How digital is accelerating sustainable energy

Digital technologies are ubiquitous. Digital technologies are exponential. While digitalization is responsible for a highly increased demand for energy, especially within networks and data centers, it is also a key force that will help humanity transition to a sustainable energy future.

Digitalization is one of the biggest drivers in the global transition to sustainable energy—(Industrial) Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, Cloud and Networks are advancing the energy value chain from energy production and asset management to smart distribution. Digital technologies will connect the energy systems with smart appliances and applications, make the energy systems more intelligent, efficient, reliable, and sustainable. But digitalization does not just have a positive side; the shadow side of digitalization is the increased risk of cyberattacks. This risk must be addressed and also taken care of by all parties and systems involved. While more challenges to energy providers and grid operators around the world will rise, the focus of this article is about the potentials of digitalization in the energy sector to help humanity transition to more sustainability.

What is exponential technolgy?

For a technology to be "exponential," the power and/or speed doubles each year, and/or the cost drops by half. Exponential technologies are those which are rapidly accelerating and shaping major industries and all aspects of our lives. Exponential technologies include artificial intelligence (AI), augmented and virtual reality (AR, VR), data science, digital biology and biotech, medicine, nanotech and digital fabrication, networks and computing systems, robotics, and autonomous vehicles.

The Present

Although the energy sector is using digital technologies since the 1970s to facilitate grid management and operations, to improve decision making, and for process controls and automation, it seems like the energy sector falling behind the curve and was not able to catch the pace of digital possibilities so far. However, global investments in digital technologies and capabilities have risen clearly over the last few years, and the trend seems not to stop.

Plant operation & maintenance 

Data is already omnipresent. Powerplants like solar or wind parks are already collecting vast amounts of data, for example, through sensors, cameras, microphones, or human-created data. These data are used to understand the current status of a powerplant and to simulate the future to plan maintenance schedules for wind turbines as an example. With predictive maintenance, it is possible to increase the efficiency and longevity of such turbines. Before serious damage occurs, an engineer is informed about a potential problem to plan an inspection ahead of time. This means that a wind turbine can be shut down, inspected, and if needed defect parts can be replaced. And the best thing is, through weather data, this turbine can ideally be stopped when there is no wind, so the park is not losing any production time, the smart systems calculate the probabilities of which part might need to be replaced, and the engineers are already prepared on arrival. Another aspect of digital technologies is to increase security and effectiveness. Without data, robotics, or drones, a human being would need to go on-site and inspect each wind turbine and blade manually. This task is very time-consuming and can cause high costs. Drones, for example, are a cheap alternative. Combined with cameras and AI algorithms, such systems can recognize issues without the intervention of humans or shut down wind turbines. This reduces costs, increases security, and frees time for an employee to work on other tasks.

Smart Grid

A smart grid is an electrical grid that includes a variety of operation and energy measures, including smart meters, smart appliances, renewable energy resources, and energy-efficient resources. In the past, the energy flow just in one direction, from a centralized energy source to the consumer. Already today in some regions possible, the energy flows in both directions. Consumers are becoming prosumers and energy production is not anymore solely centralized, but becomes more often decentralized. Photovoltaic technology is getting cheaper and thus gainful also for the end consumer, from a corporation to a single house. A smart grid is an enabler for the increased number of smaller and decentralized renewable energy sources. Because renewable energy is not produced all the time and often when the energy is not immediately consumed, this energy also needs to be stored. In a smart grid, possibilities to transfer, store and distribute the produced energy is crucial. 

Smart Energy Trading

The more data is available, the better an automated trading system can work. This actually applies to most applications of artificial intelligence, the more data, the better. Energy companies already know which customer consumes how much energy and when. With smart algorithms, energy consumption can be forecast depending on the day, weather, and historical data, proposals for buying strategies are then made for customers. With an increase of smart meters and more data, such systems will be able to trade automatically on behalf of a customer to reduce risk and effort. This is currently more interesting for high consumers and less for a small household. But things are changing.

