‘Energy efficiency’ and ‘energy transition’ – these two phrases are hot topics today. Used by individuals, corporations, and governments alike, these terms are at the forefront of the worldwide climate change debate. But what do they really mean for our environment, and can they benefit our world in other ways? Further, how are the emerging technologies of the 21st century driving this transition?
When defining the term ‘energy transition,’ a typical answer may be “the shift towards renewable energy” or “using an electric car.” While these answers are true and provide a simplified overview of the movement, the proper definition is more nuanced.
As described by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), an intergovernmental organization dedicated to the promotion of renewable energy, the energy transition “is a pathway toward transformation of the global energy sector from fossil-based to zero-carbon by the second half of this century.”
There are two crucial parts to this definition.
The first is that the movement applies to the entire global energy sector. Thus, the energy transition is not just switching from coal to renewable energy or diesel cars to electric cars but making changes throughout the entire system.
According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), 47% of energy-related carbon emissions are from these unpopular sectors, such as heavy trucking, iron and steel, cement, shipping, and aviation. While solutions are being developed, these sectors are not often linked to the current energy transition.
The second part of IRENA’s definition worth highlighting is that these zero-carbon goals should be achieved by the second half of the century. This deadline is due to the worsening effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels and irregular weather patterns. By reducing CO2 emissions across the energy industry, the number of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere will decrease. This will help limit the ramifications of climate change.
A recent study published in Energy Strategy affirms this logic, noting that renewable energy and energy efficiency, crucial parts of the ongoing energy transition, will account for 94% of emission reductions.
Beyond helping our environment, the energy transition can improve energy access across the globe. Currently, over 940 million people in the world do not have access to electricity. This leads to global poverty, health, and economic issues. As the global energy industry undergoes this transformation, it can provide energy security and access to these regions, stimulating economic growth.
Additionally, the energy transition will benefit consumers across the globe as more energy-efficient, cost-effective appliances enter the market. Using less energy, these appliances cost less to run, and consumers have lower energy bills.
Thankfully, we are in a time of technological advancement. Emerging technologies and theories have improved global zero-carbon energy efforts, accelerating the energy transition.
Innovation is driving the energy transition. The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) recent Patents and the Energy Transition report highlights that trends in clean energy technology innovation are on the rise worldwide. It notes that different regions are leading in specific sectors, with Europe’s advantage in wind, the US in aviation, and South Korea and Japan’s in batteries. Moreover, 60% of all low carbon emission patents across the past five years have been connected to fuel-switching and energy-efficient technology.
While a crucial part of this innovation is creating renewable energy devices, the production and operations of these systems can also lower CO2 emissions. Particularly, artificial intelligence (AI) can significantly improve the efficiency of these systems, accelerating the energy transition.
AI has already proven its value in the energy transition. The World Economic Forum (WEF) notes that AI has driven “measurable improvements in renewable energy forecasting, grid operations and optimization, coordination of distributed energy assets and demand-side management, and materials innovation and discovery.” AI has improved the performance of these domains as it can identify and adapt to the patterns of data it is exposed to, predicting the outcomes of complex situations such as the fluctuating demand of an energy grid or the inventory needed on location to optimize the price and speed of production.
Beyond determining the optimal solution, AI can also save time and money for the energy sector as it transitions to zero-carbon emissions. According to BloombergNEF, it will cost the energy sector between $92 trillion and $173 trillion to achieve the energy transition goal by 2050. Thus, any time or money saved via innovations in AI will help the global energy industry achieve this goal and help our world.
In August, the National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO) of the UK announced they will be incorporating AI software in their operations. Partnering with Open Climate Fix, they will create a system that tracks and predicts the cloud movements at the exact locations of their solar panels. Taking minutes or hours to forecast the clouds, compared to days, this software will optimize their operations. Moreover, likely to be at least 50% more accurate, this software will be more efficient.
These changes will take time to develop and be implemented across the globe. Additionally, they will be implemented at different times for each nation. While the energy transition has an ambitious goal of having zero-carbon energy emissions by 2050, countries leading in renewable energy research, resources, and technology may reach this goal. Moreover, as new technologies continue to emerge, such as new innovations in AI, the world gets one step closer to transitioning into a more sustainable, efficient, and prosperous planet.