Net Zero is the ‘what’ - but technology with purpose will drive the ‘how’

Commitments to net zero are important, but the real test is moving from the ‘what’ to the ‘how’. Jeff Connolly, Chairman and CEO of Siemens Australia and the Pacific, explains why this requires a more inclusive and holistic approach.

There’s been a lot of talk about net zero and carbon neutral lately – but how do you get there? According to Jeff Connolly, industry, infrastructure and energy sectors must converge – which can only be done with the help of digital technologies, some of them yet to be developed. Australia, blessed with ideal conditions to harvest renewable energy, can play a critical role on the way to decarbonization, not only in the APAC region but also for the world, as Connolly is convinced.


By Keith Ritchie

On October 26, Australia committed to net zero by 2050 – an announcement that was made during COP26 at Glasgow. This follows a long list of countries, cities and companies making similar commitments. “I call this the ‘what,’” said Prof. Connolly, Chairman and CEO of Siemens Australia and the Pacific. “These are admirable commitments, but the real test is when the rubber hits the road and we move to the ‘how’."


Many who have made the commitments have outlined plans to some extent, but the reality is that, like New Year’s resolutions, what happens after the resolution is the most important part and is much more difficult to live up to. Bringing net zero commitments to life will be similar.


“Your frame of reference needs to be big when you’re trying to address a big topic like climate change and net zero but it also needs to be focussed,” says Connolly. 

Your frame of reference needs to be big when you’re trying to address a big topic like climate change but it also needs to be focussed.
Jeff Connolly, Chairman and CEO of Siemens Australia and the Pacific

Prof Connolly is no stranger to big topics as he led Australia’s journey to preparing for Industry 4.0 as Chairman of the Prime Minister’s Industry 4.0 Taskforce – part of why he received the title of adjunct professor. And now he leads the Australian Government’s taskforce review into commercialisation of research, another topic critical to Australia’s future.


“Moving from the ‘what’ to the ‘how’ is far more complex than waving placards and shouting one-line slogans.” Connolly likens it to when President John F. Kennedy famously said to US Congress on the 25th of May 1961 that "this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth." Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon on the 20th of July 1969.


“The moon landing didn’t happen by accident,” said Connolly. “NASA estimated that it took more than 400,000 engineers, scientists and technicians to accomplish the moon landings. Clearly it was far more complex than just looking at the type of fuel they required.”  

Connolly is optimistic and has no doubt that the targets are achievable with the right minds. “We can achieve net zero but it requires great minds with holistic views including an understanding of the role of industry and infrastructure and people who know how an electron is produced,” Prof Connolly said. “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.”


Siemens own sustainability targets and achievements is testament to what can be realized in a truly sustainable way. “These challenges will be solved through technology and innovation, accelerated through collaborative partnerships and the right policy settings. It’s all possible and Siemens is proof in the pudding,” Prof. Connolly said.

The task at hand is an engineering and technology feat – the likes of which we have never seen before.
Jeff Connolly

In terms of Siemens own targets, in 2015 the company was of the first major industrial companies to set a carbon neutral target by 2030 and the company is well on our way to achieving this. Since launching the program Siemens has reduced its own CO2 emissions by 54%. Energy efficiency upgrades will pay for themselves over time.

Convergence is the big picture

Prof Connolly has spent many years highlighting core technology-linked trends such as Industry 4.0, digitalization, the future of energy and the transition to integrated intelligent infrastructure. “Electrification of everything, digitalization and IoT are driving and enabling a technological convergence.


It’s not dissimilar to the convergence that took place over the last 30 years in telecommunications; that is, voice, data and video have all converged and we now take this for granted. Energy, infrastructure, and industry are all converging, and this means more opportunities but also a need to approach things differently.”

Energy, infrastructure, and industry are all converging, and this means more opportunities but also a need to approach things differently.
Jeff Connolly

Take for example Industry 4.0; the Germans coined this term to prospectively explain how manufacturing was entering the fourth industrial revolution, so they could prepare society for the change in an ordered and planned way. “We mirrored the German approach in Australia by focusing on getting the standards right, developing appropriate legal frameworks, encouraging new business models, and developing the skills and education systems to produce people needed in this environment.”


According to Connolly, the energy transition needs to be viewed in a similar way, "holistically, but also interconnected to Industry 4.0 and the transition to much more intelligent infrastructure. “One thing impacts the other and the other, so you need to view them as a whole.”


This all rings true when you see new energy models being established such as virtual power plants where buildings are connected within a microgrid managing flexible energy demands and integrating multiple forms of energy and storage.

Energy saved is the most renewable of them all

About 40% of the world’s energy is consumed by buildings in our growing cities. Industry including manufacturing consumes about 20% of the world’s energy. Through upgrades we can often halve consumption in both sectors using existing technologies.


“The key words here existing technologies,” says Connolly. He points to real examples including Australia’s iconic 100,000 capacity sporting stadium the MCG with its smart building management system connected to its events booking system so that heating ventilation and cooling only runs where it’s needed and when it’s needed.


