The global energy system is rapidly changing as energy supply diversification and distributed, localized energy production become increasingly prominent. The energy system is not changing in isolation, however. Rather, energy sector evolution is being substantially influenced by advances in connected and intelligent systems capable of shaping the way energy is produced, distributed and consumed.
Advancements in sensing technologies, communication networks and computational power are in fact creating a bridge between the world of physical objects and the world of information to drive innovation in the energy sector. This is remarkable given that the energy sector has historically been one of the least innovative sectors due to an emphasis on leveraging proven technologies to provide energy reliably and at least cost. Now, however, the convergence of energy systems with connected, intelligent information systems has opened opportunities for new energy sector business models and value propositions.
On the supply side, distributed and connected energy systems will increasingly drive renewable energy and energy storage adoption for energy self-generation and consumption as well as participation in virtualized energy production and supply networks. On the demand side, intelligent buildings and intelligent transportation systems are reshaping energy supply and demand while simultaneously providing increased levels of comfort, safety, productivity and health.
Intelligent buildings capable of sensing, analyzing and optimizing temperature, air quality, sound and ambient lighting can improve occupant health and productivity while at the same time reducing energy consumption. Intelligent transportation systems (ITS) utilize sensors and analytics to optimize transportation routes, minimize the friction between modes of transportation and support increasing levels of vehicle autonomy. These ITS impacts collectively improve transportation safety and productivity while at the same time provide the opportunity for reduced energy consumption in the transportation sector.
Autonomous vehicles are particularly interesting because of their alignment with vehicle electrification, which is a central topic for energy system innovation. As specific examples of reinforcing alignment, autonomy can provide electric vehicles with greater range while electrification will allow autonomous vehicles to recharge wirelessly using technology that relies on charging pads mounted on both the ground and the car. Wireless charging is already available for consumer electronics and is now emerging as a viable technology for vehicles. As a further link between energy and ITS, vehicles that are both autonomous and electric can directly benefit distributed renewables by playing a key role in intelligent energy storage. Intelligent energy storage, which in the case of electric vehicles is battery electricity storage, allows renewable energy, for instance rooftop solar photovoltaics, to power buildings and charge electric vehicle batteries when sunlight is available. When renewable energy is not available and electric vehicles are parked, vehicle batteries can supply power.
Dubai is a city extremely well positioned to achieve the described unification of energy and intelligent systems. Dubai’s ambition to become one of the world’s most connected and sustainable cities is exemplified by the Dubai Clean Energy Strategy 2050, which aims to achieve 25% of energy production from solar energy by 2030 and additionally calls for mandatory rooftop solar panels on city buildings in the same timeframe. Dubai’s energy strategy is complimented by a recently announced Autonomous Transportation Strategy that targets 25% of all personal trips in Dubai to be via autonomous vehicles by 2030 with particular emphasis on autonomous metro, autonomous buses, autonomous taxis and other autonomous transportation modes used in the first and final stages of trips. Hence, distributed clean energy and intelligent transportation are becoming inevitable for the UAE and Dubai is serving as a catalyst.
However, additional innovation for enabling technologies is required to realize this holistic smart city vision. In Gartner’s latest report on emerging technology trends, smart machine technologies connected by enabling platforms are projected to lead technological disruption in the next decade. The same report nevertheless suggests that the “plateau of productivity” for key technologies, such as Internet-of-Things (IoT) platforms and smart data discovery, is 5 to 10 years away and for transformational technologies, such as fully autonomous vehicles and general purpose machine intelligence, the plateau is projected to be more than 10 years away. Hence, application-inspired research and development (R&D) remains essential to bringing these disruptive technologies to the market.
At the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, application-inspired R&D is our core philosophy and our research focus areas, which include energy, microelectronics and smart systems, are at the leading-edge of energy and information technology R&D. However, the research projects we undertake are aimed not just at furthering scientific understanding, but also gaining insights that can transform early-stage technologies into commercially viable innovations. For this reason, we now have R&D partnerships with more than 50 leading local and international organizations, many of which are focused on energy and intelligent systems. Such R&D efforts are targeted toward helping Dubai and the broader UAE achieve global leadership in the multitude of innovation pursuits the country is now undertaking.
Dr. Steve Griffiths is Vice President for Research at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology
20 November 2016
This op-ed was first published in Issue 28 of Innovation and Tech