In our markets, there are a few trade shows that are worth attending every few years, and DistribuTECH is certainly one of those. The event is billed as "the largest annual T&D conference in the world" (and if you have to ask what "T&D" stands for, it's not for you), with over 10,000 attendees and 480 exhibitors -- and it's definitely bigger than I remember from previous years.

For the really big trade shows like DistribuTECH and Lightfair, in between all the 1:1 meetings outside of the exhibit hall, I like to take the time to walk the entire hall and get some overall impressions of what's changed and trended since the last time I could attend. This time, it took me a full hour and a half just to walk the hall. A massive show.

But while there were definitely some tech areas that were much more in evidence than in the past (more on that below), I guess what was most striking to me was what was missing. And for the most part, what was missing were solutions for the customer side of the meter; applications like distributed generation, energy efficiency, microgrids. Some major caveats, of course: a) It's a T&D conference, which will skew to the utility side of the meter, b) it's a bit unfair to judge utility attitudes based upon who decides to pay to exhibit at a trade show; and c) there were definitely more than just a couple of customer-side solutions exhibited; I don't want to overstate their absence.

Yet, since this is the biggest trade show for top-level utility execs to meet with top-level vendor execs, I do think it's a bit of a gauge of how they all view customer-side solutions. And these seem to remain a side show.

If I were a utility exec, I would think this is a big problem. The utility business model needs to change, and one thing that needs to change is a dramatic increase in IT-based integration of systems on both sides of the meter. Instead, the biggest sign of IT adoption at the show was the absolute glut of geospatial imaging solutions on offer, both from standalone startups and big, established vendors. And frankly, they all looked exactly the same. One such vendor did mentionsolar but as part of its solution to help utilities uncover "hidden solar" (i.e., people may have put solar on their rooftops without the utility knowing about it, the horror!). There were signs of a shift to viewing both sides of the meter as deeply interdependent, but not nearly enough for me to feel confident that utilities are seriously wrestling with the new reality that their closed systems are rapidly becoming a lot more open -- one way or another.

That said, I saw a few emerging vendors that have some really interesting solutions for grid-tied microgrids, and others like Nest that are working to tie what's going on in the home to utility decision-making. But what's really needed is more automated, full-stack solutions for such approaches. Because it's as clear to me as ever that most utilities aren't positioned to be the motive force driving toward scalable distributed solutions. The utility industry may yet reinvent itself. But at least as far as demonstrated at DistribuTECH, the industry is going to have to be reinvented from the outside for truly rapid change to take place.

P.S. Greentech Media throws a fun party.