Power to the people: digital transformation fueling renewable energy

The growth of renewable energy has been phenomenal, even in the face of an event like the COVID-19 pandemic. Renewable energy is the fastest-growing energy source in the United States, and in 2019 it increased 12% globally over 2018. Digital tools have a huge role to play.

It’s a good time for renewables. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), cost reductions and sustained policy support will continue driving robust growth in renewables beyond 2022. Solar photovoltaic (PV) and onshore wind are now the cheapest ways to add new electricity-generating plants in most countries. Solar projects now offer some of the lowest-cost electricity in history.

Overall, renewables are set to account for 95% of the net increase in global power capacity through 2025. However, while there is progress, and renewable-energy capacity is expanding rapidly, there are still challenges to replacing fossil fuel energy consumption.

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Challenges old and new

There’s always been an overall financial challenge to the growth of renewable energy, something that’s been exacerbated by the events of the past year. Governments are focused on economic recovery from the pandemic, meaning there is heightened pressure on public budgets. The IEA says that almost one-third of wind and solar PV projects is already contracted and/or financed through to 2025. This is positive but always subject to change depending on the prevailing political winds.

Further to financial and political influences, there are more tangible, ground-level challenges for renewable energy providers. For example, wind farm operators lose huge numbers of kilowatt-hours every year to unplanned downtime, operational inefficiencies and inaccurate forecasting. Schedule-based maintenance and inadequate visibility of asset health shorten the lifespan of turbines that are worth millions of dollars. Faced with growing demand from consumers and the climate change imperative, the energy industry is under pressure to address these challenges and drive greater operational efficiency.

These are familiar problems for most industrial companies, whether they’re in energy, automotive, manufacturing or chemicals. The energy sector, however, suffers from other industry-specific issues like siloed and geographically dispersed energy data, lack of integrated platforms between industry providers, an inability to track assets and lack of a clear, measurable plan for expansion.

How digital can help

These challenges can be addressed by renewable energy providers adopting a more sophisticated, data-driven approach to managing assets, measuring risk and making better-informed business decisions. From operations to maintenance, performance to energy trading, to reporting and management, digital tools have a role to play.

Data analytics can have a big impact, particularly as demand for renewable energy continues to turn previously niche providers into utility-scale operations. Across the wind and solar energy value chains, minimizing operating costs while maximizing efficiency is the key to success. One route to this is the development of digitally-enabled energy management and storage solutions.

This is needed because the amount of data generated in renewables is growing exponentially. Operational data from wind turbines and solar PV systems is on the rise as these systems are increasingly equipped with sensors that turn them into IoT endpoints.

At the same time, data lakes will become a powerful tool for renewable energy providers. With more higher-quality data sources becoming available, including meteorological data and also demand and price forecasts, providers need a storage solution that is cost-effective and enables analysis of large amounts of data from numerous sites in real time. This type of improved interconnection and data gathering can provide momentum for more centralized generation.

New technologies, new use cases

Digital twins are another digital solution that renewable energy is putting to good use. By building a digital twin version of a physical power plant, energy providers can gather critical insights that help improve operational performance from both a service and a maintenance point of view. Because digital twins can continuously update data gathered from multiple sources, energy providers can enjoy visibility of the real-time status, condition or position of their energy assets. The upshot of this is better-informed decision-making based on real-time data analytics, which improves overall operational efficiency and helps build competitive advantage.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) can also deliver major benefits. The prediction capabilities of AI and ML can drive improved demand forecasting and asset management and help advance the design and construction of new and optimized renewable energy power plants. The U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative is a good example. It uses self-learning weather models, datasets of historical weather data, real-time measurement from local weather stations, sensor networks and cloud information derived from satellite imagery and sky cameras. The initiative has driven a 30% improvement in accuracy in solar forecasting that has helped reduce electricity-generation costs.

Predictive maintenance is a big advantage to renewable energy companies, and digital twins and AI/ML can help enable that. Predictive maintenance helps companies avoid unscheduled downtime and ensure systems stay up and running. This is crucial for offshore wind farms, for example, where equipment is located a long way from maintenance engineers. This can be supported by the use of new inspection systems like drones, which service technicians can use to observe hard-to-reach locations.

Orange has recently committed to a more sustainable future by partnering with ENGIE, the leading developer of solar and wind power in France, to deliver a global renewable energy supply solution. It comes on the back of Orange agreeing a partnership with Total Quadran, a leading French renewable energies supplier, which will enable the development of a dozen new solar power plants in France by 2024. In exchange, Total will supply Orange with 100 GWh a year of renewable electricity over a period of 20 years. In addition, a deal with Boralex, the leading independent producer of onshore wind power in France, will supply Orange with 67 GWh/year of renewable electricity produced by the 26 wind turbines at the Ally-Mercoeur wind farm (Auvergne Rhône-Alpes region).

These partnerships complement our “Engage 2025” strategic plan, which commits us to a new operating model built on social and environmental accountability.

According to Boston Consulting Group, renewable energy providers need to “build or buy digital capabilities and redesign all their service processes in order to make use of the insights provided by digital.” BCG reports that if they do this, they can bring down operating costs by as much as 60% to 70%, increase the lifetime value of energy-generation assets and put in place sustainable financial models that will deliver future business success. In addition to making the world a better place, digital has a vital role to play in the future of renewable energy for everyone.

Read about our commitment to solar projects in Africa.