Digitization and the Energy Transition

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Climate change is, undoubtedly, the defining challenge of our time.

In my hometown of Chicago, IL, we’ve seen an increase in localized flooding and droughts—and our state has experienced three billion-dollar disaster events so far in 2022. Chicagoans aren’t alone, of course. Last year, 69 percent of Texans lost power during the unprecedented Winter Storm Uri, and Californians continue to endure longer—and more devastating—wildfire seasons. Beyond the impacts of climate change, many communities around the world are contending with aging energy infrastructure, making access to safe, reliable energy challenging.

Together, climate change and aging infrastructure are more than an inconvenience or economic burden. When the power goes out, it means a lack of access to essential medical equipment, food, air conditioning, and other life-saving resources. The good news is that limiting climate change and creating a zero-waste, zero-emissions, zero-carbon world is possible—and the solutions to do so are available now. The keys are electrification and digitization.

The Power Duo: Electric and Digital

​Electric and digital are the backbones of resilient energy infrastructure and a sustainable future.

​It’s true: the case for electricity isn’t new. Strategies on how and why to electrify are headline-grabbing. And this enthusiasm makes sense. Electricity from solar panels, wind turbines, and other renewables sources is the most efficient form of energy. Renewable energy is sleek. It’s innovative. It’s attainable for many.

​But what’s not so common is the addition of digitization to this conversation. Digitization makes invisible energy waste visible so we can use energy more efficiently. The benefits of electrification are realized and enhanced by digitization.

First: Solve for Energy Waste

When we talk about decreasing emissions to solve for climate change, we often focus on the energy source because it represents the beginning of the power cycle. But I like to flip the script and start with the demand side because how we use our electricity can and will impact how we source it. Simply put, if we solve for the demand side first, it’s easier to solve for supply.

​Consider this: the US wastes over 60 percent of the energy it generates. I believe we need to solve for waste at the start—and it’s possible with digitization. Through digital devices, tools, and systems, we gain the insights we need to know where that waste is originating.​

On a small scale: what if you learned that a specific light fixture in your house was drawing significantly more energy than all the others? You’d change out the lightbulb, right? Take this example and think about what you could do with building-wide or even community-wide insights into your HVAC, IT infrastructure, and electrical systems.

How much energy could you potentially save? ​According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, energy efficiency on its own can cut nearly 57 percent of emissions. Digital information is, quite literally, power.

Next: Optimize the Transmission

Digital doesn’t start and end at the point of energy use. Digitization is also essential in ensuring an improved, efficient journey of electricity from the electrical grid—or solar panels, batteries, EVs, and other energy sources—to your outlet.

As the President of North America Operations at Schneider Electric, I often hear stories of our customers and partners on their new energy journey. One of my favorite stories is of Montgomery County, MD, a community that endured a prolonged power outage during a severe weather event. In response to this incident, Montgomery County deployed two microgrids. And using smart, digital technologies like a microgrid controller, personnel monitor the energy generated and used in real-time. If a severe weather event were to happen, the community has the digital tools to ensure clean, continual power.

Imagine the impact if more communities, businesses, and even homeowners had this control!

Finally: Clean up the Source

Today, fossil fuels meet around 80 percent of our energy needs, but that’s changing. There’s a strong push to replace fossil fuels with renewable, zero-carbon energy sources such as solar, wind, and hydro. And when you consider that the average fossil fuel generates 1000g CO2 emissions per kWh, it’s clear: the carbon reduction potential is extraordinary.​

​You may be wondering, “what about the cost?” While renewables were once out of reach for communities and businesses alike, their price has continued to decrease over the past decade. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, 62 percent of renewables are more affordable than the cheapest new fossil fuel.  In the years to come, costs for renewables are expected to decline, while accessibility will continue to grow.

Powering the New Electric World

Without taking bold actions to decarbonize across the energy lifecycle, we will not limit the impacts of global warming. The time to act —to cut emissions and limit the impacts of climate change—is now. And it requires going all-in on electrification and digitization.

This article was originally published in Energy Today, August 29, 2022.

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