Guest article: Digitizing energy: the way forward for carbon-free systems | SDG Knowledge Center

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By Myriem Touhami, Acting Head of Finance Unit, Energy and Climate Branch, Economics Division, United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)

The world faces an energy conundrum. The energy sector is responsible for the lion’s share of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, accounting for around 65% of total GHG emissions in the world. At the same time, 759 million people still lacked access to energy services in 2019, mainly in Africa. How to provide energy to more people while ensuring that the sector emits less?

Closing the energy access gap while halving energy sector emissions by 2030, in line with the Paris Agreement, is no easy task. A transformation of the entire system is necessary, driven by low-carbon and decentralized approaches, supported by infrastructures ready to accommodate these changes and to provide sustainable energy to all.

Digitization is the centerpiece of the energy transformation puzzle

Digital technologies have radically transformed the way we live in recent decades. The way we produce, distribute and consume energy is no exception. The proliferation of digital technologies has contributed to a data explosion in our economy and our lives: as the number of connected digital devices increases, data from phones, computers, home appliances and distributed power sources are also increasing exponentially. This is true in developed and developing economies.

In the energy system, digitization is essential for integrating renewable energies into electricity systems, improving the reliability of electricity grids and reducing the cost of access to electricity, thus contributing to a fairer and more equitable energy transition. Digitization offers an opportunity to harness the data we already have to get sustainable energy where it needs to be.

The growing wealth of information generated on energy consumption and production patterns can be used to better plan the transformation of the energy sector, both at the macro and micro level. As renewable energy production and decentralized generation have increased over the years, they have placed increased pressure on aging energy grids, originally built for centralized power generation and large-scale power plants. . By collecting and interpreting the data generated throughout the energy value chain, from generation to distribution, digital technologies can help streamline the global transition to sustainable energy and address some of these pressing challenges.

Numerical monitoring and analysis also enables better predictive forecasting of renewable energy production, enabling optimization of energy production. These digital systems can enhance decentralized power generation by facilitating the creation of smart microgrids for communities without access, incentivizing small power producers to invest in renewable energy generation technologies at small scale, like solar panels on the roofs.

More effort is needed to harness the transformational potential

Many potentially transformative digital technologies and solutions for energy are still in their infancy and require additional investment and study to unlock their full potential. This is especially true in developing and emerging economies, where digital solutions are most needed to ensure that renewable resources can be harnessed, security of supply is maintained, and access to affordable energy is increased.

To accelerate action, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the Italian Ministry of Ecological Transition are teaming up to support digitization and the development of flexible and resilient energy systems. They recently launched a call for proposals that will feed the program of the International Energy Agency (IEA) Demand-Driven Digital Electricity Grid Initiative (3DEN), which is a four-year inter-agency initiative focused on the policy, regulatory, technological and investment context needed to accelerate progress in modernizing the power system and efficient use of resources on the demand side.

The open call for proposals aims to fund innovative pilot projects that present business and regulatory models for the adoption of a smarter digital electricity infrastructure. The call for proposals intends to support pilot projects in Brazil, Colombia, Morocco, Tunisia, India, Indonesia and South Africa.

By supporting the development of smarter digital infrastructures through these pilots, the initiative will help increase the availability and quality of relevant data, as well as build the capacity for its interpretation and translation into useful information. Ideas, lessons and on-the-ground challenges from the pilot projects will also feed into the 3DEN initiative.

Open Now: Call for Proposals for Digitization for Flexible and Resilient Energy Systems

Various types of projects are covered by the call for proposals. The project provides grants to share the cost of applications on:

  1. Smart urban energy: projects will be developed in a district or part of a city where digitization can be applied to existing infrastructure. Solutions can include demand-side and distributed energy resources.
  2. Island systems: Projects will focus on power systems with existing assets or remote, isolated and off-grid systems where digitization would have integration benefits on the demand side.
  3. Enhancement of existing assets: Projects will be developed in contexts with existing network assets on an existing network that can be digitized through digital twinning or advanced metering and monitoring to improve efficiency , operating conditions or reduce emissions. Projects must have a component on the demand side.

The pilot projects focus on accelerating the modernization of the energy system, a key aspect of decarbonization. Countries are stepping up their climate ambitions in time for COP 26, and the pilot projects will help position resilient, low-carbon energy systems at the center of national climate strategies. Access to affordable and clean energy (SDG 7) also offers transformative opportunities for people and economies without endangering the environment, supporting UNEP’s sustainable development mission.

For more information on requesting support from 3DEN, click on here.


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