We asked our 2020 intake of Technology Pioneers for their views on how technology will change the world in the next five years.
From quantum computers and 5G in action to managing cancer chronically, here are their predictions for our near-term future.
1. AI-optimized manufacturing
Paper and pencil tracking, luck, significant global travel and opaque supply chains are part of today’s status quo, resulting in large amounts of wasted energy, materials and time. Accelerated in part by the long-term shutdown of international and regional travel by COVID-19, companies that design and build products will rapidly adopt cloud-based technologies to aggregate, intelligently transform, and contextually present product and process data from manufacturing lines throughout their supply chains. By 2025, this ubiquitous stream of data and the intelligent algorithms crunching it will enable manufacturing lines to continuously optimize towards higher levels of output and product quality – reducing overall waste in manufacturing by up to 50%. As a result, we will enjoy higher quality products, produced faster, at lower cost to our pocketbooks and the environment.
In 2025, carbon footprints will be viewed as socially unacceptable, much like drink driving is today. The COVID-19 pandemic will have focused the public’s attention on the need to take action to deal with threats to our way of life, our health and our future. Public attention will drive government policy and behavioural changes, with carbon footprints becoming a subject of worldwide scrutiny. Individuals, companies and countries will seek the quickest and most affordable ways to achieve net-zero – the elimination of their carbon footprint. The creation of a sustainable, net-zero future will be built through a far-reaching energy transformation that significantly reduces the world’s carbon emissions, and through the emergence of a massive carbon management industry that captures, utilizes and eliminates carbon dioxide. We’ll see a diversity of new technologies aimed at both reducing and removing the world’s emissions – unleashing a wave of innovation to compare with the industrial and digital Revolutions of the past.
By 2025, quantum computing will have outgrown its infancy, and a first generation of commercial devices will be able tackle meaningful, real-world problems. One major application of this new kind of computer will be the simulation of complex chemical reactions, a powerful tool that opens up new avenues in drug development. Quantum chemistry calculations will also aid the design of novel materials with desired properties, for instance better catalysts for the automotive industry that curb emissions and help fight climate change. Right now, the development of pharmaceuticals and performance materials relies massively on trial and error, which means it is an iterative, time-consuming and terribly expensive process. Quantum computers may soon be able to change this. They will significantly shorten product development cycles and reduce the costs for R&D.
4. Healthcare paradigm shift to prevention through diet
By 2025, healthcare systems will adopt more preventative health approaches based on the developing science behind the health benefits of plant-rich, nutrient-dense diets. This trend will be enabled by AI-powered and systems biology-based technology that exponentially grows our knowledge of the role of specific dietary phytonutrients in specific human health and functional outcomes. After the pandemic of 2020, consumers will be more aware of the importance of their underlying health and will increasingly demand healthier food to help support their natural defences. Armed with a much deeper understanding of nutrition, the global food industry can respond by offering a broader range of product options to support optimal health outcomes. The healthcare industry can respond by promoting earth’s plant intelligence for more resilient lives and to incentivize people to take care of themselves in an effort to reduce unsustainable costs.
5. 5G will enhance the global economy and save lives
Overnight, we’ve experienced a sharp increase in delivery services with a need for “day-of” goods from providers like Amazon and Instacart – but it has been limited. With 5G networks in place, tied directly into autonomous bots, goods would be delivered safely within hours.
Wifi can’t scale to meet higher capacity demands. Sheltering-in-place has moved businesses and classrooms to video conferencing, highlighting poor-quality networks. Low latency 5G networks would resolve this lack of network reliability and even allow for more high-capacity services like telehealth, telesurgery and ER services. Businesses can offset the high cost of mobility with economy-boosting activities including smart factories, real-time monitoring, and content-intensive, real-time edge-compute services. 5G private networks make this possible and changes the mobile services economy.
The roll-out of 5G creates markets that we only imagine – like self-driving bots, along with a mobility-as-a-service economy – and others we can’t imagine, enabling next generations to invent thriving markets and prosperous causes.
Technology drives data, data catalyzes knowledge, and knowledge enables empowerment. In tomorrow’s world, cancer will be managed like any chronic health condition —we will be able to precisely identify what we may be facing and be empowered to overcome it.
In other words, a new normal will emerge in how we can manage cancer. We will see more early and proactive screening with improved diagnostics innovation, such as in better genome sequencing technology or in liquid biopsy, that promises higher ease of testing, higher accuracy and ideally at an affordable cost. Early detection and intervention in common cancer types will not only save lives but reduce the financial and emotional burden of late discovery.
We will also see a revolution in treatment propelled by technology. Gene editing and immunotherapy that bring fewer side effects will have made greater headway. With advances in early screening and treatment going hand in hand, cancer will no longer be the cursed ‘C’ word that inspires such fear among people.
