still necessary for applications like long-haul aircraft.  However, there do appear to be significant technological and perhaps environmental challenges.

Having been to CERAWeek for many years and having presented in climate discussions to nearly empty rooms, I was amazed by the 180° transition that I saw at this meeting.  ‘The transition,’ by which I mean the transition to a carbon neutral economy was a backdrop to nearly every discussion.  I was amazed, and gratified.  Also mystified, until a fellow conference-goer explained to me that the upcoming SEC reporting requirements on Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions is being linked to executive compensation by many boards.

SEC Registrants Prepare for Proposed Climate Disclosure Rules (natlawreview.com)

The impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine cannot be overstated.  On an operational level, the traditional energy companies were scrambling to find energy sources to mitigate shortfalls, especially in Europe, caused by embargoes of Russian oil and gas.  There was a sense of amazement of the U.S.’s ability to rally democracies around a sanctions regime that effectively isolates Russia monetarily.  The role of the dollar as the global currency is the source of this power, and there was speculation about the long-term consequences.  In one session there was a lively discussion around how China might respond and the future of cryptocurrencies as an alternative to the U.S. dollar as a global currency.  Some economists take it for granted that this is the end of globalization, and that for the foreseeable future the industrial democracies are going to be focused on reducing resource dependency and bringing manufacturing capability ‘home.’

Energy Secretary Granholm really captured the mood of many at the meeting in her address.  She made an impassioned plea for bringing economic power to bear to support Ukraine while ensuring the global economy stays healthy by nearly any means necessary, including drilling for new oil.  But at the same time climate change is an existential risk facing the planet that cannot be put aside any longer.  So she pushed the attendees of the meeting to also take on the longer term challenge of building a sustainable energy economy.

In summary, the energy industry is being transformed.  Their customers are increasingly demanding green energy, and green energy needs assured AI.  The crisis created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is breaking down administrative and bureaucratic barriers, and will likely accelerate change.  The war also creates profound risks, some of which are cyber in nature.  My sense is that Johns Hopkins has much to offer in this domain, ranging from established programs in cyber security and assured AI, to education, to developmental AI capabilities in materials, transportation, and computation.  For those of you interested, drop me a line. I welcome your thoughts.

Best wishes,

Jim Bellingham

Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Exploration Robotics

Executive Director, Institute for Assured Autonomy
John Hopkins University

Presentations and sessions:

Denis Wirtz, Jim Bellingham, KT Ramesh, Jeff Michaels | Frontiers of AI: What’s New at Johns Hopkins? (brightcove.net)

Yair Amir | Cybersecurity in the Energy Ecosystem: Lessons Learned

Yair Amir | How Can AI Applications Keep the Grid Stabilized?

Beth Blauer | Evolution of Smart Cities: Autonomy increasing with intelligence

Susanna Thon | Next-gen Solar: Technologies to get to the next level

Joan Hoffman | Quantum Computing: Solving big problems in energy transition 

Jim Bellingham | Robotics: Lessons from the Sea