As technology changes society, it causes society to change how it deals with tech

By Alix Paultre, contributing editor

Power is
fundamental to progress, for nothing moves without energy. The problem is that
such a ubiquitous infrastructure need becomes part of society. This means that
technological change in the space is often linked to societal change as well.
This goes in both directions: As technology changes society, it causes society
to change how it deals with tech.

In the power
industry, this back-and-forth play is going on in many arenas with some of the
arenas and players overlapping and interacting. Advances in areas like
materials science can create new technologies while impacting legacy solutions
for both good and ill. New approaches create new markets, which often disrupt
existing paradigms.

We are confronted
by difficult choices in almost every facet of the power industry today.
Wide-bandgap semiconductors and the resulting enabled topologies are challenging
power electronics design; alternative energy development is forcing society to
re-evaluate how it generates and uses power; and electric mobility is changing
how we look at transportation.

All of these (and
other) changes in the power industry directly impact society. Smaller, more
efficient electronics make for more portable and functional personal devices,
which increase the number of clients in the cloud, which increases the demand
on server farms to support them, which increases the power demand in the grid.
Each of these issues has its own cascading set of related impacts on other
application spaces.

The focus and
pressure on the power industry hasn’t been this intense since switching
electronics went commercial a couple of decades ago, but this time, it’s
different. Instead of a “mere” topology migration, the current disruption is
being led by advances in materials, so the change also involves the components
themselves, not just how they are arranged on the board.

These challenges
also bring into focus a bitter corollary to development in the ongoing question
between what can be done and what should be done. To that, one can add the
complications of what needs to be done and what we have the will to do. We now
arguably have the technology to address any iteration and application in
society with a real-world functional solution. However, the ability to do
something is as far from accomplishment as an acorn is from an oak tree.

Engineering is at
the heart of almost all debates about the future of society. Ironically, two
applications closely wedded in core technology and application have almost
diametrically opposite societal arguments. Industrial development, as
envisioned in Industry 4.0, is not only considered a given, it is already being
modified into Industry 5.0 (or at least 4.9) by the injection of artificial
intelligence into factory automation. Yet electric vehicles and self-driving
cars (two linked but independent developments) are each being hotly debated on
aspects that have little to do with technology but everything to do with
societal acceptance.

This is also
mirrored in the energy industry as legacy technology holders fight, often with
little concern for society, for their monopoly in fossil-fuel power generation
and central distribution. They ignore the obvious advantages of decentralized
mixed-energy (including fossil fuels) grid management because it would cost
them market share and profits.

The
advantage of industrial power engineering is that it is very close to a perfect
meritocracy in that only the best solutions have a chance of thriving. The
problem is that this near-ideal development environment is heavily corrupted in
all areas that can be influenced by perception or politics. Any space where
people who aren’t making decisions purely from an applications solution
position is very muddied by special and legacy interests. Let’s be better than
that.