Historically, robotics has turned around many industries, while a few select sectors – such as grocery retail – have remained largely untouched . With the use of a new robotics application called ‘microfulfillment’, Grocery retailing will no longer look the same. The use of robotics downstream at a ‘hyper local’ level (as opposed to the traditional upstream application in the supply chain) will disrupt this 100-year-old, $5 trillion industry and all its stakeholders will experience significant change. Retailers will operate at a higher order of magnitude on productivity, which will in turn result in positive and enticing returns in the online grocery business (unheard of at the moment). This technology also unlocks broader access to food and a better customer proposition to consumers at large: speed, product availability and cost. Microfulfillment centers are located in existing (and typically less productive) real estate at the store level and can operate 5-10% more cheaply than a brick and mortar store. We predict that value will be equally captured by retailers and consumers as online.
One thing the current pandemic has shown us is how important technology is for maintaining and facilitating communication – not simply for work purposes, but for building real emotional connections. In the next few years we can expect to see this progress accelerate, with AI technology built to connect people at a human level and drive them closer to each other, even when physically they’re apart. The line between physical space and virtual will forever be blurred. We’ll start to see capabilities for global events – from SXSW to the Glastonbury Festival – to provide fully digitalized alternatives, beyond simple live streaming into full experiences. However, it’s not as simple as just providing these services – data privacy will have to be prioritised in order to create confidence among consumers. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic we saw a lot in the news about concerns over the security of video conferencing companies. These concerns aren’t going anywhere and as digital connectivity increases, brands simply can’t afford to give users anything less than full transparency and control over their data.
9. Putting individuals – not institutions – at the heart of healthcare
By 2025, the lines separating culture, information technology and health will be blurred. Engineering biology, machine learning and the sharing economy will establish a framework for decentralising the healthcare continuum, moving it from institutions to the individual. Propelling this forward are advances in artificial intelligence and new supply chain delivery mechanisms, which require the real-time biological data that engineering biology will deliver as simple, low-cost diagnostic tests to individuals in every corner of the globe. As a result, morbidity, mortality and costs will decrease in acute conditions, such as infectious diseases, because only the most severe cases will need additional care. Fewer infected people will leave their homes, dramatically altering disease epidemiology while decreasing the burden on healthcare systems. A corresponding decrease in costs and increase in the quality of care follows, as inexpensive diagnostics move expenses and power to the individual, simultaneously increasing the cost-efficiency of care. Inextricable links between health, socio-economic status and quality of life will begin to loosen, and tensions that exist by equating health with access to healthcare institutions will dissipate. From daily care to pandemics, these converging technologies will alter economic and social factors to relieve many pressures on the global human condition.
Construction will become a synchronized sequence of manufacturing processes, delivering control, change and production at scale. It will be a safer, faster and more cost-effective way to build the homes, offices, factories and other structures we need to thrive in cities and beyond. As rich datasets are created across the construction industry through the internet of things, AI and image capture, to name a few, this vision is already coming to life. Using data to deeply understand industry processes is profoundly enhancing the ability of field professionals to trust their instincts in real-time decision making, enabling learning and progress while gaining trust and adoption.
Actionable data sheds light where we could not see before, empowering leaders to manage projects proactively rather than reactively. Precision in planning and execution enables construction professionals to control the environment, instead of it controlling them, and creates repeatable processes that are easier to control, automate, and teach.
That’s the future of construction. And it’s already begun.
11. Gigaton-scale CO2 removal will help to reverse climate change
A scale up of negative emission technologies, such as carbon dioxide removal, will remove climate-relevant amounts of CO2 from the air. This will be necessary in order to limit global warming to 1.5°C. While humanity will do everything possible to stop emitting more carbon into the atmosphere, it will also do everything it can in order to remove historic CO2 from the air permanently. By becoming widely accessible, the demand for CO2 removal will increase and costs will fall. CO2 removal will be scaled up to the gigaton-level, and will become the responsible option for removing unavoidable emissions from the air. It will empower individuals to have a direct and climate-positive impact on the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. It will ultimately help to prevent global warming from reaching dangerous levels and give humanity the potential to reverse climate change.
Jan Wurzbacher, Co-Founder and co-CEO of Climeworks
12. A new era in medicine
Medicine has always been on a quest to gather more knowledge and understanding of human biology for better clinical decision-making. AI is that new tool that will enable us to extract more insights at an unprecedented level from all the medical ‘big data’ that has never really been fully taken advantage of in the past. It will shift the world of medicine and how it is practiced.
Improvements in AI will finally put access to wealth creation within reach of the masses. Financial advisors, who are knowledge workers, have been the mainstay of wealth management: using customized strategies to grow a small nest egg into a larger one. Since knowledge workers are expensive, access to wealth management has often meant you already need to be wealthy to preserve and grow your wealth. As a result, historically, wealth management has been out of reach of those who needed it most. Artificial intelligence is improving at such a speed that the strategies employed by these financial advisors will be accessible via technology, and therefore affordable for the masses. Just like you don’t need to know how near-field communication works to use ApplePay, tens of millions of people won’t have to know modern portfolio theory to be able to have their money work for them.
