Smart grids have been in the headlines for over a decade. Today we’ve finally reached an impasse: our existing energy infrastructure is no longer fit for purpose. It is crumbling under the weight of more frequent extreme weather conditions, demand fluctuations, and momentous changes to baseloads (i.e. the minimum electrical current necessary to power constantly running components), historically supported by fossil fuels.
A few short months ago, Storm Eunice wreaked havoc on the UK energy system, leaving many households, hospitals, and businesses grappling with severe power outages. An analysis of international power outages found that some 350 million people were subjected to significant power cuts in 2021 due to extreme weather – 4% of the world’s population. Events such as this year’s FIFA World Cup, which aims to be carbon neutral for the first time, tend to bring the question of power reliability into the spotlight as Qatar braces for a surge in electricity demand and supply/demand fluctuations.
Powering business continuity, enabling a prosumer revolution
These cases illustrate how dependent our increasingly digital world, cities, critical infrastructure, and transportation are on reliable, uninterrupted power. Blackouts grind the developed world to a halt, undermining business continuity, interrupting connectivity, and hindering productivity. As the energy transition towards cleaner energy sources gathers pace, we can already marry this with digital technology to use energy more efficiently and ease the demand on grids. This convergence of electric and digital at scale is known as ‘Electricity 4.0’ and will be a vital partnership to achieve net-zero whilst maintaining a resilient power value chain. These pre-emptive upgrades are not just necessary, particularly as we connect more power intensive IoT devices and Electric Vehicles (EVs) to the network.
The increasing fragility of existing power grids also highlights our dependence on centralised energy providers and distribution. A relatively small number of producers currently supply all our energy needs. On the other hand, resilient bi-directional smart grids – what we call Grids of the Future – offer a more efficient way to manage energy and the potential to decentralise, decarbonise and stabilise power systems. Smart grids will be able to support a 70-80% decarbonised power generation mix, incorporating additional clean energy from microgrid/solar PV and wind farms. In this way, businesses can be powered towards a net-zero future and satisfy their customers and investors demanding more sustainable practices.
In turn, this will enable a prosumer revolution – potentially putting a greater share of the energy supply back into the hands of consumers and businesses, with a (still essential) baseload from larger providers. The combination of increased local power generation capabilities plus digitally enabled remote diagnostics and repairs will provide a smarter, decarbonised, and increasingly resilient ‘weather-agnostic’ grid.
Global energy demand will continue to grow, driven by population and economic growth. The US Energy Information Agency (EIA) expects it to increase by 47% in the next 30 years. The challenge of sustaining that demand while curbing emissions or, in other words, how to do more with less seems impossible.
Delivering environmental compliance at a pace
We also have robust environmental targets to hit. To reach net-zero by 2050, we must halve CO2 emissions by the decade’s ende moving 3-5 times faster than current commitments. What might seem like an impossible challenge is possible already with, the combination of electric and digital at scale (which we firmly believe is the fastest way to decarbonise the planet).
On the supply side, electricity is the most efficient energy, with almost 100% maximum thermal efficiency. Electricity also makes us more sustainable with an ever-increasing share of renewables in the mix. Balance this on the demand side with digital innovation that enables us to measure and tackle energy waste (vital when considering that around 60% of global energy is today lost or wasted). We have the solutions we need already at our fingertips.
Let’s consider, as an example, the rise of EVs. They are 2-3 times more efficient than cars running on petrol or diesel. But we simply cannot deploy EVs at scale to help decarbonise personal transportation without clean electricity and smart decentralised bi-direction digital grids as the foundation. So, with the price of generating energy from wind and solar declining by 40% globally in the past decade, clean electricity is increasingly good for the pocket and the planet.
Driving societal prosperity and equal opportunities
As the developed world will benefit from decarbonised cities, industry, and transportation with Electricity 4.0, emerging economies will also benefit from a more equal ‘playing field’. Urbanisation in the developing world is rapidly increasing, with more than six billion people projected to be living in urban areas by 2050. Therefore, demand for resilient, low carbon infrastructure is rising. Cities will need to handle the mass adoption of electric vehicles (EVs), electrified public transport and smart buildings supplied with reliable and renewable energy sources and new microgrid technologies.
Renewables offer the opportunity for economic growth to those economies currently living without modern power – roughly 10% of the world’s population. Access to energy is a fundamental human right. Reliable, clean power provides a path to a better life and supports access to education, better sanitation, and improved living conditions. It could improve many other services and their penetration, from healthcare to financial inclusion.
Off-grid communities across the globe now have the potential to generate their own solar and wind energy on rooftops, fields, or on water. And where solar panels and wind turbines are connected to a digital grid, they could also have an option to store, share or sell excess energy. Take the Villaya microgrid, for example – an off-grid innovation housed within a shipping container. It offers a mobile, flexible and cost-effective solution for schools, healthcare facilities, and other public buildings to access clean, reliable electricity.
Harnessing the power of solar worldwide
Even more, opportunities could emerge when the sun’s power could be harvested and transmitted cross-continentally with the help of ‘super grids’ – potentially becoming the new ‘oil’ for some of the poorest countries on the planet – in parts of Africa and Asia.
The case is compelling. More energy from the sun hits the Earth in a single hour than the entire population can consume in a year – all we need to do is harness and use it. Finding a way to connect peak afternoon solar power in a one-time zone to peak evening demand in another could reduce the need for fossil-fuelled backup capacity locally and globally.
Resilient infrastructure is a crucial enabler of productivity and economic development. However, climate change and rapid growth in urbanisation have made it even more crucial for governments, municipalities, public infrastructure owners, energy networks, and transport providers to make well-planned investments in smarter, greener infrastructure.
Grids of the future take a powerful holistic approach to power tomorrow’s economies while tackling the challenges and pressures placed on energy systems by urbanisation and the effects of climate change. By taking a data-first approach, infrastructure owners can bridge progress and sustainability for all by creating an energy system that is reliable, resilient, and sustainable.
About the author
David joined Schneider Electric in 2017 as Vice President of the Power Systems business unit across UK & Ireland. Formerly the Managing Director for Business Energy at ENGIE, David brings a wealth of experience in renewable electricity generation, energy management and energy efficiency to the role at Schneider. Prior to this he held senior leadership roles within SSE, EON, Severn Trent Water, AES and RWE Npower.
David is an electrical and electronics engineer and has spent much of his career operating in sales and marketing, business development, customer service and project management roles across manufacturing, retail, service and engineering sectors. Throughout this period, he has led businesses operating within the Residential, SME and Corporate segments.
David is passionate about cutting-edge green technology enabling the shift to a more sustainable and efficient energy landscape, in particular renewable generation, EVs, electric rail and shore-to-ship electric charging. He oversees the product development and roll out of SF6-free technologies for the UK market.