As we enter the 4th Industrial Revolution, technological innovations — particularly advances in software — are increasingly being used to address some of the world’s most pressing issues. Perhaps nowhere is software’s ability to solve our most difficult challenges more apparent than in energy. Big Data, artificial intelligence, machine learning and the Internet of Things (IoT) are enabling us to transform the electric grid — making it cleaner, more affordable and more reliable.
It is true that software can’t actually generate electricity. But it can allow us to maximize the value of the power we generate through effective use of data. In doing so, we can reduce our dependence on dirty fossil fuels, improve the effectiveness of energy efficiency, renewable energy and energy storage technologies, and create a more efficient, carbon-free electric grid. Software will turn data into a new source of power. This transformation will allow us to cost-effectively extend the benefits of electricity to the 1.1 billion people in the developing world without access to reliable electricity and accelerate our transition to a fossil-fuel free economy. When it comes to energy, software will not eat the world — it will help save it.
The need to transform our electric grid — reducing greenhouse gasses associated with energy generation while extending energy access to those in the developing world — is urgent. Left unchecked, climate change will cause a massive amount of economic and humanitarian damage. The difference in climate damage costs between low (1.5°C) warming and high (4.5°C) warming scenarios could be as high as $50 trillion, according to Citibank. The World Health Organization expects that, between 2030 and 2050, climate change will cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress.
Moreover, though we have made strides in reducing global poverty, we still need to extend access to reliable and affordable electricity if we hope to continue to increase the income and improve the living standards of millions of people living in the developing world. To put it simply, if we want to sustain the economic progress the world has achieved since the dawning of the industrial revolution, and foster a 4th Industrial Revolution, transformation of our electric grid is essential. The potential for the energy transformation is clear, as GE’s Global Innovation Barometer illustrates, with 61 percent of citizens surveyed saying the industry could benefit greatly from the digital revolution.
There is no doubt that new renewable energy, energy storage and electricity distribution technologies will be needed to enable this transformation. However, software will also play a critical role in making the grid cleaner, more affordable and more reliable.
One area that software can particularly help is in maximizing the efficiency of the grid. The amount of energy we currently waste is stunning — with more than 30 percent of the energy used inside buildings being wasted due to activities such as the lighting and cooling of empty rooms, according to the EPA. We can use software to lower the amount of energy we waste or use inefficiently. Software connected to IoT device sensors and controls can unobtrusively turn off or down Internet-connected appliances and devices, dramatically reducing energy use. In the U.S., utilities such as Austin Energy, the City of Palo Alto Utilities and Bonneville Power Administration are using software to implement programs that can curb power demand for air conditioning by 30 percent or more. Customers do not notice any change (except for a lower monthly bill), while they can avoid adding hundreds of megawatts from new power plants.
Software can also help maximize the effectiveness of renewable energy, energy storage and other distributed energy assets. Utilities can now forecast, optimize and control these assets, helping them better balance energy supply and demand. With this flexibility, they can integrate more intermittent renewable energy into their generation portfolios, tapping into other sources of energy if there is a drop in renewable energy generation. Moreover, because the software can anticipate peaks and valleys in renewable energy generation, they can reduce unnecessary energy storage system discharge cycles — extending the life and value of storage systems. In essence, software converts the grid into its own backup.
Over the past decade, software has demonstrated that it has the power to eat up entire industries — from retail (Amazon) to advertising (Google) to entertainment (Netflix). Now it is time for software to eat the conventional fossil-fuel-based energy industry, and make energy clean, reliable and affordable — helping us not just save trillions of dollars, but millions of lives as well.
Dr. Amit Narayan is Founder and CEO of AutoGrid, Inc., a leader in big data analytics and predictive control software for the electricity and energy industry.