Does Big Data + Renewables = Free Energy?

25th August, 2016 by

The fight of the scientific titans: the never-ending debate about climate change. But are the big names in politics and space travel (you know who) manipulating data? Another voice says big data will introduce the age of free renewable energy. But how, I hear you ask?

Professor Brian Cox hit the headlines and social media trending topics the other week following his impeccable scientific takedown of Australian politician Malcolm Roberts, an outspoken climate-change denier who says Nasa manipulated data to falsify a link between CO2 emissions and global warming. Meanwhile, another seemingly wild claim about data and energy use passed by largely unnoticed. According to Anthony Yuen, big data may be about to usher in an era where clean, renewable energy is not only in plentiful supply, but extremely cheap – potentially even free.
But Yuen is no wild-eyed, Utopian dreamer: he’s an expert in global commodities at Citi, a PhD, and one of the authors of the financial giant’s most recent Disruptive Innovations report. “Big data and advanced analytics are developing rapidly to improve forecasting, automation, customization, and the democratization of energy. The end result is that we are producing more energy with fewer resources,” he wrote.

Citi Sees A Bright Energy Renewable Future

The report says: “As new builds in the power sector involve more near zero-variable cost sources, such as wind and solar, along with greater demand and storage optimization, the goal of dramatically lowering energy costs for all, with the possibility of free energy in some corners, may finally come to fruition.”

One of the ways in which this could happen is through a connected ‘smart web’ of people generating their own electricity using small-scale renewable technologies such as rooftop solar panels or wind turbines. Electricity storage solutions are improving (consider Tesla’s Powerwall, or the automotive industry’s focus on developing batteries for electric vehicles). So, households and businesses adopting renewable generation technologies will be able to trade excess energy with others on the grid in greater numbers, thanks to data-driven automation.

Energy Market Shapeshifters: Big Data And Analytics

As Yuen explains in the report: “Utilities…would become distribution service

platform providers…as the State of New York is already envisioning.

Technology companies could provide energy network optimizing software…[to] control how energy is routed and optimized. Third-parties or homeowners would become energy

providers…and auto companies would become service and energy providers (e.g. through their battery technology).”

Ironically, Malcolm Roberts’ homeland of Australia is one of the countries best placed to spearhead this revolution. According to Australian blog REneweconomy.com: “Already, it has more than 1.5 million households and businesses with rooftop solar, totalling more than 5GW, and many will soon add battery storage. Smart software will allow households and businesses to pool their resources, and trade with each other – if regulators allow.”.

Where There’s A (political) Will…Big Data and Renewable Energy Have A Way

Indeed, the challenges for any country striving to realize this vision are now far more political than technical. Vested interests and political intransigence could yet scupper progress. But Citi’s report is clear on what needs to happen: “Utilities could be winners, but only if they transform with the times; renewables, despite intermittencies, could operate as smoothly as traditional fossil energy; emissions should be limited as energy demand is optimized and renewables proliferate. Trillions of dollars are at stake. This is a story of how software will transform a hardware-dominated sector; it is the kind of creative destruction that demands fundamental changes in an entire sector.”