Smart digital grids are the bloodline of the net zero world – we need to treat them as such

By Mike Hughes, SVP End to End Digital Customer Relationship, Schneider Electric

Net Hero Podcast

If we compare our modern world to the human body, the energy grid would fit the description of the bloodline, powering the entire ecosystem. Similar to the ‘always on’, uninterrupted oxygen supply to our vital organs, energy grids are complex networks that play a fundamental role in powering just about everything in our increasingly digital world – from hospitals to data centres, to our homes and offices. Yet we know that today, 80% of our carbon emissions come from energy. To avoid global temperatures rising by as much as 4 ̊C by the year 2100, we must double down on renewables, weaning the economy off fossil fuels.

Smart, clean electricity, combined with digital is the fastest way to decarbonise the world. Change is already afoot: we are transitioning to electric heating, cooking and transportation, making it possible to identify and minimise energy waste more easily. When it comes to electricity vis-à-vis other sources of power, the former is a no-brainer. Electricity possesses nearly 100% maximum thermal efficiency when it comes to ‘useful energy’, while up to 67% of energy coming from other sources, for example combustion engines, is lost. As a result, EV passenger cars require 3–4 times less energy than conventional internal combustion (ICE) engines.

Smart, clean electricity, combined with digital is the fastest way to decarbonise the world

However, to enable the energy transition, change must come on the level of infrastructure, too. The race to net zero is like a marathon without a finish line – an endurance challenge that pushes the whole system to its limits. Much like a long-distance runner can’t get too far without a healthy circulation system, the net zero future is simply not possible without a robust, smart, and software-enabled digital grid. We’ve now witnessed the impact of several adverse weather events in the US (and around the world) – from the scorching heat to freezing cold temperatures – and their devastating effect on the grid not robust enough to withstand and effectively manage rapid surges in demand.

Electricity 4.0: digitise to optimise

Over the next 30 years, owing to a growing demand for sustainable energy, up to 78,700-terawatt hours (TWh) worth of electricity will be generated by 2050 – a three-fold increase on 2018, while radically transforming the way we produce and distribute it. What’s more, electricity is predicted to be the main energy carrier with over 50% (direct) share of total final energy use by the time the world becomes net zero. Yet it is much easier to save a unit of energy than to create it. Part of the solution is to find ways of using less energy in the first place, harnessing the power of digital to ensure we consume better quality, smarter and greener energy, more efficiently. This combination of digital and electric is what we call Electricity 4.0.

Going well beyond energy efficiency, this new digital and electric way to power the world is already enabling individuals and businesses to generate their own electricity using photovoltaic panels and microgrids, powering their homes, offices and electric vehicles alike. In time, they will be able to sell excess energy back to the grid – once our power systems are able to support bi-directional, decentralised energy flows, igniting our ability to race towards net zero at full speed.

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Smart grids: software for sustainability  

The good news is that smart grids are capable of supporting a 70-80% decarbonised power generation mix alongside decentralised and agile energy supply. Microgrids will also play a growing role in areas where main grids lack reliability; they are able to function independently, supporting local demand while reducing pressure on the main grid. With smart technology, grids can be more efficient, resilient and people-centric.

But what makes a smart grid truly sophisticated, agile and future-proof in the first place? It’s software. The so-called Advanced Distributed Management Solutions (ADMS) and IT-OT platform integration help prevent the exact type of predicament that the power distribution systems of Texas, USA, found themselves in in the early spring of this year amid an unexpected cold spell. ADMS systems feed on enormous volumes of data produced by digitised energy grids in order to recalibrate and optimise loads in real time. The result: smart grids proactively identify likely power outages, pinpoint the exact location of emerging issues and self-heal using automated switching.

The rising and ever-changing energy demands of the 21st century mandate urgent modernisation of our energy systems. The right technologies and digital solutions already exist. We can no longer overlook the pressing need to digitise our energy infrastructure if we are to achieve our net zero ambition.