The Future

Indeed, digital technologies seem to have already a huge impact on the transition to a sustainable energy future. But the true transformation comes with the convergence of digital technologies and applications. The future lies in building a system of systems. 

What is a system of systems?

System of systems is a collection of task-oriented or dedicated systems that pool their resources and capabilities together to create a new, more complex system which offers more functionality and performance than simply the sum of the constituent systems.

As we have seen above, there are systems in place which are responsible for more or less one goal. But combining such systems to a big one with the power of exponential technologies which are converging can massively accelerate the transition to a sustainable energy future. 

In such a system, every device which consumes or produces energy is smart. This means that each device exactly knows how much energy it produces or how much it consumes and when. Let's take an electric vehicle (EV) as an example. The EV knows exactly when it will be used because it has access to the calendar and does forecasts on historical data. This information can be shared with the smart grid so that it can be planned when the car needs to be charged and even how much to reach the destination. While not in use, the EV can be used to store overproduced energy and releases it back to the grid if needed to flatten the peak curves. Now imagine what is possible with millions of EVs and thus, millions of batteries. But EVs are not the only smart device in such a system. Refrigerators could be used to store and release energy as well. With such smart systems, a network of energy storage systems is built, and it could mean that no large-scale batteries will be needed at all. With such a network of highly connected and smart devices, a decentralized energy production, where these systems in a system are optimizing the whole production and consumption of energy continuously, it could even mean that fewer centralized energy sources are needed, and, energy could become "free"—a sustainable good for everyone. 

Energy Harvesting

But this is not all. In the future, energy will be harvested from almost everything and everyone. In buildings, mobility stations, at home, energy is produced while you are walking, sitting, or even sleeping. 

What is energy harvesting?

Energy harvesting is the extraction of small amounts of electrical energy from sources such as ambient temperature, vibrations or air currents for low-power mobile devices. The structures used for this are also known as nanogenerators. In wireless technologies, energy harvesting avoids the limitations of wired power supplies or batteries.

Generative design

Artificial intelligence and algorithm are not just qualified to make some clues out of data or to optimize processes. This technology will be a game-changer for our society and thus also for the future of energy. Going back to the wind turbines we explored in the beginning. What if artificial intelligence will be able to create new kinds of products and designs to harvest energy from wind? Designs we humans would never be able to design. An algorithm can explorer millions or billions of designs and improve their efficiency and thus create much better products for a certain purpose. And with technologies like 3D or 4D printing, such new, even more, complex products can be built much cheaper than ever. 

What is generative design?

Generative design is a design exploration process. Designers or engineers input design goals into the generative design software, along with parameters such as performance or spatial requirements, materials, manufacturing methods, and cost constraints. The software explores all the possible permutations of a solution, quickly generating design alternatives. It tests and learns from each iteration what works and what doesn't.

Fusion Energy

Artificial intelligence, the probably most exponential digital technology could also accelerate the development of safe, clean, and virtually limitless fusion energy. Controlling fusion reactions is an extremely complex task with thousands of variables to be tweaked continuously. Artificial intelligence might be the one technology that will be able to master this high complexity and give humanity a new clean, and high-tech source of energy. 

Bottom line

This article is by no means a complete picture. Still, it gives a high-level overview of what digitalization and digital technologies might be capable of. Digital technologies are powerful. But the true power lies in the convergence of multiple technologies, connected in a networked system of systems and functions as one, smart system. To manage such complex systems, technology as artificial intelligence are essential. Digitalization and digital technologies have the potential for a sustainable transformation to help humanity transition to sustainable, free energy for everyone. 

For the curious and future-oriented minds—future technologies and systems might also be able to increase our civilization level and make us a type 1 civilization.

What is a type 1 civilisation?

A Type I or K1 civilisation has mastered all the energy available to their home planet, available from a neighbouring star. It extracts its energy, information, and raw-materials from fusion power, hydrogen, and other "high-density" renewable-resources.