14. A clean energy revolution supported by digital twins
Over the next five years, the energy transition will reach a tipping point. The cost of new-build renewable energy will be lower than the marginal cost of fossil fuels. A global innovation ecosystem will have provided an environment in which problems can be addressed collectively, and allowed for the deployment of innovation to be scaled rapidly. As a result, we will have seen an astounding increase in offshore wind capacity. We will have achieved this through an unwavering commitment to digitalization, which will have gathered a pace that aligns with Moore’s law to mirror solar’s innovation curve. The rapid development of digital twins – virtual replicas of physical devices – will support a systems-level transformation of the energy sector. The scientific machine learning that combines physics-based models with big data will lead to leaner designs, lower operating costs and ultimately clean, affordable energy for all. The ability to monitor structural health in real-time and fix things before they break will result in safer, more resilient infrastructure and everything from wind farms to bridges and unmanned aerial vehicles being protected by a real-time digital twin.
15. Understanding the microscopic secrets hidden on surfaces
Every surface on Earth carries hidden information that will prove essential for avoiding pandemic-related crises, both now and in the future. The built environment, where humans spend 90% of their lives, is laden with naturally occurring microbiomes comprised of bacterial, fungal and viral ecosystems. Technology that accelerates our ability to rapidly sample, digitalize and interpret microbiome data will transform our understanding of how pathogens spread. Exposing this invisible microbiome data layer will identify genetic signatures that can predict when and where people and groups are shedding pathogens, which surfaces and environments present the highest transmission risk, and how these risks are impacted by our actions and change over time. We are just scratching the surface of what microbiome data insights offer and will see this accelerate over the next five years. These insights will not only help us avoid and respond to pandemics, but will influence how we design, operate and clean environments like buildings, cars, subways and planes, in addition to how we support economic activity without sacrificing public health.
16. Machine learning and AI expedite decarbonization in carbon-heavy industries
Over the next five years, carbon-heavy industries will use machine learning and AI technology to dramatically reduce their carbon footprint. Traditionally, industries like manufacturing and oil and gas have been slow to implement decarbonization efforts as they struggle to maintain productivity and profitability while doing so. However, climate change, as well as regulatory pressure and market volatility, are pushing these industries to adjust. For example, oil and gas and industrial manufacturing organizations are feeling the pinch of regulators, who want them to significantly reduce CO2 emissions within the next few years. Technology-enabled initiatives were vital to boosting decarbonizing efforts in sectors like transportation and buildings – and heavy industries will follow a similar approach. Indeed, as a result of increasing digital transformation, carbon-heavy sectors will be able to utilize advanced technologies, like AI and machine learning, using real-time, high-fidelity data from billions of connected devices to efficiently and proactively reduce harmful emissions and decrease carbon footprints.
Despite the accelerating regulatory environments we’ve seen surface in recent years, we are now just seeing the tip of the privacy iceberg, both from a regulatory and consumer standpoint. Five years from now, privacy and data-centric security will have reached commodity status – and the ability for consumers to protect and control sensitive data assets will be viewed as the rule rather than the exception. As awareness and understanding continue to build, so will the prevalence of privacy preserving and enhancing capabilities, namely privacy-enhancing technologies (PET). By 2025, PET as a technology category will become mainstream. They will be a foundational element of enterprise privacy and security strategies rather than an added-on component integrated only meet a minimum compliance threshold. While the world will still lack a global privacy standard, organizations will embrace a data-centric approach to security that provides the flexibility necessary to adapt to regional regulations and consumer expectations. These efforts will be led by cross-functional teams representing the data, privacy and security interests within an organization.
How will technology change the world in the next five years?
It is very exciting to see the pace and transformative potential of today’s innovative technologies being applied to solve the world’s most pressing problems, such as feeding a global and growing population; improving access to and quality of healthcare; and significantly reducing carbon emissions to arrest the negative effects of climate change. The next five years will see profound improvements in addressing these challenges as entrepreneurs, the investment community and the world’s largest enterprise R&D organizations focus on developing and deploying solutions that will deliver tangible results.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a difficult lesson in just how susceptible our world is today to human and economic turmoil, it has also – perhaps for the first time in history – necessitated global collaboration, data transparency and speed at the highest levels of government in order to minimize an immediate threat to human life. History will be our judge, but despite the heroic resolve and resiliency on a country by country basis, as a world we have underperformed. As a global community and through platforms like the World Economic Forum, we must continue to bring visibility to these issues while recognizing and supporting the opportunities for technology and innovation that can best and most rapidly address them.
