TECH | Oct 2, 2019

Energy and digital technology in 2030: a decade of discontinuity

How will the energy sector change in the next ten years according to the Energy 2030 research?

One of the main indications given by the Energy 2030 research is that the next decade will represent an acceleration phase of change and discontinuity for the energy sector. Together with the development of storage systems and of smart grids, the most shattering innovations will be represented by the digitalization of distribution systems and by the roll out of second generation smart electric meters. The increasingly advanced digitization of the sector, therefore, will be at the center of the energy transition, which is indispensable for the pressing needs of environmental sustainability.

The forecast research, which was supported by leading companies such as Edison, Enel, Engineering, Erg and Terna, took place in the first half of 2019 and was marked by a cycle of three seminars, during which a qualified panel of experts elaborated the scenario using a variant of the Delphi method.

Technological changes

Digital Efficiency. Distribution digitalization and the growing use of electricity, for example, will create widespread benefits. Thanks to “digital efficiency” there will be the opportunity to substantially reduce emissions in many areas, including in the energy sector itself, transport, health, buildings, agriculture, education and industrial production.

Organizational innovation. The on-going evolution process of the national and European energy system, in addition to the infrastructural part of the networks, will primarily involve the management systems of the networks themselves: these, within a smart grid and integrated energy network framework, will be able to manage and monitor, with great flexibility, the generation, transmission, distribution and end use of electricity units. Thanks to smart type solutions, distribution networks will take up the challenge represented by a high level of distributed generated power, in particular of the photovoltaic type.

Becoming smart. The development of smart grids will play a key role for efficiently integrating the increasing production quotas from renewable energy sources (Fer), mostly intermittent such as wind and photovoltaic, into the electricity grid, and therefore for achieving the decarbonization objective. Moreover, digitalization will make it possible to increase the reliability index of the electricity generating plants from Fer (predictive maintenance, advanced diagnostics, self-repairing).

Smart building, Smart City, smart car. Digitization will allow the use of useful tools for designing buildings through specific software to design and manage buildings efficiently. The next decade will also be the one with the full advent of Smart Cities, smart cities in which the town’s connective system (transport, trade, data transfer, IoT networks, etc.) will dialogue with users and citizens in an integrated manner. Buildings and neighborhoods will increasingly become “smarter” even in terms of energy use. Thanks to digitization, in fact, intelligent energy networks will move from the role of mere energy supply to consumption centers to the ability to exchange energy with these centers. Furthermore, the digitization of electrical systems will help the spread of electric mobility over the coming years. The connection of electric vehicles to the telecommunications network (which is also rapidly evolving) leads to the implication that they will be able to offer services to the electricity grid (V2G).

Beyond the meter. Digital advances will also impact the energy consumption behaviors of individuals. The post-meter network (thus far “invisible” for the traditional supplier) will be increasingly influenced by the evolution and pervasiveness of IoT tools within buildings. The IoT will make possible the advent of a completely new model of energy use, focused on the individual consumer rather than on the holder of a supply point: services will be offered (such as for example, recharging a device) addressed, thanks to the data collected, to a specific user, but conveyed by an infrastructure, possibly also a third-party one (for example, a restaurant when having a meal).

Economic changes

In view of the new technical possibilities, made possible by the results of energy research combined with increasing digitization, significant changes will also occur in the economic structure of the energy sector.

Platforms and services. The first point to highlight is that companies in the sector will react to the disruptive change introduced by digital technology by offering services in addition to or in place of pure and simple energy as occurs today. In the downstream segment, the biggest challenge for vendors will be their ability to transform current Information Technology systems into actual digital platforms, functional to business management, both traditional and innovative. As for traditional operators, the use of their platform by a third party will also constitute a new source of revenue. The circulation of information in the downstream distribution network, as it is becoming increasingly widespread and thus allows an understanding of how electricity is used in homes or small businesses, will have the same role that georeferencing has had for mobile telephony as an enabler and accelerator in the development of value-added services.

Speed, efficiency, mobility. Digitization will favor the creation by companies of innovative services and offers (energy efficiency, demand side response, electric mobility). The expansion of the downstream network, in particular, will lead to the creation of new operators who will offer value-added services. Moreover, with digitization, competition will be in real time: fast response times will be needed, much more than today, and the ability to respond to market needs will determine the life or death of several companies.

Porous borders. In addition to favoring aggregations and to stimulating the birth of new players, the digitalization of the energy sector will favor the osmosis of the players with other industries. In fact, digital technology will allow an enormous liquidity and freedom of movement for all subjects. It will make it possible for anyone to enter the sector with a very low threshold level on the electricity front. Many energy-related services, for example, will be provided by IT companies, especially those tied to Big Data.

Opportunity multiplication. In the context of a major shift in energy economy, non-discriminatory access to data and information on energy consumption and the parallel development of smart meters, will become central hubs of competitive retail markets. For companies (sellers, energy service companies and aggregators), non-discriminatory access to consumer information and data – without losing the guarantees of privacy protection and data security – will be an indispensable condition for the competitive development of the service market, for energy efficiency and for an active management of demands. One of the effects of the new potential deriving from data management will be an increase in the number of players in the field of energy distribution.

Hares and tortoises. Several companies in the sector will continue to struggle to make the most of digital opportunities, because they will mainly have to offer IoT devices which are strictly focused on the energy dimension (thermostats, temperature sensors). Another difficulty will concern the organizational culture of those who so far have been selling a commodity and will need to learn to devise and offer value-added services. Operators in the digital world will move much faster: by entering homes thanks to voice assistants they will also cover the energy area thanks to the flexibility of the devices already positioned in the house. The distinctive ability that these players will have, compared with their competitors, will be that of knowing how to “man” the house, gathering information based on which they will conceive new services.

Virtual, industrial or vertical. Another growing offer model will be offered by very “vertical” companies (such as Tesla), which will enter homes with their storage and battery recharging for domestic devices or cars. Virtual commercial operators, digital only, will also spring up, dealing with the intermediation of electricity and domestic services, downstream of the meter. In this market, sellers of household appliances (Samsung in the first place) will also play an important role, as they will put themselves forward as managers of integrated services and home automation systems. These subjects will find their competitive advantage in a strong capability to design the services which the devices will be able to offer, but their weak point will be the need for all devices to be made from the same manufacturer.

The panel of Energy 2030 research experts consisted of: Luca Bragoli (Erg), Alfredo Camponeschi (Enel), Gian Piero Celata (Enea), Franco Del Manso (Unione Petrolifera), Sergio Ferraris (QualEnergia), Fabrizio Fontanesi (Engineering), Alessandro Gallucci (Enel), Giambattista Guidi (Enea), Alessandro Lagostena (Erg), Mariano Marciano (Engineering), Gianni Silvestrini (Kyoto Club), Remo Giulio Vaudano (Cni), Roberto Venafro (Edison).