Energy & Utilities

Energy transition: Unlock new innovation potential

‘Net zero’ means no more greenhouse gases by 2050 at the latest. But analyses indicate that our current efforts towards CO2 reduction are insufficient to achieve the goal of the Paris Climate Agreement. What can we do to resolve this challenge and what role does technology play for a sustainable energy supply? 

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Analysis by Swisscleantech shows that with a linear reduction to zero CO2 emissions by 2050, Switzerland is still on track to produce the equivalent of about 670 million tonnes of CO2 in total emissions. If we are to meet the pledges of the Paris Climate Agreement, that’s 50% too high. What can we do to resolve this disparity what role does technology play for a sustainable energy supply?

Many companies have joined the Science Based Targets initiative and set 2040 or even 2030 as their ‘net zero’ target year. The energy supply system will play a crucial role in enabling businesses to achieve these targets and, as such, needs to undergo rapid transformation. Efforts to transform the energy supply system are currently focused on promoting more efficient energy use and encouraging a switch to renewable energy.  

There is no doubt that the net zero energy supply system will be chiefly electric: 

  • fossil-based power plants and, in many countries, nuclear power plants, need to be replaced within the electricity supply system. Hydro, wind and solar will play a major role. 

  • While we currently rely predominantly on fossil energy to heat our buildings and water, we are increasingly converting to electricity. Heat pumps enable us to tap into local energy sources, such as geothermal energy, groundwater, seawater, waste heat or outside air. 

  • The greatest need for substitution is in the transport sector, where sustainable alternatives are still a long way off. It is only in the areas of public and private overland transport that a low-CO2 alternative is available in the form of electromobility.  

The energy system of the future will therefore be shaped by renewable energy sources whose production is subject to fluctuation. In overhauling the energy system, we must first reduce today’s CO2 emissions by 90%. This is an enormous feat and will involve fundamental changes for business and society. There is another challenge too: certain sections of industry and food production will continue to emit CO2 after 2050 – meaning that these emissions will need to be removed from the atmosphere. So as well as making huge efforts to transform the energy system, we will also need to establish a negative emission technology industry. According to Swiss Re estimates, this will be approximately equivalent in size to today’s oil and gas industry.  

Optimising the energy system requires flexibility and reliable data

The conversion of the energy system will result in new applications, and unless existing applications are made more energy-efficient, this will increase overall electricity consumption. Until now, the flow of electricity has been demand-driven, predictable and controllable. In future, it will become more variable on both the production and the demand side. Electricity production is subject to natural fluctuations that do not necessarily tie in with demand. There will be times when production is low and demand high, and vice versa. This makes balancing production and demand all the more challenging. On the demand side, increasing connections between energy sectors – i.e. through the transfer of renewable energy from the electricity sector to the heating and mobility sectors – are opening up new ways to make our energy supply more flexible. In future, a number of options will be used to introduce greater flexibility and bring about cross-sectoral optimisation of the entire energy system.  How much flexibility will be needed and what form the most efficient balance will take will depend on various parameters. In Switzerland, the high proportion of hydropower production, 50% of which comes from storage power plants, means that the amount of additional storage required will certainly be lower than, for example, in Germany. 

depiction of potenital flexibility measues to balance electricity production and consumption Fig. 1: Flexibility measures to balance electricity production and consumption

To find the best method of connecting these, often seasonally fluctuating, pieces of the puzzle – supply, demand, electricity production and storage systems – accurate readings of individual energy consumers at minimum intervals are required. If we can reliably measure and predict electricity consumption, this should help us prevent the use of expensive fossil (or in future synthetic) fuels to cover peak loads where the existing electricity production, diverse storage systems, expected weather conditions or flexible demand would make this unnecessary. By observing patterns in demand, we can also ensure that systems operate in the most energy-efficient and cost-effective way possible. In order to better link supply and demand data and reduce intervals between measurements, we need  

  • to gather data on energy consumption; e.g. sensors at heat supply plants or industrial facilities with a good connection to the data management system 

  • data platforms that span buildings, companies and sectors to exchange these power grid-related data  

Data ecosystems to optimise the overall energy system

For many years, innovation service provider Zühlke has been actively working with its customers to change the energy system through more efficient production and use of renewable energies. The company supports customers from various industries in their innovation projects, ensuring that adequate data are gathered and that they are available and exchanged across sectors. Cutting-edge technologies are used to create new, innovative data ecosystems, opening up new ways to optimise the overall energy system.  

For example, customers are able to combine current operating data from different systems in real time. This enables a holistic decision-making basis for measures to optimise energy usage during operation. Zühlke carried out a data-driven use case of this kind with cantonal utility company EKZ. With the aid of a state-of-the-art data platform, EKZ was able to automate the collation and evaluation of data from more than 1,200 heat plants. Improving the efficiency of processes in this way opens up new possibilities, including automated portfolio management of all power generating plants, making for more cost-efficient operations. In the long term, projects of this kind help establish technical and organisational skills in the fields of data and agile development, enabling the companies involved to go on to refine the data platform independently. With EKZ, the improved understanding of operating processes and customer needs was used to draw up energy-optimised, cost-optimised recommendations, helping EKZ to achieve the set sustainability targets. As a result, EKZ not only benefits internally, but also adds value for its customers and the environment. 