Historic multi-year collaboration between three leaders in their industry to increase renewable energy production and use
Wind turbine towers have typically been limited to a height of under 100 meters, as they are traditionally built in steel or precast concrete
Printing the base directly on-site with 3D-printed concrete technology will enable the creation of larger bases and cost-effective taller hybrid towers, reaching up to 200 meters
Taller towers capture stronger winds, thereby generating more energy at a lower cost
First prototype successfully printed in October 2019
GE Renewable Energy, COBOD and LafargeHolcim announced today that they will partner to co-develop wind turbines with optimized 3D printed concrete bases, reaching record heights up to 200 meters. The three partners will undertake a multi-year collaboration to develop this innovative solution, which will increase renewable energy production while lowering the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) and optimizing construction costs. The partners will produce ultimately a wind turbine prototype with a printed pedestal, and a production ready printer and materials range to scale up production. The first prototype, a 10-meter high tower pedestal, was successfully printed in October 2019 in Copenhagen. By exploring ways to economically develop taller towers that capture stronger winds, the three partners aim to generate more renewable energy per turbine.
Building on the industry-leading expertise of each partner, this collaboration aims to accelerate the access and use of renewable energy worldwide. GE Renewable Energy will provide expertise related to the design, manufacture and commercialization of wind turbines, COBOD will focus on the robotics automation and 3D printing and LafargeHolcim will design the tailor-made concrete material, its processing and application.
“Concrete 3D printing is a very promising technology for us, as its incredible design flexibility expands the realm of construction possibilities. Being both a user and promoter of clean energy, we are delighted to be putting our material and design expertise to work in this groundbreaking project, enabling cost efficient construction of tall wind turbine towers and accelerating access to renewable energy,” explained Edelio Bermejo, Head of R&D for LafargeHolcim.
Henrik Lund-Nielsen, founder of COBOD International A/S added: “We are extremely proud to be working with world-class companies like GE Renewable Energy and LafargeHolcim. With our groundbreaking 3D printing technology combined with the competence and resources of our partners, we are convinced that this disruptive move within the wind turbines industry will help drive lower costs and faster execution times, to benefit customers and lower the CO2 footprint from the production of energy.
“3D printing is in GE’s DNA and we believe that Large Format Additive Manufacturing will bring disruptive potential to the Wind Industry. Concrete printing has advanced significantly over the last five years and we believe is getting closer to have real application in the industrial world. We are committed to taking full advantage of this technology both from the design flexibility it allows as well as for the logistic simplification it enables on such massive components,” said Matteo Bellucci Advanced Manufacturing Technology Leader for GE Renewable Energy.
Traditionally built in steel or precast concrete, wind turbine towers have typically been limited to a height of under 100 meters, as the width of the base cannot exceed the 4.5-meter diameter that can be transported by road, without excessive additional costs. Printing a variable height base directly on-site with 3D-printed concrete technology will enable the construction of towers up to 150 to 200 meters tall. Typically, a 5 MW turbine at 80 meters generates, yearly, 15.1 GWh. In comparison, the same turbine at 160 meters would generate 20.2 GWh, or more than 33% extra power.
About LafargeHolcim LafargeHolcim is the global leader in building materials and solutions and active in four business segments: Cement, Aggregates, Ready-Mix Concrete and Solutions & Products. Its ambition is to lead the industry in reducing carbon emissions and shifting towards low-carbon construction. With the strongest R&D organization in the industry, the company seeks to constantly introduce and promote high-quality and sustainable building materials and solutions to its customers worldwide – whether individual homebuilders or developers of major infrastructure projects. LafargeHolcim employs over 70,000 employees in over 70 countries and has a portfolio that is equally balanced between developing and mature markets.
About COBOD International A/S COBOD International is a globally leading 3D construction printing company, supplying 3D construction printing technology to customers in Asia, The Middle East, Europe and the US. COBOD intent to disrupt the construction industry and any industry where concrete structures are being applied. COBOD has made headlines multiple times the last couple of years from the 3D printing of the first fully permitted building in Europe in 2017, over the delivery of the largest construction printer in the world measuring 27 meters in length and 10 meter in height to the live 3D printing of a small house per day during the Bautec, a German construction exhibition. German Peri Group, the leading provider of manual concrete casting form work equipment is a minority shareholder of COBOD. Follow us on www.COBOD.com
About GE Renewable Energy GE Renewable Energy is a $15 billion business which combines one of the broadest portfolios in the renewable energy industry to provide end-to-end solutions for our customers demanding reliable and affordable green power. Combining onshore and offshore wind, blades, hydro, storage, utility-scale solar, and grid solutions as well as hybrid renewables and digital services offerings, GE Renewable Energy has installed more than 400+ gigawatts of clean renewable energy and equipped more than 90 percent of utilities worldwide with its grid solutions. With nearly 40,000 employees present in more than 80 countries, GE Renewable Energy creates value for customers seeking to power the world with affordable, reliable and sustainable green electrons.
SCOOPEMPIRE‘ s TECH wondering Why The MENA Region Is Poised To Be The Next Fintech Hub, its Scoop Team on June 4, 2020, answered by posing another question such as What is Fintech, and where is it most prominent in this essay.
