Electricity meets data: enabling the twin green and digital transition

By Bruce Douglas, Director Business & Communications at Eurelectric
Winter 2020

From the beginning of time, the human ability to innovate and adapt has challenged the limits of possible and impossible. Each discovery from fire to electricity, from steam-powered to electric vehicles, from ice-cooled rooms to refrigerators, has shown us that with the right mind set we could make disruptors work in our best interest. Is has happened in the past, and it can happen again.

The need to cut the alarmingly high and still mounting greenhouse gas emissions has triggered a radical transformation of business operations around the world. In the aftermath of the Paris Agreement, the European electricity utilities committed to clean up the generation mix, gradually replacing the fossilfuelled capacities with carbon-free sources, such as wind and solar.

Industry-wide assessments have shown us that it is both technically and financially possible to have renewables cover over 80% of electricity demand by 2045. In this scenario, a deep decarbonisation of the power sector, coupled with increased electrification rates of heating and cooling, transport and industry, would enable Europe to become carbon neutral well before mid-century.

The potential of clean sources of energy has exponentially increased in light of the promising technological evolutions that facilitate their penetration, increase efficiency or simplify operations and maintenance. Together with that, the growing interplay between digitalisation, decarbonisation and decentralisation, brings new services and ways to engage consumers in the energy transition.

In the first half of 2020, renewables covered 34% of the EU electricity mix, dethroning the fossil fuels for the first time, and leading to a 23% yearto- date drop of the CO2 emissions from the power sector. While some will attribute these results, in part, to the COVID-19 black swan event, for us this is a reflection of an inexorable trend: the accelerating decarbonisation process.

Data presented in Eurelectric's Power Barometer, shows that the accelerating decarbonisation of electricity generation, turned the power sector into the front runner in the race to cut the CO2 emissions. At the same time, the transport and other industrial sectors continued to emit steadily. But, by ramping up the uptake of clean electricity, through direct and indirect electrification, these energy and carbon intensive activities, could drastically cut their emissions.

A recent assessment of the World Meteorological Organisation has shown that this year the global CO2 emissions fell between 4.2% and 7.5%, in spite of the high-magnitude standstill imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. If economic activities go back to the pre-crisis "normal", the limit of what can possibly be absorbed without raising the global temperatures even more, will be reached soon. From that point onward, each calorie produced to heat our homes and workplaces, each trip by car or plane, as well as each meal we cook, would further intensify the global warming.

The good news is that individuals and business around the world are growing more aware of the negative impacts that keeping the status quo would have. Their calls to #BuildBackBetter and #BuildBackGreener were heard, and at EU level we have seen a massive mobilisation of recovery funds, of which 33% are dedicated to climate projects while 20% should be directed to digitalisation.

Digitalisation is a key enabler of a climate neutral power sector. Eurelectric's AI Insights: The PowerSector in a Post-Digital Age , a joint assessment conducted by major electricity utilities and tech players, shows us the huge opportunities for the energy transition, that stem from the interplay between our sector and the interconnected exponential technologies, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning.

First, as AI is breaking through the limits of human capabilities at just the right time as radical transformation of the electricity sector is essential for a cost-effective clean energy transition. When looking at electricity generation, AI has the potential to drive operating efficiencies, automation and cost savings. This transformation is not about replacing the human component, but more about augmenting their abilities.

An additional benefit of AI applications in the power sector is enhanced forecasting, which can enable a predictive maintenance of assets, as well as an optimal match between supply and demand. While not so long ago, a 24/7 carbon-free electricity supply was unimaginable, technological evolutions – including energy storage, digitalisation and decentralisation – are bringing it closer to the realms of possibility.

Second, the growing synergies between the AI and the power sector are enabling consumers to play a key role in the energy transition. Smart devices, like Alexa or Google home, allow individuals to manage their energy consumption based on desired comfort levels, or to switch appliances on and off, when power is expensive.

The increased interaction between consumers and the power system serves also as an effective flexibility solution to ensure the adequate functioning of a green grid. A better coordination between the growing numbers of coordinated devices, such as smart homes and EVs, would be essential to enable a stable and reliable electricity supply, while phasing out the fossil-fuelled generation.

A successful coordination depends on data exchanges between consumers, suppliers or grid operators. But privacy concerns and risks related to data collection, storage and management still need to be tackled. Going forward, a careful balancing act will be required to manage the potential risks, avoid bias and safeguard consumer privacy, while allowing sufficient access to data and designing regulations that are robust and effective without strangling innovation.