Every bit counts – Toward an electrified planet

Since the 2015 G7 summit in Germany, the world has focused on a common goal: to turn away from fossil energy in favor of electricity as a universal energy source, with the ambition of achieving complete decarbonization by the year 2100. This presents all economies with tremendous challenges, and energy systems in particular are undergoing radical changes. At the 2018 UN-climate-conference (COP24) - this topic is further being discussed vigorously. For this development upheaval is referred to as the “3D Model of Energy” because it can be traced to three trends: decarbonization, decentralization, and digitalization.


by Peter Gottal

According to a report from the UN initiative Sustainable Energy for All, more than a billion people on earth live without access to electricity. Regions that are particularly affected by this include sub-Saharan countries, which are experiencing rapid population growth. According to estimates by the United Nations, the global population is projected to increase by nearly two billion people by the year 2040. This growth will primarily take place in developing countries. Political leaders, industry, and aid organizations all agree that it is morally imperative and economically necessary to provide access to electricity to all people. 


Yet not everyone is aware of the dilemma this poses: What would we face if this segment of the world’s population were to live and consume energy as we do? If roughly half the power requirements were obtained from fossil fuels, not only where we are but also in those areas? At the very least, such a development would endanger the ambitious climate protection goals of the international community and, most of all, put at immediate risk the limitation of global warming to a maximum of two degrees. It is now undisputed that the consumption of fossil energy is directly related to global warming. Anyone who believes that there is no correlation between rising temperatures, especially ocean temperature, and the frequency and intensity of natural disasters is simply denying reality – and one that is increasingly taking place right on our own doorstep, not just in distant, exotic countries. 


The transport sector is an example of what this means on a global scale if everyone follows the example of developed industrial countries. Traffic-related emissions today are around 60 percent higher than in 1990, and the main reason for this can be found in the drastic increase in the number of vehicles in developing and emerging countries. In China alone, the number of vehicles has more than quadrupled to roughly 200 million within the last decade.

The demand for electricity is also growing worldwide. Experts expect the amount of generated electricity to increase by around two thirds by the year 2040. This is not just a matter of the backlog demand in developing and emerging countries, it is also about an increased demand for electricity due to the growth of information and communication technology in industrialized countries. 


The consequences of this are clear: The world needs power for everyone, preferably generated from renewable energy sources in a manner that is as climate-neutral as possible. Moving away from fossil fuels and a central supply of power from just a few power plants and toward numerous, distributed, and renewable sources of energy such as wind turbines and solar systems will not occur overnight.


Beyond the political and economic issues, this radical shift presents us with tremendous technical challenges. The decoupling of the generation and consumption of energy with regard to time and space results in a system that is noticeably more complex. The more decentralized units that are integrated into the energy system, the more complex the situation becomes. With an availability of nearly 100 percent, the German power grid is considered to be a role model in industrialized countries. The energy transition, however, has left its marks on the system. In recent years, for example, there has been a massive increase in the number of interventions by network operators to stabilize the German power grid. According to information from the operator TenneT, in 2003 grid management engineers only had to intervene twice that entire year to maintain the stability of the entire power grid. With the energy transition, the number of these events had increased to 1,024 interventions in the year 2011 and to 6,325 in 2015. 


The costs involved are increasing as well. 2015, the cost of emergency interventions was around 1 billion euros. In the year of 2017, it was already by 1.4 billion. After the last nuclear power plants will be shut down in 2022, according to the Federal Network Agency, the intervention costs could increase to up to four billion euros per year nationwide. This means the consumer will have to cover these costs in his or her electrical bill.

The 3D Model of Energy: decarbonization – decentralization – digitalization

These upheavals in the energy system can be summed up under the term “3D model” because they involve three global trends. The first trend is decarbonization. Political framework conditions and regulations, environmental pollution, and a shared concern for the world’s climate mean that production of energy will shift away from fossil sources and towards renewable energy sources, especially wind and solar.


Decarbonization goes hand-in-hand with a second trend, decentralization. The traditional energy landscape that was once made up of a few large power plants with downstream transmission and distribution capacities is undergoing a fundamental change. If we are striving for an energy supply with low CO2 emissions from increasingly renewable resources – in conjunction with storage facilities and larger power plants that will continue to be required for a stable power supply – then we need a completely new approach. The growing number of energy producers makes it necessary to completely redesign the system control. 


To cope with the complexity of the energy system, it is necessary to make the power grids more intelligent and thereby exploit the possibilities of digitalization. By integrating IT systems, these intelligent power grids, referred to as smart grids, combine different producers and consumers in order to ensure the necessary stability. This fragmentation additionally breaks up what were once established system and process boundaries, for instance between municipal utilities and grid operators. New networks of producers and consumers are evolving into a wide variety of new market participants and service providers. This, in turn, develops into completely new business models for purchasing and selling energy. Various ideas for a convergence of industries, technologies, value chains, and commercial processes are derived from this fact.

Not science fiction: artificial intelligence

Dealing with an ever-increasing volume of data in the overall energy system is the challenge facing industry. The growing complexity in decentralized energy landscapes is a major contributor to the growth of this overall data volume. The number of networked devices acts as a benchmark for this. In 2003, the global population was 6.3 billion people and there were 500 million devices connected to the Internet. According to forecasts by US company Cisco, this figure is expected to increase to 50 billion by the year 2020. The overall volume of data is growing at the same rate. According to a recently published study by IDC, a market research company, the worldwide data volume is expected to rise from its currently level of 16 zettabytes to 163 zettabytes in the year 2025 – a tenfold increase. 


Quantum computing is a groundbreaking technology that is already being intensively explored by industry today. Compared to traditional computers, quantum computers have a fundamentally different architecture and operating principles that are based upon the properties of quantum theory. Quantum computers directly use subatomic particles and harness their quantum properties for data storage and data processing. This will potentially enable quantum computers to achieve computing speeds and performance that will be inconceivably higher than conventional computers. They are capable of handling complexities that are still unmanageable today. This world made up of the tiniest of particles will help us to solve the problems of the larger world around us. And that will be needed as power generation for our planet becomes increasingly renewable, the global population continues to grow, and the supply of electricity extends to more and more people.



Peter Gottal

Picture credits: Panthermedia, Siemens AG

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