As the world braces itself for a potential global recession, it’s hard to countenance the idea of growth markets or lucrative industries. However, entities such as the fintech sector undoubtedly challenge this mindset, with the global market worth an impressive $127.66 billion by the end of 2018.
The market is also poised for further expansion in the near-term, with a compound annual growth rate rate of 25% forecast through 2022. This will create a fintech sector worth approximately $309.98 billion, while also helping to drive significant innovation and technological advancement in the wider financial services space.
Interestingly, we’re also seeing the geographical diversification of fintech, with locations in regions such as Africa and the Middle East now competing with established financial powerhouses like London. But why exactly will the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) jurisdiction become the next major fintech hub?
What is Fintech, and where is it most prominent?
In simple terms, fintech refers to financial technologies, while it continues to drive a diverse range of innovations and applications within the financial services sector.
Historically, it was used almost exclusively by financial institutions themselves, but over time it has continued to evolve to represent emerging technologies in their own right and the widespread disruption of the traditional financial services sector.
The history of fintech can also be traced back to the origins of the 21st century, while over the course of the last decade it has evolved into a rapidly growing and advancing customer-oriented spectrum of services. This is true across a number of financial industries too, although it’s fair to surmise that the impact of fintech innovation has been more prominent in some markets than others.
These fintech innovations have helped to make the forex market far more accessible to a wider international audience, while enabling everyday and non-institutional investors to trade variable derivatives and forex trading sessions.
This includes lucrative and high-volume entities such as the Asian trading session (which operates between the hours of 12am and 9am GMT), along with an entire basket of emerging currencies and asset classes associated with regions such as Africa and the Middle East).
The rise of Fintech in MENA – a marriage made in heaven?
Of course, this is just one measure of the growing relationship between fintech and the MENA region, and one that becomes increasingly formidable with every passing year.
This is borne out by the figures too; with the fintech market in the MENA region expected to account for 8% of the areas’ total financial services revenue by 2022. This growth has been largely inspired by a rising number of fintech startups in sectors such as forex, combined with increased mobile Internet penetration and sustained economic reforms throughout the region.
The main purpose of this investment was to accelerate the growth and influence of fintech in Dubai and the Middle East as a whole, and this has already had a marked impact in terms of achieving this objective. This also involved market-leading financial institutions such as HSBC, who have recently committed to renewing their participation for the third year.
This means that the region’s most dynamic and profitable fintech startups will continue to benefit from sustained support and nurturing, paving the way for the MENA region to become increasingly influential in the marketplace and challenge established entities such as London and Hamburg.
WE SAID THIS: The region is booming in more ways than you know!
Competitive power generation costs make investment in renewables highly attractive as countries target economic recovery from COVID-19, new IRENA report finds.
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, 2 June 2020 — Renewable power is increasingly cheaper than any new electricity capacity based on fossil fuels, a new report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) published today finds. Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2019 shows that more than half of the renewable capacity added in 2019 achieved lower power costs than the cheapest new coal plants.
The report highlights that new renewable power generation projects now increasingly undercut existing coal-fired plants. On average, new solar photovoltaic (PV) and onshore wind power cost less than keeping many existing coal plants in operation, and auction results show this trend accelerating – reinforcing the case to phase-out coal entirely. Next year, up to 1 200 gigawatts (GW) of existing coal capacity could cost more to operate than the cost of new utility-scale solar PV, the report shows.
Replacing the costliest 500 GW of coal with solar PV and onshore wind next year would cut power system costs by up to USD 23 billion every year and reduce annual emissions by around 1.8 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide (CO2), equivalent to 5% of total global CO2 emissions in 2019. It would also yield an investment stimulus of USD 940 billion, which is equal to around 1% of global GDP.
“We have reached an important turning point in the energy transition. The case for new and much of the existing coal power generation, is both environmentally and economically unjustifiable,” said Francesco La Camera, Director-General of IRENA. “Renewable energy is increasingly the cheapest source of new electricity, offering tremendous potential to stimulate the global economy and get people back to work. Renewable investments are stable, cost-effective and attractive offering consistent and predictable returns while delivering benefits to the wider economy.
“A global recovery strategy must be a green strategy,” La Camera added. “Renewables offer a way to align short-term policy action with medium- and long-term energy and climate goals. Renewables must be the backbone of national efforts to restart economies in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. With the right policies in place, falling renewable power costs, can shift markets and contribute greatly towards a green recovery.”
Renewable electricity costs have fallen sharply over the past decade, driven by improving technologies, economies of scale, increasingly competitive supply chains and growing developer experience. Since 2010, utility-scale solar PV power has shown the sharpest cost decline at 82%, followed by concentrating solar power (CSP) at 47%, onshore wind at 39% and offshore wind at 29%.
Costs for solar and wind power technologies also continued to fall year-on-year. Electricity costs from utility-scale solar PV fell 13% in 2019, reaching a global average of 6.8 cents (USD 0.068) per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Onshore and offshore wind both declined about 9%, reaching USD 0.053/kWh and USD 0.115/kWh, respectively.
