Roundtable 'Digitalization in the energy transition'

March 23, the roundtable 'Digitization in the energy transition', organized by New Energy Coalition, CGI and NOM, took place in Groningen. In the Energybarn, some 25 representatives from government agencies, the business community and educational institutions came together to share best practices, lessons learned, innovative ideas and developments in the field of digitization in the energy transition. This is a follow-up to two innovation missions to Scandinavia, during which a delegation of the province and municipality of Groningen, knowledge institutions and companies traveled to Sweden and Finland, among other places. The purpose of these missions was to exchange knowledge, gain inspiration and explore the possibilities for collaboration with these countries in the areas of energy, sustainable transportation, education and innovation. Because 'digitalization' did not always receive enough attention during the trip, this roundtable was created to zoom in on this accelerator of the energy transition, which should not be underestimated.

An ongoing quest

The Commissioner of the King, René Paas, introduced this roundtable. In search of answers, participants pondered the role, challenges and opportunities of digitization in the energy transition. It can be concluded that the many-headed monster that is the energy transition requires parties within new ecosystems to step over their shadows in order to tackle the various challenges within renewed business models. Although Groningen is not big enough to face the climate crisis alone, René Paas was confident that the road to Paris will pass through Groningen.

The role of data in the energy transition

In the keynote, Johan Knijp, Manager Technology Center Groningen at DNV, zoomed in on the role of data in the energy transition. What kind of things can data do for renewable energy sources, means of transportation and converting industries? In what ways can data from different energy systems complement each other and how can digital twins, for example, be used to proactively, rather than reactively, maintain electricity infrastructure? Many questions passed in review, where connecting associated technologies, within and across ecosystems, was seen as necessary. Artificial Intelligence has great potential in this, with the associated privacy impact and energy intensity not to be ignored. To really get data sharing going, further defining data ownership and related roles will be important.

The role of ICT in energy transition

After the keynote, the first round table session got underway, with the topic "the transition to a sustainable energy landscape. In the introduction by Robert Hoekstra, Director Consulting Expert at CGI, it became clear that in this new energy landscape the focus is shifting from a demand-driven to a supply-driven model. Flexibility is gaining value in this as we move toward a more unpredictable energy system. In order to predict and steer properly, it is essential to have the right data. Where previously energy systems were mostly self-contained, we will have to look beyond energy carriers. Connecting data hubs can be expected to play an even more important role in tomorrow's energy system than they already do. In summary, bits and bytes, alongside molecules and electrons, are required for the complexity of the energy transition.

During the discussion, it became clear that much research is being done by educational institutions on this topic. Interdisciplinary and collaboration with industry appears to be the key to success here.

Participants agreed that ICT can promote cooperation in, for example, the electricity market. Some points will also require looking at the new normal. For example, when should energy consumers scale down and producers step up? When do we trade our energy and what agreements apply? And how do we free up grid capacity through ICT?

How do we find the balance?

In the second round, Greetje Bronsema, Energy Transition Advisor at Enexis, took us into the world of electricity infrastructure. This is because the transition to a sustainable energy system is also a major challenge for grid operators. Due to the growing demand for electricity, the grid will have to be expanded drastically. However, grid operators are often still struggling to keep up with these needed expansions due to various reasons. For example, in the context of the connection requirement, energy supply and demand in areas are not always well matched yet. Furthermore, spatial planning procedures can take up a lot of time and there is a general shortage of technically trained personnel. All this together means that smart choices will have to be made to regulate infra demand, now and in the future. In addition, we will have to learn together how to make optimal use of the existing connections and obtain more flexibility in electricity supply and demand.

During the discussion, it became clear that the biggest challenge will be to match supply and demand spatially. More flexibility is needed here, to make better use of the capacity of the grid. Long-term collaborations with and between market parties will be crucial in this regard. Large consumers, for example, can help grid operators with balancing, by predicting the quantities of electricity to be consumed in increasing detail and proactively sharing these insights. In addition, value is seen in making better use of various energy storage methods, such as underground hydrogen storage, and working in local energy hubs. If properly deployed, such hubs will provide a more direct link between energy generation and consumption. Through this decentralized energy infrastructure, less load is placed on the grid and less energy is lost prior to and during energy transportation.

How do you train the professional of tomorrow?

The necessary adjustments to the electricity grid, exploiting storage methods and working in local energy hubs obviously require technical professionals. Unfortunately, these are not always easy to find. In the third roundtable, building on an introduction by Wim van de Pol, Chairman of the Board at ROC Noorderpoort, the question of "how to train the professional of tomorrow?" was addressed.

In general, the skills needed of the future will have to become evident in practice. The creation of a hybrid learning environment is already linking education and the field today. Trial-and-error learning, in the form of internships and places of work and learning, provides a steep learning curve. However, the perception of technical practical training does not always match reality. Participants agree that attention to technological innovations from elementary school onward, for example focusing on drones and virtual reality, can help spark interest in a technical profession.

In addition to (vocational) education and retraining, Van de Pol believes that the existing labor force with a distance to the labor market should be expressly included in this change. After all, there is a large unused potential of people who would like to work, but for various reasons do not always find jobs easily. As a solution to this labor issue, participants saw great value in increased cooperation between educational institutions, business and government. It emerged from the discussion that many of the employers present are willing to further shape this hybrid sustainable learning environment together with vocational education. This aimed at the entire workforce, with the overarching goal of "training the energy professionals of the future.

How do you fund uncertainties?

From electrons and molecules, Erik Lücke, Director of Cooperative Rabobank Stad & Midden Groningen, took us to the euros in the last roundtable. After all, the energy transition in the Netherlands is currently threatening to stagnate because many of the required investments are proving difficult to finance. For what exactly is one investing in? How much money is needed and what is the expected return? If anything is clear, it is that there are many uncertainties surrounding the energy transition. But how do you finance those uncertainties?

Whereas previously funding was allowed on trust, nowadays many laws and regulations must be complied with. And let that be precisely the problem when we talk about funding, for example, a hydrogen electrolyser. What are the operational costs of such an asset and can the bank rely on future cash flows?

The discussion showed that this is precisely where innovative forms of funding are needed, labeled separately from general banking conditions. For new funding, it is important to include everyone in this, for example by organizing a funding table at the societal level. In this we can discuss the funding of common facilities.

An ongoing collaboration

As part of the ongoing transition to renewable energy sources, the energy landscape is becoming more diverse, supply-driven and unpredictable. A major challenge in this transition is to keep energy supply and demand spatially aligned. In order to continue to optimize the many-headed energy system, consisting of various energy sources & carriers, flexibility, among other things, will play an increasingly important role. Practical adjustments, within the electricity infrastructure for example, and the supporting role of data in all this are necessary for this ongoing transition. In addition to predicting the most appropriate time to perform maintenance on energy-related assets, for example, predictions of the quantities of energy demanded and offered will also enable energy storage methods to be deployed more effectively.All this requires substantial investments, which themselves require innovative forms of funding. At the same time, we must also invest in training enough skilled energy professionals. A symbiotic collaboration between business, educational institutions and government seems to be the key to success here. This roundtable discussion was a first step towards such a symbiotic cooperation, which it is important to continue to strengthen and utilize in the future.

This article was written by Mare Visser (New Energy Coalition) and Tim ten Brundel (CGI).