The Enlit smart energy conference that took place in November in Paris had a sobering message about public grids becoming the bottlenecks in integrating distributed renewable energy assets and endangering reaching net-zero targets. Urgent action will be required to transform a still very conservative and heavily regulated industry. Fortunately, the widespread adoption of digitalization in the form of Artificial Intelligence (AI), digital twins, virtualization, connectivity, and cybersecurity is expected to help accelerate innovation to address a wide range of issues.
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Electricity Grids Increasingly Incapable of Accommodating Renewable Energy Assets
Arguably the most disturbing message heard at the Enlit smart energy conference in Paris during November was the increasingly crippled state of public grids in terms of available capacity and flexibility to manage renewable energy generation. While investments in renewables such as solar and wind have skyrocketed over the past decade, grid expansion and upgrades have not followed suit, creating a worrying and growing imbalance between green energy generation on one hand, and the capability to transport and distribute this energy across public electricity grids when and where it is needed. Worse even, large capacities of renewable solar microgrids and associated battery storage systems are fully operational, but sitting idle, waiting for a connection to the grid, in some cases facing delays of up to 7 years. One of the panel speakers claimed that 50% of the renewables projects are delayed because of grid limitations. This jeopardizes reaching decarbonization targets globally. Urgent demands are being made for more investments in public electricity grids to the tune of €400 billion in Europe alone by 2030.
However, this “us and them” bipolar view of centralized grids on one side, and distributed renewables on the other side should be questioned. From various panel debates, it was obvious how large the divide still is between legacy centralized thinking within public grid circles and the new entrants doubling down on a more holistic and decentralized view on energy systems. While one speaker from a large utility reluctantly admitted that the role of public grids is evolving from controlling energy generation and distribution End-to-End (E2E) toward only adopting the role of “energy backbone,” others were advocating a more inclusive view of grids and microgrids constituting one large interconnected and interdependent system. The latter position would require grids to be redesigned to embrace this fundamental transformation as opposed to just mindlessly expanding existing legacy grid architectures and configurations.
On a more pragmatic level, the International Energy Agency (IEA) called for doubling yearly increases in energy intensity/efficiency from 2% to 4% for the rest of this decade leading to 2030.
A Sector in Full Transformation Finally Embracing Digitalization
On a more positive note, the Enlit conference also made it clear that the energy sector is starting to embrace digitalization, catching up with other industries such as telco and manufacturing in terms of adopting the following technologies:
- Artificial Intelligence (AI): Extracting deeper insights from energy metering data, including for preventive maintenance use cases (Voltaware), and automated orchestration and management of complex energy grid systems (Siemens and GE Vernova)
- Digital Twins: (Financial) Modeling and simulation of energy networks (demand levels, capacity requirements, pricing levels) (Energy Exemplar – PLEXOS)
- Connectivity: Moving beyond legacy smart metering to granularly connect assets across the energy value chain for both capturing data and enabling remote control use cases
- Data Analytics and Aggregation: Energy data capture and visualization platforms (Cognite)
- Cybersecurity: Leveraging the rich cybersecurity tools available within the Information Technology (IT) environment as opposed to Operational Technology (OT) (Schneider Electric)
- Energy Network Virtualization: Adopting a unified hardware framework and implementing more functionality to software (Schneider Electric)
- Open Management Platforms: Opening up energy networks to other industries such as automotive for Electric Vehicle (EV) charging management and control (OpenADR)
The Clock Is Ticking for the Energy Sector
With net-zero imperatives and targets looming large, the big elephant in energy company board rooms around the world is that urgency is of the essence:
- Urgency to fully adopt decentralized energy perspectives across the entire energy ecosystem
- Urgency to adopt digitalization to design, operate, and maintain the energy networks and systems of the future
- Urgency to create more flexible and agile regulatory frameworks allowing and enabling faster innovation
- Urgency to maximize energy efficiency levels and support electrification acceleration across all sectors
- Urgency to increase energy fluidity levels enabling widespread electricity trading on marketplaces
- Urgency to adopt proactive attitudes in terms of anticipating future capacity requirements
This is a tall order for a still very conservative and heavily regulated industry that is also struggling with an aging workforce. Key deadlines respectively centered around the 2030 and 2050 (carbon neutrality) time horizons are not leaving a lot of room for procrastination or mistakes. Fortunately, a new generation of forward-thinking energy startups, very strong interest in energy and sustainability-related curricula at universities, and major energy technology players like Schneider Electric and Siemens embracing internal transformation offer glimpses of hope for still being able to avoid an impending disaster.