Recent auctions and power purchase agreements (PPAs) show the downward trend continuing for new projects are commissioned in 2020 and beyond. Solar PV prices based on competitive procurement could average USD 0.039/kWh for projects commissioned in 2021, down 42% compared to 2019 and more than one-fifth less than the cheapest fossil-fuel competitor namely coal-fired plants. Record-low auction prices for solar PV in Abu Dhabi and Dubai (UAE), Chile, Ethiopia, Mexico, Peru and Saudi Arabia confirm that values as low as USD 0.03/kWh are already possible.
For the first time, IRENA’s annual report also looks at investment value in relation to falling generation costs. The same amount of money invested in renewable power today produces more new capacity than it would have a decade ago. In 2019, twice as much renewable power generation capacity was commissioned than in 2010 but required only 18% more investment.
The young and educated population of the Gulf countries surfing on a raft of significant infrastructure projects seems to have found its way through this worldwide thin patch in its development ground. The Rising Need for Smart Grids gives a pertinent view of how, in the recent past, new setups are taking shape for a durable and sustainable future. A future where the Middle East moves towards a Smart Cities model of development.
The Middle East moves towards a Smart Cities FutureThe ongoing coronavirus crisis has underscored our deep dependence on digitization and modern technologies. Under the COVID-19 lockdown, smart technologies have enabled us to continue to work, learn and shop from the safety of our home. The coronavirus pandemic changed consumers’ energy profiles overnight and amplified the importance of continuous, uninterrupted electric supply for essential services and for nearly every business sector to keep running.
The utilities sector is still on the periphery of digitization that has disrupted other sectors, such as telecommunications and banking. Utilities have historically under-invested in information technology (IT), focusing instead on the operations technologies that enable their core business of generating, transmitting and distributing power.
The change has been slow in coming, but utilities are now waking up to consumers’ demand for smart, interactive services. Along the way, they are identifying many potential benefits of smart technology, not just to the increasingly sophisticated customer, but to their own business. Enter: the smart grid.
While there is much progress still to be made until smart grids and utilities reach their potential across the MENA region, the opportunity is just as large.
Investment on the up
Investment in smart grids is rising globally, spurred by an increasing acknowledgement amongst utilities of smart grid benefits, along with government mandates for energy efficiency and grid reliability. According to market research and consultancy firm, Navigant Research, smart grid IT software and services are expected to generate US$17.1 billion in revenue in 2024 up from US$8.5 billion a decade earlier. With rising investments in the field, several fundamental smart grid building blocks stand to gain. Here, the key focus areas include transmission upgrades, substation automation, distribution automation, smart metering and utility enterprise IT.
The increased investment in smart technologies is enabling the smart grid to evolve and advance. Emerging innovations are promising to benefit consumers, utilities and countries world-wide. Some of these innovations include micro grids, energy storage devices such as Li-Ion batteries, smart homes that adjust consumption according to utility rates, Demand Response (DR) Management Systems that predict peak usage times and mitigate outages and Electric Vehicle (EV) Charging Stations. These technological innovations are just one sign that commitment to the smart grid is growing stronger, as its role in satisfying and engaging customers becomes more apparent.
While the true impact of emerging smart grid trends remains to be seen, existing innovations are already delivering tangible and wide-ranging benefits, not just to consumers and companies, but to entire nations, too.
Smart grids provide a wide range of automation features, differentiating them from traditional grids; these features are vital for business continuity.
In view of social distancing requirements currently in place to protect public health, Remote Firmware Upgrade allows a utility company to push firmware patches and revisions to clients without the need to mobilize Operation and Maintenance (O&M) personnel. Remote reading, connection and disconnection can all be conducted with an Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) minimizing the need for field personnel to be deployed.
Moreover, AMI can be easily integrated with other Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and billing solutions to streamline entire meter-to-cash processes and reduce client visits to a service centre. When customers change their daily routines, to work from home for instance, they can evaluate the impact of their new behaviour on their utility bills and make appropriate changes. The smart grid arms today’s consumers with a wealth of information, allowing them to stay informed of their consumption and to explore and compare pricing plans and options to buy and sell. Furthermore, a utility company’s Meter Data Management (MDM) solution provides the company with analytical tools to analyse these evolving patterns and to improve network planning in response.
Smart grids’ Demand Response techniques such as real-time pricing can enable utilities to limit/manage customers’ consumption to account for distribution shortages or emergencies. As consumers’ energy profiles change leading to a shift in demand patterns geographically (e.g., closure of an industrial zone, shutdown of a shopping area), Distribution Automation technologies allow a utility company to monitor and analyse these demand variations and devise and execute appropriate distribution changes in response.
The unparalleled integration provided by the smart grid facilitates critical connectivity between intelligence and asset management applications, increasing operational efficiency across the grid. Meanwhile, integration provides different power generation types, both continuous and intermittent. The smart grid also introduces new storage options, such as fuel cells, and paves the way for greater integration of alternative and intermittent energy sources, including wind and solar energy. Distributed generation enabled by the smart grid benefits existing, mature electricity markets, while also developing new ones.
