My moonshot pitch at ARPA-E’s innovation summit and why we’ll need the whole energy ecosystem to achieve it

By: Barbara Humpton, CEO, Siemens USA

With the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 landing just days away, I’ve been thinking a lot about moonshots.


And that’s the mindset you should have at “The Summit,” an annual program hosted by the arm of the Department of Energy known as the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E.


These are the innovators who are working on the frontlines of transformational change in our energy sector.  They’re launching the radical ideas that industry can then bring to market.


So, when I got the invitation to speak at the Summit this week, I decided it was the perfect opportunity to pitch the world-changing breakthrough we’re aiming for at Siemens.


This is how our global CEO Joe Kaeser put it: “The moonshot challenge of our generation is to meet the soaring demand for energy and to protect our climate at the same time.”


And he’s right. Clean, affordable and reliable electricity around the world – including to the one billion people who currently live without it – would be a groundbreaking moment.


So, we’re thinking big.  But here’s what I really wanted to focus on with the ARPA-E crowd: How are we working right now to create this energy future we’ve envisioned?  And where can we work together?


At Siemens, we see ourselves as a company that deploys the technology that innovators use to expand what’s humanly possible.


And one of the questions we’ve been asking ourselves lately is, “How can we fully leverage the trends that are unfolding towards the year 2030 and beyond?”


We’ve built our entire business strategy around the global megatrends shaping the planet.  We’re looking at how our capabilities can address climate change, urbanization and digitalization.


And while some might see the last of those trends as a disruption, we see it as a golden opportunity.  Think of how we might drive change across the energy sector as our power grid, our cities, our infrastructure and our physical world comes online.  This is the immense potential that’s before us in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.


Yet we know innovation rarely follows a linear path.  That’s why we need an ecosystem of partners like ARPA-E and a shared willingness to take risks, maybe even to fail, in order to explore the full range of possibilities available to us in this moment of energy transformation.


It’s our collaborations across government and industry that will really push boundaries as we prepare for the energy trends of the next decade, from distributed energy systems to the integration of renewables to two-way power flows.


And, if our own history is any guide, our moonshot might also take some patience.


Siemens first connected a turbine in 1977 – a decade before the internet – but it took 30 years before we could really take our ambitions with data and IoT in the energy sector to the next level.  It wasn’t until 2007, right around the time that the world was introduced to the iPhone, that advances in computing power and storage finally caught up.


Those limits we initially faced are now gone.


Lastly, I’d like to point out two of the most critical components in our work to drive energy innovation: the security of our digital infrastructure and the next generation of workers who’ll operate it.


As the connectivity of our energy networks increases, we’ll need cybersecurity at every level, from the power plant to the user and everywhere in between.


And while there are digital technologies that can help us detect threats, our success really hinges on having a human in the loop who can assess the situation and put a solution into motion.


So, as we work toward our moonshot and think about the R&D it’ll take to get us there, let’s also commit to the investments that are necessary to build a workforce that will be ready to use the technologies we create.


Because it was humankind’s ability to discover and harness energy that created the industrial world, and got us to the moon.  And it will be human ideas that ultimately transform today’s energy in sustainable ways, enabling us to not only reach our moonshot but to create the future.