Digitalisation is one of the biggest drivers of the global transition to renewable energy. Internet of Things IoT, Artificial Intelligence AI, robotics, clouds and networks are driving the energy value chain from energy generation to asset management and smart distribution. Digital technologies will connect energy systems with smart devices and applications, making energy systems smarter, more efficient, more reliable and more sustainable.
Although the energy sector has been using digital technologies since the 1970s to facilitate grid management and operation, improve decision-making, and control and automate processes, it seems that the energy sector has fallen behind the curve and has not yet been able to catch up with the pace of digital opportunities. However, global investment in digital technologies and capabilities has increased significantly in recent years, and the trend does not seem to be stopping. (International Energy Agency, 2017).
Plant operation & maintenance
Data is already ubiquitous. Power plants such as solar, wind or hydro already collect huge amounts of data, for example through sensors, cameras, microphones or human-generated data. This data is used to understand the status of a power plant and simulate the future to plan maintenance schedules. With predictive maintenance, it is possible to increase the efficiency and longevity of turbines. For example, before severe damage occurs, an engineer is informed of a potential problem to plan an inspection in advance. This means that a turbine can be shut down, inspected and, if necessary, defective parts replaced. Take the example of a wind turbine. If you know the weather data, a wind turbine can ideally be shut down when there is no wind, so that the farm does not lose production time. In addition, the intelligent systems calculate the probabilities of which part may need to be replaced and the technicians are already prepared when they arrive. Another aspect of digital technologies is to increase safety and effectiveness. Without data, robotics or drones, a human would have to go on site and manually inspect each wind turbine and blade. This task is very time-consuming and can be costly. Drones, for example, are a cheap alternative. Combined with cameras and AI algorithms, such systems can detect problems without a human having to intervene or shut down the wind turbines. This reduces costs, increases safety and frees up an employee’s time for other tasks.
A smart grid is an electrical network that incorporates various operational and energy measures, including smart meters, smart appliances, renewable energy sources and energy-efficient resources. In the past, energy only flowed in one direction, from a central energy source to the consumer. Today, already possible in some regions, energy flows in both directions. Consumers are becoming prosumers, and energy production is no longer centralised but increasingly decentralised. Photovoltaics are becoming more and more affordable and thus profitable for the end consumer, from corporations to single-family homes. A smart grid is an enabler for the increasing number of smaller and decentralised renewable energy sources.
Intelligent energy trading
The more data available, the better an automated trading system can work. This is true for most applications of AI. The more data, the better. Energy suppliers, for example, already know how much energy a customer uses and when. With intelligent algorithms, energy consumption can be predicted depending on the day, weather and historical data; suggestions for purchasing strategies are made and offered to customers or executed automatically. With the increase of smart meters and more data, such systems will be able to automatically act on behalf of a customer to reduce risk and effort.
Digital technologies are already having a significant impact on the transition to a sustainable energy future. But the real transformation will come with the convergence of digital technologies and applications. As seen above, systems already exist, most of which are responsible for one goal. However, combining such systems into a system of systems can massively accelerate the transition to a sustainable energy future. In such a system, every device that consumes or produces energy is intelligent. This means that each device knows exactly 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 when it is being used because it has access to the calendar and makes forecasts based on historical data. This information can be shared with the smart grid to plan when the car needs to be charged and even how much to charge to reach its destination. When not in use, the EV can store overproduced energy and release it back to the grid when needed. Now imagine what is possible with millions of EVs and therefore millions of batteries. But EVs are not the only smart device in such a system. Refrigerators could also be used to store and release energy. With such smart systems, a network of energy storage systems is built, and it could mean that large batteries are no longer needed at all. In such a hyper-connected and intelligent system of systems, decentralised energy production could become a reality. A hyper-optimised energy system could also mean that fewer energy sources are needed, and energy could become “free” – a sustainable good for all.
In the future, energy will be harvested from almost everything and everyone, in buildings, mobility stations, at home. Energy will be produced while you walk, sit or even sleep. Small amounts of electrical energy from sources such as ambient temperature, vibrations or air currents for low-power mobile devices can be harvested through energy harvesting. The structures used are also called nanogenerators. In wireless technologies, energy harvesting avoids the limitations of wired power supplies or batteries.
AI and algorithms are not just for figuring things out from data or optimising processes. AI will be a game changer for our society and therefore for the future of energy. Back to the wind turbines we explored at the beginning. What if AI were to develop novel products and designs to generate energy from wind? Designs that we humans could never design. An algorithm can study millions or billions of designs and improve their efficiency, creating much better products for a specific purpose. And with technologies like 3D or 4D printing, such new, even more complex products can be built much cheaper than ever before.
AI, arguably the most exponential digital technology, could also accelerate the development of safe, clean and virtually limitless fusion energy. Controlling fusion reactions is a highly complex task with thousands of variables that need to be constantly reset. AI could be the one technology to master this high complexity and provide humanity with a new clean and high-tech energy source.
This article is by no means a complete picture. Nevertheless, it gives an overview of what digitalisation and digital technologies could be capable of. Digital technologies are powerful. But the real power lies in the convergence of multiple technologies linked together in a networked system of systems and functions as one intelligent system. To control such complex systems, technologies like AI are essential. Digitisation and digital technologies have the potential for sustainable transformation to enable humanity to transition to sustainable, free energy for all. Future technologies and systems, for curious and forward-thinking minds, could also raise our level of civilisation and make us a Type 1 civilisation. Humanity will drain our home planet and our neighbouring star of all available energy.
- International Energy Agency. (2017). Together Secure Sustainable Digitalization & Energy. https://iea.blob.core.windows.net/assets/b1e6600c-4e40-4d9c-809d-1d1724c763d5/DigitalizationandEnergy3.pdf