While there are challenges associated with smart grid design, implementation and deployment, the paradigm shift that is underway also heralds the arrival of complex technical challenges, with cybersecurity prime amongst them. Deploying a smart grid without adequate security could result in serious consequences such as utility fraud, loss of user information and grid instability. The smart grid’s complexity and multiple entry points—from smart meters to distributed energy resources (DER)—create significant vulnerabilities that leave the grid open to breaches and attacks that can target customer data and inflict damage. The implementation of system-wide cyber security that stretches to end-user devices, is a crucial first step in combating the challenge.
Big data and analytics also have a critical role to play in enabling the value of smart grids, yet they, too, present new and growing challenges to utilities with smart grid ambitions. The sheer size of the smart grid means that handling and processing the vast amount of data generated is problematic.
Converting this deluge of information into meaningful intelligence requires a complete overhaul of IT and analytics infrastructure. The information now at utilities’ fingertips poses a challenge not just for data management, but for communications systems, too. Where different vendors and service providers work independently, it is crucial that utilities develop interoperable systems with capacity to exchange large amounts of data between multiple systems.
The Way Forward
Large utilities across the MENA region can build on existing global knowledge and experience to accelerate their own smart grid initiatives, for the benefit of all stakeholders. At the regional level, particularly for the GCC countries, the smart grid is in sync with national missions to increase energy generation from renewable sources such as solar and provides the opportunity to diversify economies away from non-renewables.
Smart grids are the future of utilities. Indeed, it is no longer a matter of if, but when, they begin to roll out smart grid infrastructure, irreversibly changing the utilities landscape as they go. To reap the rewards, each utility must draw up its own path and carefully consider objectives, situation, capabilities and risk appetite, recognizing that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. While needs and circumstances may vary, utilities face one common reality: the smart grid rewards are bigger than ever for those who plan diligently and who stay plugged-in and switched-on to the smart evolution now shaping our world.
There are some problems we never seem able to solve. The shortage of electrical power is one of them. Ever since President Carter proclaimed an energy crisis in the 1970s, people have been talking about all kinds of weird and wonderful solutions to the issue of energy and – thus far – no one has come up with one single answer.
While solar power is now providing as much as 4 per cent of British electricity, few people appreciate just how quickly electricity production will have to increase. If the internal combustion engine is on its way out then the western world will need to double its electrical supply just to recharge its battery-powered vehicles.
Progress on this scale demands a fundamental rethink of our entire energy supply industry. The beginning of the 21st century saw a group of German engineers doing just that. They developed a plan to harvest solar power in the Sahara desert and transmit the stuff across the Mediterranean using very high-voltage, direct-current cables.
Just as Carter had been influenced by the oil shock of 1973, the Germans had been influenced by the disaster in Chernobyl and a mounting recognition that all technology is associated with risk. At that stage, large scale solar power plants still sounded like science fiction but the potential of solar power had long been recognised.
One German engineer calculated that the amount of solar energy absorbed by the world’s deserts exceeds the total amount of energy consumed by man in an entire year. We’d only need to harness a small proportion of this energy to provide us with all the electricity we are likely to need without any of the usual headaches surrounding pollution or fuel supply.
The Sahara is a vast area of land, larger, even, than the continental United States and extending over several national boundaries. It would take only one or two per cent of the land here to provide the whole of Europe with electrical power. There isn’t a lot of wildlife to destroy in the desert and since the population density is close to zero, we can probably avoid the nimbyists too.
At first sight, though, the Sahara isn’t quite as perfect since much of the land here is still some distance north of the equator. As we approach the equatorial regions of the world, it seems logical to assume that the intensity of sunlight ought to go up. However, the equatorial region of the planet is associated with a much higher level of cloud cover than the Sahara and on balance, about 20 to 30 degrees north of the equator turns out to be the ideal location for a large scale solar power plant.
Plenty of land, plenty of sun, not a lot of cloud and not that far from the nearest major market for electrical power, western Europe.
Some manufacturers are now producing photovoltaic panels that are cosmetically indistinguishable from traditional roofing tiles. It’s easy to envisage a future where it becomes compulsory
Many of the nation states in the region are quite poor with little or nothing in the way of oil or gas reserves. Ever since the 1970s, countries with significant oil reserves have been able to cash in on the oil boom and increase its standard of living overnight, whereas a nation that lacks oil reserves is forced to import at potentially enormous cost. Thus far, this kind of prosperity has been based on geological accident, but solar power is different. Soon, relatively poor countries might have access to a major energy resource of their own, enabling them to generate their own power at home and to export anything left over to western Europe.
So why isn’t it happening?