Working towards ‘net zero’: collaboration across businesses and industries

The ban on petrol and diesel vehicles agreed by the European Parliament has major implications for our future energy system. Based on the legislation, cars and lightweight commercial vehicles newly registered in Switzerland from 2035 will no longer be allowed to emit greenhouse gases. The introduction of more electric vehicles will bring about a rise in future demand for electricity. A vast amount of infrastructure will be needed to achieve the net zero targets and modernise existing energy systems. Investors will have to make the right decisions when it comes to investing in the infrastructure for electric vehicles. The Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Investors App, EVIIA for short, which Zühlke developed in the UK, offers a digital, data-based solution to this energy-based challenge. Connecting potential investors with the local grid operators, authorities and potential planning and construction companies is a complicated undertaking. Being able to predict future regional electricity requirements as accurately as possible is also crucial. This is a key element when it comes to encouraging investment in new power sources for electric vehicles. EVIIA combines utility data, traffic data and geographical data, and visualises it in a user-friendly dashboard. The app helps investors identify promising and viable investment scenarios on the basis of the data. 

The example shows that bringing together different stakeholders from the energy sector can ultimately result in a valuable and sustainable data ecosystem. UK energy regulator OFGEM (Office of Gas and Electricity Markets) is currently attempting to persuade about 100 competitive businesses within the energy market to amalgamate their data. OFGEM’s aim is to generate insights that will help to improve regulation of the energy market and allow decarbonisation goals to be met sooner. Working with Zühlke, OFGEM has developed a strategy with specific recommendations for actions the energy companies can take and investments that can be made in their IT that will allow OFGEM secure access to their data. The goal is for the different stakeholders to amalgamate their data in a single data ecosystem in order to achieve the higher goal of steering the energy market towards the ‘net zero’ target.  

A screenshot from the Zühlke EVIIA project: it identifies where to install charging stations in a caravan park Fig. 2: A screenshot from the Zühlke EVIIA project shows a caravan park in Scotland. The flow of traffic is indicated in red to help identify whether it would be worthwhile installing charging stations at this location.

Decentralised energy cycles to secure the electricity supply

Another promising area for overhauling the energy system and network balancing is the virtual power plant (VPP). VPPs are centrally controlled networks of decentralised electricity generating units such as photovoltaic systems, hydroelectric plants, wind farms, power stores, etc. They will play a central role in the grid energy system of the future, allowing spikes in demand and fluctuations to be absorbed through centralised control. 

A good example is the Tesla Powerwall batteries that support the grid as part of the ‘Emergency Load Reduction Program (ELRP)’ currently being piloted by Southern California Edison (SCE). Tesla Powerwall customers can choose whether and to what extent they participate, and are compensated for contributing to their energy security. The benefits of participation are clear: customers receive USD 2 for every additional kWh they deliver during an event. 

By September 2022, more than 4,500 participants had signed up and had helped prevent at least two power outages in southern California. During 12 logged events that took place between mid-August and mid-September 2022, their contribution peaked at between 19 MW and 33 MW – the output of a small power station. 

As with the Powerwall batteries, electric vehicles can act as both electricity consumers and as a source of electricity. Cars are stationary for most of their lives. And while they are parked and don't need charging, they can act as a battery, supplying power to the grid. Vehicles can communicate with their environment and with one another using V2X (vehicle-to-everything) technology. This technology will help us to manage resources that will supply a significant percentage of stored energy in future – resources we will need to cope with spikes in demand. 

chart of weather percentage of weather-dependent energy sources in switzerland in 2050 Fig. 3: Weather-dependent energy sources in Switzerland in 2050 in relation to increasing number of electric vehicles.

Microgrids as part of a decentralised energy system

Another promising approach involves the use of what are known as microgrids. For example, electric vehicles that need to be charged quickly are huge energy guzzlers. Charging requirements could be covered by drawing power from the batteries of electric cars parked at home within a certain radius and connected to the grid. Microgrids such as this could make a key contribution to the energy supply in regionally defined areas and significantly cushion the impact of exceptional events – extreme weather conditions, earthquakes, sabotage – on centralised, power plant-based energy production by making the energy cycle (production/consumption) more independent, local and decentralised. 

In the end, every device or appliance that consumes energy will be able to form part of a decentralised energy system. By measuring and controlling energy consumers, we can create virtual power plants. Even if the absolute power values of the individual devices are small, the vast total number of devices will make a big impact. The first step here is measurement. This makes the end consumer more aware of their energy use and encourages them to modify their habits. End consumers also benefit from automatic analysis of their power consumption, enabling them to schedule pre-emptive maintenance work on their appliances such as air conditioning. 

Data ecosystems as a basis for the success of the energy transition

For the energy transition and the overhaul of the energy system to succeed, we will need to develop a whole range of new devices, software and technologies. These will help us tap into the potential outlined above and enable us to create further use cases in order to make our lives more sustainable and protect our existence here on Earth.  
If we want these approaches and other new solutions to succeed, we will need a standardised process for the exchange of data. Major stakeholders will need to create data ecosystems and guarantee that the data will be handled correctly in terms of security and sovereignty. The goal: to get different providers speaking the same language. This is already a reality for electric vehicles, but in other areas such as household appliances the necessary steps must be introduced as soon as possible. 

Contact person for Switzerland

Dr. Francis Froborg

Lead Project Manager

Francis Froborg is Project Manager and since January 2023 at Zühlke. She has a versatile background in physicist (Ph.D.), and sustainability (MSc.) as well as project management (waterfall and agile, IT and no-IT projects), and systems engineering (non-IT projects). Her passion is supporting businesses in their sustainability journey including development of new business models and (re-)design of products considering Sustainable Development Goals.

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