How technology can change the future of energy

The world has reached a crossroads in its energy usage. Global energy demand is set to grow by 37 per cent by 2040, while the relationship between supply and demand is increasingly volatile. As demand increases, traditional supplies become ever scarcer, infrastructure decays, and environmental concerns grow, we need a revolution in the creation, distribution, and usage of energy.

We are at the beginning of a multi-generational shift in attitudes and practice, and IT has an important part to play in conserving resources and improving management. But technology is also a prominent user of energy, so the IT industry must practise what it preaches. Effective use of IT can give us greater control over this evolutionary process of changing our energy practices – to make energy generation and usage sustainable for the future.

IT leading the charge – from within

The IT industry must be a leader in energy change. IT is a major consumer of energy, with IT equipment estimated to represent as much as 10 per cent of the world’s electricity consumption. Producers have a responsibility to reduce the consumption profile of their products, by offering energy efficient devices, components, and servers. With the growing shift towards the use of IT as a service, the industry must also aim to reduce energy consumption per unit of work.

However, it is also down to organisations to ensure that optimal energy efficient settings are used in practice, both to reduce environmental impact and save money. In data centres, for example, energy consumption accounts for about 12 per cent of costs, so achieving sustainable reductions is a key business driver.

The industry has taken several important steps towards improving its own energy habits. Green Grid is a collaborative, non-profit industry association dedicated to improving IT and data centre resource efficiency. There are also several international LCA (Lifecycle Analysis) carbon footprint standards groups, which promote initiatives to measure and reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions during the full lifecycle of IT products and services. In addition to being environmentally responsible, there’s no doubt that the industry’s reputation is also enhanced by this action on energy usage.

Reducing waste and enabling efficiency

Traditional energy systems generate a substantial amount of waste, as they were designed to operate at scale rather than under fine control. Inefficiencies in both the generation and consumption of energy add up to significant waste. Awareness of waste is growing in every sector, alongside corrective initiatives. For example, the body heat of commuters at Stockholm’s Central Station is now being used to heat a nearby office building.

Technology is needed to tackle waste further. With a smarter environment containing networked, embedded devices, we will be able to direct heat and light where they are needed. The recently-published GeSI (Global e-Sustainability Initiative) Smarter2030 report predicts that IT can enable a 20 per cent reduction in global carbon emissions. But while the application of these ideas on the ground will be intensely local, the IT industry must ensure its solutions are global and open.

Smartening up the grid

IT has the capability to stabilise the power grid through intelligent control to improve efficiency. This function is also important in the process of changing from old large nuclear and coal-powered sources to renewables, since most renewable sources fluctuate.

Another complementary approach is to build more intelligence into the grid via smart devices and associated technology, while collaboration between supplier and user is an important way of maximising efficiency, but is currently in its infancy. When supplies are constrained, electricity companies call or email their large commercial customers to ask them to reduce their usage. This process clearly does not scale to smaller customers, let alone domestic consumers. Technology can enable quick and efficient coordination between generator and customer to balance supply and demand.

Advanced analytics using the growing population of smart devices will enable networks to deliver energy when and where it is needed. Soon it will be possible for the grid to manage demand actively – for example by delaying domestic washing machine programmes to low-demand periods. The smart grid also enables new ways of sourcing and sharing energy. Micro-generation plants such as household solar installations and ground source heat pumps can be efficiently integrated, delivered and billed.

Energy forever

The energy problem requires steady, applied innovation. In the last few decades we have seen great improvements in both the creation and consumption of energy, from vehicles that run further on less (and less polluting) fuel to lightbulbs that use fewer watts and last for years rather than months. We have also seen growing awareness of the potential for using IT to make more of our energy resources in industry, commerce and government.

The world’s appetite for energy will continue to grow. If businesses, governments and citizens work together, we can ensure subsequent generations enjoy the prosperity we now take for granted. The future of energy is in an intelligent mix of supplies, distribution mechanisms and informed choices over usage. Technology is a key enabler. The devices and services now appearing in the market will become part of a smarter energy landscape that serves with efficiency and environmental responsibility.

Simon McKenna, Principle Customer Solutions Architect and Fujitsu Distinguished Engineer