A New Digital Era in Energy

Ever imagined using energy from your own rooftop solar panels to power all your air-conditioning units, heat up water and charge your smartphone? This can now be a reality.

In Singapore, smart-enabled HDB flats to be completed in Punggol next year will allow homeowners to track energy consumption via a mobile app, and control just about any appliance that is connected to a power source.

By 2040, one billion households and 11 billion smart appliances can actively participate in interconnected electricity systems, allowing these to alter when to draw electricity from the grid, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Other demand sectors, such as transport, buildings and industry, are also feeling the effects of a seismic shift in the energy sector.

Welcome to the future of energy, where rapid advances in digital technologies such as connectivity, data analytics and machine learning have disrupted and changed the way energy is generated, distributed and consumed.

There is a silver lining, though: The disruptions have made energy systems more integrated and connected, intelligent, efficient, reliable and sustainable, facilitating the global transition to a low-carbon future.

A report by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory estimates that new digital grid technologies have the potential to reduce electricity-related carbon-dioxide emissions in the United States by up to 12 per cent by 2030.

If this number is scaled globally, that’s equivalent to reducing global carbon dioxide emissions by two billion metric tonnes per year by 2030. This is the same carbon impact as taking half of the passenger cars in the world today off the road.

Digital technologies have been helping to improve energy systems for decades, but the pace of their adoption is accelerating, says the IEA. Global investment in digital electricity infrastructure and software has been increasing by 20 per cent annually in recent years.

The uses of digitalisation in the power sector range from the gathering of digital data about the state and performance power sector assets, to the processing of large volumes of data through software platforms to give utilities detailed, actionable insights, and more control over the management of their assets and resources.

Rise of renewables and decentralised energy sources
The trend of increased digitalisation is changing the producer-consumer equation in the energy sector.

Digitalisation is blurring the distinction between supply and demand, and creating opportunities for consumers to interact directly in balancing demand with supply in real time.

Driven by growing customer demand for cleaner energy, advances in renewable energy technologies and energy storage, the energy sector is seeing a growth in decentralised sources of power, including rooftop solar farms and wind turbines.

Energy generated by decentralised sources can be stored on-site or distributed through localised micro-grids that connect a number of households or other consumers. These micro-grids are connected to the national grid, and excess supply not used by “prosumers” is distributed to other end-users in a digitally interconnected energy system.

For the new energy system to work, connectivity is an important factor as it allows large numbers of individual energy-producing units and pieces of energy-consuming equipment to be linked, monitored, aggregated and controlled — in real time.

The deployment of digital technologies also helps to integrate the increasing share of renewables into the grid. Tools such as sensors and smart meters collect data on, for example, weather conditions, while data analytics and machine learning help operators analyse vast amounts of data to forecast possible supply shortfalls, thus keeping power supply reliable.

Energy storage solutions
Another way to counter the intermittency of renewable power sources, and enhance the overall stability and resilience of the grid lies in energy storage solutions.

In Singapore, the Energy Market Authority (EMA) has roped in two private-sector partners, PSA and Sembcorp Industries, to help roll out, on a commercial scale, the use of energy storage systems. This is akin to a large storage to capture unused energy.

With a power portfolio of over 12,500 megawatts globally, integrated energy player Sembcorp is also the United Kingdom’s leading flexible distributed energy player with one of Europe’s largest battery storage developments.

Increasingly, monitoring and diagnostics centres are also playing a big role in the energy sector, particularly for power companies with assets around the globe.

Sembcorp, for example, uses analytics based digital asset management platforms to monitor and manage its renewable energy assets to enhance performance and improve reliability of supply.

With the rise of decentralised energy resources such as solar and energy storage systems that complement traditional power plants that generate electricity centrally, electricity produced from all energy resources can be coordinated intelligently at a “single utility-scale power station”. 

Such a concept is known as a Virtual Power Plant (VPP). Singapore’s first VPP is in the works. A joint initiative between Sembcorp, EMA and Nanyang Technological University, the project leverages Sembcorp’s capabilities as Singapore’s largest home-grown international renewable energy player and seeks to contribute towards Singapore’s efforts to meet its climate change commitments. It will enable more clean and distributed energy resources to be integrated into Singapore’s energy mix, while keeping its power system stable. 

Given Singapore’s drive towards a smart nation, it’s no surprise that its energy sector is similarly focused on creating a more sustainable, smarter energy future for the nation. This commitment has resulted in a fertile ground for the growth of increasingly sophisticated digital technologies. 

It’s clear to see that the future of energy is digital.

This article was first published in The Straits Times on October 30, 2019.

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