Jean-Simon Venne, co-founder and chief technology officer, BrainBox AI explains how the application of technology can smooth the way to a net zero future.
In 2018 the European Commission endorsed a vision to achieve Net Zero by 2050 and called for the creation of a competitive and climate neutral economy. The invasion of Ukraine has now created a renewed urgency for EU member states and other European nations to increase renewable energy generation and decrease energy usage.
With the war continuing to extract a deadly toll, European politicians have also implemented several rounds of sanctions on Russia. As a result, the EU’s latest outline for a secure and sustainable energy strategy (REPowerEU) sets out ways in which member states could reduce imports of gas from Russia by 42 per cent in 2022.
Diversification of energy sources is one way that governments, business, and regulators can bolster overall resilience. However, energy efficiency is better achieved through decreased and smarter usage, partnered with scaling up renewable energy infrastructure. Some immediate recommendations, such as those in the IEA’s recent Ten Point Plan, are easily actionable and practical. For example, turning down the heating by 1oC-2oC in residential and commercial buildings across Europe would save 130 terawatt hours in energy over a year.
These immediate actions however do not provide a holistic solution to Europe’s energy resilience challenge. That is why the EU’s REPowerEU outline calls for increasing wind energy production from 190 GW today to 480 GW by 2030. Additionally, a huge residential expansion of solar rooftops which the Commission says could boost energy production by 15 TWh of gas consumption. With solar panel costs per square metre now at rock bottom prices – from €329 per MW/h in 2009 to €36 a decade later – a decline of 89 per cent, such measures are both affordable and possible.
However, greening energy generation must go hand-in-hand with more sustainable energy usage. That means doing more with the same inputs which requires far greater energy efficiency. Some ways to achieve that will be medium-term, such as replacing gas-fired boilers with electric heat pumps. Doing this for the 200 million (and growing) households in the EU will take several decades, with current forecasts by the Commission standing at 30 million such pumps installed by 2030 to reduce gas consumption by 35 BCM.
In the commercial real estate sector, improvements can be more rapidly implemented in months not decades. At present most commercial buildings utilise relatively static heating and cooling systems which do not consider the vast number of variables that can impact on actual need, from occupancy level to solar gain from the position of the sun. Yet smart building solutions powered by Artificial Intelligence algorithms can adapt energy usage to add in those variables. By making commercial buildings’ HVAC systems proactive rather than reactive, substantial savings can be realised, with some solutions currently in the market showing carbon footprint reductions of up to 40 per cent.
Smart building technology is also necessary to make better use of energy throughout each day. The current transition to battery-powered electric vehicles (BEVs) will require a far more intelligent retail, commercial and wholesale energy infrastructure to recharge all these vehicles, to optimise energy grid demand and reduce costs for end-users.
Without far more smart building technology, we will be left with (almost) unconstrained energy usage, with high demand triggering additional buffering by energy companies. Smart buildings can avoid triggering high energy demand and lower the wasteful extra ‘buffer’ the energy companies hold in case more is needed, which is a waste of energy and resources.
Creating more sustainable economic growth and greening our energy infrastructure has no single solution. Commercial building owners and operators can start contributing more rapidly though than residential consumers and energy-intensive industry.
To date, both the EU’s proposals and the UK’s proposals haven’t focused enough on the commercial building sector. What is needed for a more resilient energy market across Europe, is to ensure that regulatory incentives in European support wholesale modernisation improvements to the commercial building sector and incentivise the use of current and emerging smart technologies.