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How big data will save the planet

A clear and trusted data strategy is a must as we progress through a complex and critical energy transition process from carbon to clean

Smart meter Sian Wynn-Jones Unsplash
Smart meters, which collect and send data back to the supplier on a real-time basis, can be instrumental in changing energy usage

With floods in the UAE, fires in Europe and record-breaking temperatures in the UK, there’s no denying that climate change is upon us. The environment is, and will continue to be, a major theme for the technology industry.

Global energy transition investment – how much is spent to deploy low carbon energy technologies – hit $755 billion in 2021. This is a new record, according to data group Bloomberg NEF.

To get on track for global net zero, it says that energy transition investment needs to average $2,063bn between 2022 and 2025 – about three times the total in 2021.

These estimates are likely to be conservative as we wake up to climate change on our doorsteps.

So which areas are likely to benefit from the drive towards decarbonisation? 

Innovators are putting their thinking hats on and looking at accelerating to green energy sources such as wind farms, solar, methane and nuclear.

While each has its benefits and drawbacks, the technology is improving daily, and one needs to keep an open mind. 

Russia’s war in the Ukraine is forcing Europe, the US and others to prioritise short-term energy security over long-term climate security. In Europe, there was already a bias towards solar and wind technology to replace coal in the long run, and earlier decisions to phase out nuclear power in Germany are now looking flawed.

This tension has given rise to the ‘energy trilemma debate’ – the need to balance between energy security, climate security and cost.

There is no doubt that there will be many solution combinations which share a common need: accurate collection, monitoring and management of the data collected to ensure that these solutions are working. 

Put simply, data is the new oil. New technologies such as blockchain, the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are shaping the companies of the future with a data-first strategy.

Such innovation is also unlocking and enabling new operating models and offering new revenue opportunities like tokenisation. 

In order to transform a company’s data into a business asset, it needs to be collected from pre-construction and all the way through the grid’s entire lifecycle. This will create data that can be believed, trusted and shareable because it is backed by evidence.

This requires a rethink of how and when companies gather, store, use and share it. 

The global impact of the war and the pandemic will force us to reconsider what we want from our energy supply chains, including security, reliability, low costs and agility, but also traceability and transparency. 

We also need to ensure that our energy supply chain can withstand the next crisis by creating a circle of trust, and not a sequential line with points that can fail. Again, the answer lies in the use of technology to collect and analyse data in real time, accurately.

It’s important to consider how we might change the demand for energy. For example, my energy supplier in the UK now asks for a meter reading every month, making me think about our usage. 

Smart meters (in which the UK rollout is behind), which collect and send data back to the supplier on a real-time basis, thus linking usage data with cost, can be instrumental in changing consumer behaviour. This is particularly important in an environment where energy costs are spiralling. 

Whether it’s supply or demand, putting accurate data in the hands of the consumer or energy supplier is critical to navigating the short-term energy security challenges and longer-term, climate risks. 

Furthermore, governments need to understand the energy equation in real time because our economic policy is now heavily reliant on the associated costs. Energy costs are the biggest driver of inflation today. With inflation changing so quickly, up-to-date data is pivotal to its management strategy. 

So, when you consider which technologies will be enablers for our energy transition, it will be about data capture, its storage and analysis in real time.

The cloud, blockchain and AI will be the fundamental building blocks for our new energy grid, as well as powering the fourth industrial revolution. Combining blockchain with the IoT to collect data and AI-driven analysis will start to transform the way we manage the grid.

What’s more, the continued smartphone revolution is powering the data j-curve. Collecting, recording and analysing data has never been easier as we place the equivalent of a supercomputer in the hands of every customer and engineer for less than $25. Anyone of any size and any digital capability can now participate in a wide digital ecosystem – making it more accessible. 

A clear data strategy is a must as we progress through a complex and critical energy transition process from carbon to clean. We can only assess our progress if the data is trusted, verifiable and auditable. 

The world cannot wait – and the solution is increased digitalisation, not less.

Nish Kotecha is a serial tech entrepreneur and board professional. He is the chair and co-founder of Finboot

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