Also, the Melbourne Museum smart infrastructure upgrades which show an annual 42% reduction in energy consumption from a 2011 baseline. By upgrading to variable frequency drives to operate the pumps at Queensland Alumina Limited, they expect to save as much as 45% energy consumption. “The examples are all around us. Every day we sell technology which has a purpose which usually results in the business impact of making something faster, cheaper and with less impact on the environment,” say Connolly. 

Although these changes are happening with existing and readily available technology, every year Siemens alone spends almost AUD $8 Billion on research and development so you can imagine how this will play out in solving our challenges even faster in the future.  Connolly believes that “many of the technologies that will be employed post 2030 haven’t even been invented yet.”


An example at hand comes from COP26 where Sophia Hamblin Wang from Australian company MCi (Mineral Carbonisation International) beat out more than 2500 clean tech companies from around the world to win the COP26 Clean Energy Start Up pitch battle. MCi’s innovative solution locks away carbon in building materials such as bricks – using Siemens’ automation to support the process.

Tapping the renewable potential

On the flip side, Connolly recognises that for the energy we do use we need to look at decarbonisation of our industry and infrastructure by increasing renewable sources. “Australia has incredible renewable assets in terms of abundant sunshine and wind and lots of unoccupied space. With this we can play a bigger role in the region and in the world,” said Connolly. 

Wind and solar capacity make Australia an envy to the APAC region and the world.
Jeff Connolly

Australia is experiencing remarkable renewables growth – in the order of a record 7 gigawatts of new renewable capacity installed last year. The nation has the largest uptake of household solar in the world. “When you look at a heat map, our worst place for solar is better than Germany’s best place for solar,” said Connolly. "Wind and solar capacity make Australia an envy to the APAC region and the world."


Connolly recognises that part of the process of decarbonising is electrifying everything and using that clean energy for industry and infrastructure including transport. “Electrification is a prerequisite of making best use of renewable energy and is a crucial part of this convergence.” But renewable generation isn’t as simple as some photovoltaic panels and a few wind turbines says Connolly.


“There’s a lot of innovation taking place to enable renewables.” An example is Tahiti. The island is working towards a 75% renewable target by replacing diesel with battery storage. This is being supported with a unique combination of inverter technology from Siemens with virtual synchronous generator (VSG) functionality. Another example is the e-cube jointly developed in Australia by Siemens and the Clean Technology Group to fast track and streamline medium solar connection to the grid.  


Digitalization of everything 

With the dramatic increase of renewable energy, also comes the need to manage far more complexity in terms of multidirectional energy and greater fluctuation. Smart energy management is becoming much more relevant – in transmission and distribution grids. Information and transparency is key to match supply and demand under much more complex conditions. 

Some fundamental things we take for granted as part of Industry 4.0 equally apply to the energy transition.
Jeff Connolly

Convergence comes with an explosion of data and the Industrial IoT. About 50% of the world’s data was created last year and we need to turn this into value. For example, Siemens EnergyIP Meter Data Management software has played a key role in upgrading one of the biggest meter data management systems in Australia to make it ready for new energy market requirements to dispatch and settle energy in Five Minute Settlement blocks.

This becomes critical given the volatility of energy spot prices as we transition to a more complex energy mix. “More capable smart meter management helps energy providers to understand their data better and ultimately forecast and operate the power grid even more efficiently for their customers,” says Connolly. “Imagine what else can be achieved if we harness this explosion of data.”

Lessons from Industry 4.0 around flexibility

As experts agree, 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 digitalization. The Grid Edge also plays an important role in net zero because it’s where the consumer, prosumer and the intelligent grid interact. Again – all about flexibility.  


Connolly says that this need for flexibility is similar to what is taking place in the industry sector: “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 manufacturing, for example allows you to analyse and plan complex electrical power systems, making them ready for changed/changing requirements. Data analytics, IIoT and artificial intelligence allow you to plan and adjust energy needs in real-time based on real demand data. “Digital twins support the integration of conventional and renewable energy, better investment planning and improved grid reliability,” Connolly says.   

Hydrogen is the game changer, and Australia can lead the world

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 APAC region has abundant renewable potential and so green hydrogen is a legitimate alternative to fossil fuels if we scale up quickly and get costs down,” said Connolly. “Strategically it makes sense for Australia to not only build domestic hydrogen needs but also to aim to be the world’s largest exporter of hydrogen as we transition over the coming decades away from fossil fuel exports,” Connolly said.

The time for pilots is over. 
Jeff Connolly

Hydrogen also supports decarbonisation of the gas network. The Australia Gas Infrastructure Group already uses excess rooftop solar in Adelaide through a Siemens electrolyser to split H2O and create green hydrogen which is reticulated into the local gas grid. “The time for pilots is over. The technology is proven; it just needs scale and an initial period of support to get the cost curve down. If Australia does this well, then as a nation, we can also support the decarbonisation and energy security of the APAC region.”

Mastering the net zero transformation

Professor Connolly is convinced that energy grids, buildings and industry need to merge into one optimized system. Flexibility is key for energy networks and digitalization plays an integral role in achieving this and in optimizing the energy value chain and lifecycle of our energy systems. Finally, all of this can only be achieved through close interaction of society, academia and industry to really master the energy transformation. Only then will the ‘how’ become real. 

November 19, 2021

Picture credits: Siemens AG

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