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The many faces of Digital Transformation – Societal scenarios I

The usual representation of players in a smart power grid: fuel based energy plants, renewable nergy plants and users. Image credit: Ashley Green, Future Energy College

OK, so let me start cosidering a few scenario where the digital transformation is affecting our society, social life and way of living/habits. They are presented like a roadmap from the ones that are likely to happen soon to the ones farther down the lane. We will be discussing this in the Digital Reality Initiative and I am looking forward your comments to take them into account when writing the 2020 White Paper, publication targeted in November.

Smart Grid

Power generation and power demands have to be in synch. In the past power grids were designed making assumption on the power demand and this worked out pretty well, given the predictability and the stability of the demand over time. Connection among international power supply made for even greater flexibility in load balancing to the point that if a power outage occurs it makes the headlines. This ubiquitous and highly reliable power supply is taken for granted in developed countries (not so in many poor developing countries) and the power distribution has become ever more complex. Forecasting of demand is now based on complex algorithms, more and more based on machine learning and AI, that take into account a variety of parameters and route power along the path of minimal waste. The complexity is compounded by the variable contribution –and uncertainty- of renewable sources and micro generators (home generators like photovoltaic).

Power companies have started to include users in the power load regulation by introducing smart meters and offering dynamic pricing to steer residential users to periods of lower power demand, hence achieving a more effective (less costly) grid balancing.

This involvement of users will become much greater in this and following decades by using appliances IoT and the possibility to provide power information to them. These appliances are evolving towards becoming more and more autonomous hence able to take decisions on when to be active (and use power). These decisions will take into account the availability of power at low cost and will make the all power grid micro-aware, thus increasing its performance.

The users will increase the demand of power. In the last two decades, as an example, the energy needed to power telecommunication has shifted from the Telecom Operators to the end users (recharging the phones, powering the WiFi and access gateway, the media centre…). To give the flavour of the shift, in the last decade of the XX century most of the power involved in telecommunications was taken up by the Telcos, in Italy that meant some 2TWh per year. The traffic managed by networks has skyrocket, yet the Telcos have activated a number of cost saving measures (particularly in the plants air conditioning) that have counterbalanced the increased power need for antennas and base stations serving the wireless network, but the end users have dramatically increased their power consumption. In Italy Telecom Italia at the beginning of the last decade (2010) was still using 2TWh per year but the users that in the 1990 were basically using no power at all, in 2010 used around 4TWh of power, that is twice the power usage of the Telco.

In the coming decades we can expect the shift from vehicle fuel based energy (petrol) to electricity and that is a tremendous shift. It will mean quadruplicating the electrical power in many countries (this data comes from a study in the Netherlands) and will require dramatic changes in the power distribution network (i.e. bringing high voltage to many more points to power high capacity recharging stations).

The involvement of users will be even more important to achieve an effective use of power on the 24 hours period. If all people are going to be back home at 6pm and plug in their car for recharging the demand spike will be too high to be manageable. The smart grid won’t be enough, it will require smart users and dynamic negotiations. This will likely change users habits and sharing the personal agenda with the grid will become more and more common (like letting the grid know that I won’t be using the car till tomorrow morning but I will use it to make a long trip, so battery shall be fully charged, versus I am going out for dinner to a celebration out of town and I need a fast and immediate recharging…).

Also, electrical vehicle are based on batteries and although battery technology will keep improving we can expect that:

Longer battery life will continue to be achieved if the battery cycles are limited and the battery is never fully charged (80% seems to be a sweet spot with present technology);

At a certain point, once battery efficiency drops to 70%, battery will need to be replaced and the cost of disposing them remains high (and a nightmare once all cars will need to replace their battery pack). An alternative that can prolong the life time of batteries is to reuse them in applications like home power bank where a 70, even 40% efficiency is still good (like buffering renewable sources). This again will change people’s habits.

The digital transformation by making data available for processing in the cyberspace, clustered and managed by digital twins, will be instrumental in these changes. The digital twin of the home, of the home cars, of the drivers and owners will interact with the grid to orchestrate the autonomous decision of each players in the ecosystem.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.