Towards data democracy: An energy union beyond 2020


Just two short years ago, Europe and other parts of the world scrambled (some crawled) towards achieving compliance with the Global Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), under threat of heavy fines and hamstrung operations.

The resultant increase in data protection measures deployed throughout the European utility sector was an all-consuming priority, bringing about new levels of data integrity and operational credibility – in what can be argued to have been a necessary delay to lay the foundation for an efficient and effective transition to a sustainable energy future on the continent.

This article was originally published in Smart Energy International 5-2019. Read the full digimag here or subscribe to receive a print copy here.

But a delay it has proven to be in confronting the very real, ever-worsening threat of climate change resulting from global warming and carbon emissions, and the threat of a chain of climate-related events beyond 2050 where mass-extinction, freak weather, flooding and collapsing economies are near-apocalyptic in scale.

As illogical as it may appear, let’s disconnect from these factors, and just for a moment, consider the purely political and economic circumstances facing the European energy market. These include the looming promise of an eventual Tory-led exit by the UK from the EU, the falling prices of renewable energy – now below that of nuclear and fossil-fuelled generation – and the coming infrastructure requirements posed by the electrification of transportation; increasing renewables generation and infrastructure, and a global movement to self-generation. These trends put a myriad of both threats and opportunities on the table for utility decision-makers worldwide to modernise their operations in ways not even dreamt of just two decades ago.

The realities of climate change, however, has seen a year in which EU member states have risen to the challenge, with the UK, Germany, France, and now Scotland, making legally binding commitments to the achievement of net-zero emissions and a clean energy transition as early as 2045. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is calling for all EU member states to commit to a transition to net-zero emissions, and carbon-neutrality by 2050. To say that the realities posed by climate change are extreme, ill-founded or conspiratory in nature is a delusion in the face of scientific evidence – enough to see climate action bring the world’s
leaders together in a spirit of learning and cooperation at the UN Climate Summit in September 2019, which resulted in 77 countries committing to a low-carbon transition by 2050.

The technologies necessary to achieve the transition to clean energy are already in play

Renewables such as wind, solar, and increasingly wave-capture generation offer construction times that are up to ten times quicker than that of new coal or nuclear facilities, at fractions of the cost. Their integration within utility operations are creating the much-discussed decentralised energy grid, promising new opportunities to democratise energy and to speed the transition.

Add to that the benefits of AI and machine learning, and the promise to speed up and streamline operational processes, adding predictability and new sources of cost-savings and efficiency in the years to come, and it may appear that we have a fighting chance to achieving climate commitments.

But there’s a missing piece – the one element that holds the potential to accelerate the energy transition by factors, not multiples – a new layer of intelligence that whilst incredibly powerful, also requires maturity and a spirit of cooperation that only the European Union can muster, thanks in no small part to the source of the last scramble – data.

Perhaps you’ve seen it – the cartoon depicting a circle of starving, emaciated, miserable people, looking longingly at a steaming pot brimming with food, sufficient to feed all of them, each person equipped with a spoon with a handle so long as to make it impossible to feed themselves.

Misery resonates from the image, until one person realises that whilst they may not be able to feed themselves, they can feed each other. Whilst this allegory may seem altruistic to many, it is exactly the opportunity faced by EU member states.

A newly-published report by research agency Insight Partners, suggests the following: “The key trend which will predominantly affect the energy and utility analytics market in the coming year is data sharing among the energy and utility network. The emergence of data sharing is expected to generate adoption opportunities for analytical solutions new and existing offerings – yet demand response networks, supply chain optimisation and other programmes that would make a significant contribution to the growth in areas such as smart cities. Although the data sharing is at present limited to only certain developed economies of the world, the trend is expected to spur in the near future.”

The feed of incoming data to utilities via a variety of systems is overwhelming, with data from smart metering infrastructure, grid assets, grid operations and billing systems rapidly expanding to self-generation data, appliance-specific consumption, microgrids, battery storage, and e-mobility data as EV adoption and charging requirements make their way into our daily lives and customer offerings.

Yet, the promise of agility to be procured from this glut of data requires both the consumption and more importantly digestion that few utilities or energy service providers systems can stomach. The potential energy held therein is now passed to data centres to be stored “for future use,” it’s ever-increasing mass adding a new, very real threat of its own to achieving the objectives of carbon neutrality and energy efficiency.

Globally, data centres consume about 2% of electricity worldwide; with that figure set to rise to as much as 8% of the global total by 2030, according to a study by Anders Andrae, who researches sustainable information and communications technology for Huawei Technologies.

A recent report from Greenpeace and the North China Electric Power University suggested that the country’s data centres pose a threat to global decarbonisation, by consuming over 161TWh of electricity in 2018. This is more than the total electricity consumed by Australia during the same period. With carbon emissions generated in excess of 99 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, equivalent to the environmental damage incurred by approximately 21 million conventionally-powered cars.

So, how do we fix it?

The answer, quite simply, lies in data anonymisation.

GDPR regulations are clear – personal information which can be extrapolated to the point of an individual’s identification by any single or combined number of factors including name, age, locations and financial information, without express permission given for use in a specific application is strictly outlawed, but anonymised data holds the potential to be a force-multiplier for the EU energy transition.

Traditionally, utilities have been reluctant to share data – an understandable defensive stance in a competitive market where exposure is equated to risk to both new and existing offerings – yet the EU energy sector is unlike any other.

Cooperation between both private and public utilities has been led by global energy giants and our inboxes bring us daily news of emerging technology developments and trialling partnerships in initiatives that span the continent. These have been based largely on the acquisition of intellectual property and technology through mergers and acquisitions – moves too far out of reach for the private and public sectors in many developing EU states and other regions of the world.

Utilities, solution providers and technology companies are often willing to share anonymised data with research agencies, industry associations and educational institutions, turning them into the curators of insight and learning, allowing gated access to information that, in the right hands, could provide insights that can accelerate the energy transition. Yet research agencies and industry bodies prize depth of insight over agility – with many industry reports being based on data accumulated over time, stymieing potential agility and new learnings that could seal the achievement or failure of climate goals.

Shared data, however, has the potential to pivot the energy industry towards greater success and in so doing create a new level of intelligence, resilience, and integrity.

The democratisation of energy – the price to pay for leaving the slower ones behind is too great

The democratisation of energy will require shared technology, but more importantly, shared learnings underpinned by real data, to give emerging economies the leg-up needed to embrace a low-carbon future.

A large amount of future growth in energy consumption will come from these markets as they add increasing sophistication to their energy distribution networks. A lack of action now is to put the timely achievement of decarbonisation at risk.

The final consideration

Perhaps the most relevant question to be asked is: Does the occasion warrant the risk? There may be many who fear the risk of lost competitive advantage, or find themselves under significant strain, and may hesitate to answer. Those who fear the all-but-negated risk of exposure, still anxious and unfamiliar with the finer points of data protection policy, may shuffle their feet, and the fossil-fuel sector may continue to downplay the urgency felt by the majority.

However, if like the allegory presented earlier, we don’t learn to feed each other’s success in the near future, the price to be paid by ignoring the lesson will be life imitating art – and the misery of generations to come.