Part of the appeal of large-scale solar power generation is the opportunity it provides for a secure energy supply. Ever since the early 1970s, western governments have been living in fear of another Opec crisis or – at the very least – some sort of military and political confrontation that might interrupt the supply of energy. When we try to calculate how many lives might be lost or damaged by one source of energy or another, we really ought to factor in how many lives we’d be likely to lose by fighting another war for oil. Politicians who are too young to remember the Yom Kippur War are old enough to understand Putin and the fear that he might try to suddenly cut off the supply of natural gas to western Europe as part of some alternative economic warfare. What will Nato actually do if that happens?
But our friction with the Middle East goes back even further than Yom Kippur. A generation older than my own has not forgotten the Suez Crisis. During the 1950s, the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser decided to seize the Suez Canal and nationalise the entire project. The countries, companies and investors who had paid for its construction were far from pleased. Attempts at recapturing the canal ended in fiasco. The Egyptians came out of the 1950s quite well.
Against this is the relentless march of progress and the emergence of new tech that has thrown the whole equation into disarray. Just 10 years ago, the environmental movement was obsessed with the idea that western governments should continue to subsidise solar power. In those dim and distant days, solar power was so costly that people had to be bribed to actually use it. This is no longer the case and governments believe that it is entirely reasonable to phase out their solar power subsidies. Whilst this decision may be premature, it’s hard to ignore just how quickly the price of a photovoltaic panel has fallen. Part of the reason for this is mass production and part is the Chinese desire to subsidise their own industry, effectively destroying their competitors.
Panels are falling in cost so rapidly that it is not unreasonable to suggest that we should delay buying them just to wait for the next major price fall. Some manufacturers are now producing photovoltaic panels that are cosmetically indistinguishable from traditional roofing tiles. It’s easy to envisage a future where it becomes compulsory for all new housing to be built with a photovoltaic roof. Given that Britain turns over about 1 per cent of our housing stock every year, it also isn’t difficult to envisage a future where the majority of homes in the country are self-sufficient in energy.
But if the vogue towards a cheap and efficient energy-powered future continues, people are bound to look at the Sahara again. A vision of the desert practically covered in solar power panels is now a reality with a number of projects already having been established in North America and north Africa.
There are already accusations that North African Solar Power represents a rebirth of colonialism with European powers attempting to snatch resources from Africa and seize it for themselves
Engineers in Morocco have built one of the most ambitious solar energy projects on the planet. Using Spanish technology, they have built a system of mirrors designed to reflect the sun’s rays onto a large box that has been placed on a pedestal in the centre of the solar farm. This kind of energy generation is different from photovoltaic panels. It requires moving parts and a different attitude, but it has advantages too.
The mirrors are placed on rotating platforms so they can move throughout the day to follow the sun. By synchronising the position of each mirror to the day-night cycle, the maximum possible energy can be directed at one point. That point is a box containing salt. The salt soon melts into a sort of man-made lava and can be moved as a fluid along pipes where it is used to heat water, which in turn generates steam. The steam can then drive turbines creating electricity. This kind of installation involves multiple moving components and would require more maintenance than a standard PV panel. However, the molten salt can remain hot well after sundown and continue to generate electricity for up to seven hours into the night. Given that a country like Morocco would typically experience about 12 hours of daylight, this still leaves the problem of the energy gap in the early hours of the morning while the system waits for the new dawn, but it’s much more comprehensive than PV. This kind of technology uses a lot of water for cooling purposes and this might restrict its use. But it’s already quite popular and a number of such systems have been built in the United States.
This kind of vision requires us to believe that it might be possible to transmit energy over vast distances. Electricity is pretty ephemeral stuff; it doesn’t lend itself to long-distance transportation. In complete contrast, crude oil is a liquid that can be pumped on and off a cargo ship quite easily. They say that if you stand on the bridge of an oil tanker sailing to Japan you can see the smoke from the funnel of the tanker ahead of you and the tanker behind you. Such is the hunger of the Japanese economy for the dark black liquid.
We still don’t know how to bottle electricity and the problems associated with battery storage remain formidable but progress has been made. There have been major electrical cables under the North Sea and the English Channel for many years now. In the southern hemisphere, the Australian government has also built a cable linking Tasmania with the Australian mainland so the idea of using high-energy, direct-current transmission from north Africa to Europe isn’t quite as far-fetched as it sounds. In these circumstances about 12 per cent of the power generated in the Sahara would be lost during transmission. Most authorities believe that the advantages of increased sunlight intensity associated with the north African environment outweigh the problems associated with this power loss.
And if the north African power plant succeeds? What then? Many of the countries involved have a clear memory of their days as European colonies and for some African politicians this is a difficult memory to forget. There are already accusations that north African solar power represents a rebirth of colonialism with European powers attempting to seize resources from Africa for themselves. Some of the optimists for solar power in the Sahara have suggested that most of our power could be generated in the desert but while this kind of political friction still exists, it’s hard to imagine European governments allowing more than 10 per cent of their grid to be supplied from overseas.
Privacy & Cookies Policy
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.