27 October 2021
Digitalizing Energy: The Way Forward for Decarbonized Systems
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Digitalization offers an opportunity to leverage data that we already have to get sustainable energy where it needs to be.

To accelerate action, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and Italy’s Ministry for Ecological Transition are teaming up to support the digitalization and development of flexible and resilient energy systems.

By Myriem Touhami, Acting Head of Finance Unit, the Energy and Climate Branch, Economy Division, UN Environment Programme (UNEP)

The world is faced with an energy conundrum. The energy sector is responsible for the lion’s share of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, accounting for approximately 65% of total GHG emissions globally. At the same time, 759 million people still lack access to energy services as of 2019, mostly in Africa. How can we provide energy to more people while making the sector emit less?

Closing the energy access gap while halving energy sector emissions by 2030, consistent with the Paris Agreement, is not an easy task. A whole-system transformation is needed, driven by decarbonized and decentralized approaches, supported by infrastructure that is ready to welcome these changes and to deliver sustainable energy to everyone.

Digitalization is Central Piece of Energy Transformation Puzzle

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

In the energy system, digitalization is key to integrate renewables in electricity systems, improve the reliability of power grids, and reduce the cost of access to electricity, therefore contributing to a more just and equitable energy transition. Digitalization offers an opportunity to leverage data that 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 energy sector transformation, both on a macro and micro level. As renewable energy generation and decentralized generation have increased over the years, they have placed increased strain on aging energy grids, originally built for centralized power generation and large-scale power plants. By harvesting and interpreting the data that are generated along the entire energy value chain, from generation to distribution, digital technologies can help to streamline the global transition to sustainable energy and meet some of these pressing challenges.

Digital monitoring and analysis also enable better predictive forecasting of renewable energy production, allowing for optimization of energy production. These digital systems can empower decentralized power production by facilitating the creation of smart micro-grids for communities that lack access, incentivizing small scale energy producers to invest in small scale renewable energy generation technologies, like rooftop solar panels.

More Efforts Needed to Tap Transformative Potential

Many of potentially transformative digital technologies and solutions for energy remain in their early stage and require further investment and study to unlock their full potential. This is especially true in developing and emerging economies, where digital solutions are needed the most to ensure renewable resources can be tapped into, security of supply is maintained, and access to affordable energy is increased.

To accelerate action, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and Italy’s Ministry for Ecological Transition are teaming up to support the digitalization and development of flexible and resilient energy systems. They recently launched a call for proposal that will feed into the International Energy Agency (IEA)’s Digital Demand-Driven Electricity Networks (3DEN) Initiative, which is a four-year inter-agency initiative focusing on the policy, regulatory, technology, and investment context needed to accelerate progress on power system modernization and effective utilization of demand-side resources.

The open call for proposals seeks to fund innovative pilot projects that showcase business and regulatory models for the uptake of smarter digital power 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 infrastructure through these pilots, the initiative will contribute to increasing the availability and quality of relevant data, as well as building the capacity for their interpretation and translation into useful information. On-the-ground insights, lessons, and challenges from the pilot projects also will further feed into the 3DEN initiative.

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

A variety of project types are covered under the call for proposals. The project provides grants to share the cost of applications on:

  1. Urban smart energy: Projects will be developed in a neighborhood or a part of a city where digitalization can be applied to existing infrastructure. The solutions can include demand-side and distributed energy resources.
  2. Islanded systems: Projects will address power systems with existing assets or remote, isolated, and off-grid systems where digitalization would have demand-side integration benefits.
  3. Existing asset enhancement: Projects will be developed in contexts with existing network assets on an existing grid that can be digitalized through digital twinning or advanced metering and control to improve efficiency, operating conditions, or reduce emissions. Projects must have a demand-side component.

The pilot projects focus on accelerating energy system modernization, an essential aspect of decarbonization. Countries are ramping 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 provides transformative opportunities for people and economies without endangering the environment, supporting UNEP’s mission of sustainable development.

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

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