The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of FORESIGHT Climate & Energy
All parts of the energy value chain will need to be flexible to reach net-zero
There has been a lot of talk about net zero and carbon neutrality lately, especially around the COP26 climate negotiations in Glasgow. Many countries, cities and companies have made substantial public commitments, which are admirable. I call this the “what”. More importantly though, now the question is “how” will they achieve these ambitions?
The answer to this is far more complex and requires great minds with holistic views including an understanding of the role of industry and infrastructure. Our political leaders can drive the changes by setting goals and visions and even providing funding and favourable public policy settings. But then you need people with the right skills to make it happen. The task at hand is an engineering and technology feat the likes of which we have never seen before.
The good news is that I believe we can solve these challenges, especially through technology and innovation accelerated through collaborative partnerships and the right policy settings.
The future of energy is closely connected to several other global trends: Industry 4.0 and the transition to integrated intelligent infrastructure. Electrification of everything, digitalisation and the Internet of Things (IoT) are driving and enabling this convergence. It is similar to the convergence that took place over the last 30 years in telecommunications; voice, data and video have all converged and we now take this for granted. Energy, infrastructure, and industry are all converging.
This means more opportunities but also a need to approach things differently. Take for example Industry 4.0—a term coined by the Germans to prospectively explain the fourth industrial revolution taking place. To prepare for this the Germans are focusing on getting the standards right, developing appropriate legal frameworks, allowing for new business models and developing the skills and education system to produce people needed in this environment.
The energy transition needs to be viewed in a similar holistic way but also interconnected to Industry 4.0. The same goes with our view of the world moving towards a much more intelligent infrastructure. One thing impacts the other.
About 40% of the world’s energy is consumed by buildings. Industry including manufacturing consumes about 20% of the world’s energy. Through technology upgrades we can halve consumption in both sectors through existing technologies. Australia’s iconic sports stadium, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, has a smart building management system connected to its events booking system so that heating ventilation and cooling only runs when and where it is needed.
The Melbourne Museum smart infrastructure upgrades show an annual 42% reduction in energy consumption. There are many similar examples with existing technology upgrades. It is important to note though that many of the technologies that will be employed post-2030 have not even been invented yet so I’m hopeful of even greater outcomes and importance in the energy transition. The greatest gains we can make of course come from the energy we do not use.
Along with other energy experts, I am convinced that flexibility is the key to our future electricity system. That is flexibility in conventional generation, flexibility in renewable generation, flexibility in networks and flexibility in demand. The way we generate, consume, store and share energy is being transformed—and is all made possible by digitalisation. In this context, the Grid Edge plays an important role in net zero because this is the place where the consumer, prosumer and the intelligent grid interact, and where we need to balance the fluctuating energy supplies and demands.
On a technical level, some fundamental things we take for granted as part of Industry 4.0 equally apply to the energy transition. The digital twin, which is already widely in use in the industry sector allows you to analyse and plan complex electrical power systems, making them ready for changing requirements. Data analytics, Industrial IoT and artificial intelligence allow you to plan and adjust energy needs in real-time based on real demand data.
Effective storage has been said to be the holy grail of a renewable energy future because you can address the reliability issue that comes with intermittent forms of energy such as wind and solar. Not everyone in the Asia-Pacific region has the abundant renewable potential that Australia has and so green hydrogen is a legitimate alternative to fossil fuels if it is scaled up quickly and costs go down.
It also supports decarbonisation of the gas network as we are already seeing with the Australia Gas Infrastructure Group using excess rooftop solar in Adelaide through a Siemens electrolyser to split H2O and create green hydrogen which is reticulated into the local gas grid. As the Asia-Pacific region looks to decarbonise, Australia’s green hydrogen should be a great support in that energy transition.
Moving from the “what” to the “how” is complex but very possible. Energy grids, buildings and industry need to merge into one optimized system. Flexibility is key for energy networks and digitalisation plays an integral role in achieving this and in optimising the energy value chain and lifecycle of our energy systems.
All of this can only be achieved through close interaction of society, academia, and industry to really master the energy transformation. •
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