Reliable access to energy is now widely considered a human right, but growing demand is also making it an engineering challenge.

The increasing complexity of urban infrastructure and housing the growing world population, is changing the way the grid handles supply and demand. At the same time, environmental concerns are pressuring countries and organisations to use less high-carbon generation.

Creating ways to decarbonize energy and make it more reliable seems like an insurmountable challenge. Yet achieving balance between our energy and our impact on the environment may be closer than you think.

When we combine the right perspective with a smarter approach, it is possible to turn our energy challenges into opportunities. In the UK, we are already capable of generating 83 per cent low-carbon energy during the night-time. However, adapting the grid to store and release green energy during peak times could provide great advancements to the adoption of renewables.

The urban opportunity

The world’s population is booming. Today, we’ve hit seven billion and expect an increase to ten billion in the second part of this century, and more of us are choosing to live in urban environments. In fact, the rate of urbanisation has increased from 29 per cent in 1950 up to 49 per cent today, and predictions show it will reach 67 per cent by 2050. This represents a potential of 2.5 billion additional urban dwellers by 2050. The scale of this migration has never been experienced in the history of mankind.

And every one of those people will need power in their homes and workplaces.

However, while the global phenomenon of urbanisation opens opportunities for billions of people to achieve a higher standard of living, the movement impacts society and the global economy, as seen in these areas:

A resources challenge, with a considerable increase of pressure on supply chains for raw materials, water demand, and, most importantly, fossil fuels to generate energy (+55 per cent projected increase of materials demand by 2030);

A climate challenge, with a spectacular increase of CO2 emissions (doubled in the last 40 years, with a forecast of +30 per cent in the coming 20 years);

A financing challenge, with an expected 75 per cent increase in infrastructure investment needs in the coming decades and projected gaps that could top two-thirds of the needs in new economies.;

How we manage energy (its generation, distribution, and consumption) will be a leading factor in finding solutions for these challenges. The world needs an integrated energy, efficiency and sustainability strategy. Fortunately, innovative technologies have emerged to offer an alternative solution to these challenges.

Energy for the new world

Renewable power has reached a tipping point where it becomes the most competitive source of energy across the entire system. A new world of energy is emerging that is clean, competitive and electrified.

Australia, for instance, is taking a giant step towards reliance upon renewable energies with a $13.8 million solar and battery microgrid project, the first of its kind in Australia. The microgrid will harness the full potential of renewable energy by using the battery system to mitigate the intermittent nature of solar, storing energy when it is not needed and making it available when it is. Working together, renewable energy engineering company Planet Ark Power and Schneider Electric will deliver a secure, sustainable and affordable energy supply to South Australia.

At the same time, digital technologies and the IoT are pervading every aspect of our daily lives and business operations, bringing new levels of productivity, flexibility and energy efficiency.

For example, cement manufacturer China National Building Materials Group Corporation (CNBM) has leveraged digital solutions in the form of control and energy management systems to improve performance while reducing its carbon footprint, a considerable undertaking for one of the most energy-intensive industries.  But digitisation paid off: CNBM has cut its energy use, improving its overall energy efficiency by 10 per cent while significantly raising productivity. Furthermore, the immediate benefits of the investment in their digital infrastructure meant that CNBM achieved return on investment in under two years.

The transition to a clean and electrified energy system is accelerated by the digital technologies that make it possible. The transition to a new digital economy is, as well, accelerated by the emergence of a more competitive and sustainable energy system. Together, these elements are reshaping the global economy and opening new opportunities for better living.

The cleaner the better

An integrated energy, efficiency and sustainability strategy is within our reach. The emergence of a clean, electrified, ultra-efficient and digital energy ecosystem is achievable with today’s technologies. Indeed, their growing cost-effectiveness and proven benefits make this transition almost an inevitability. This new paradigm can bring massive benefits to the challenges of rapid urbanisation. Both companies and countries all over the world are working towards integrating low-carbon energy generation into the grid. What’s more, this change is also bringing the age of reliable energy access for all closer to reality.  Rather than meeting burgeoning populations with concern, the energy community should be welcoming the innovation they will spur on.

David Hall is Vice President of Energy, UK and Ireland, at Schneider Electric. 

Schneider Electric will be exhibiting at European Utility Week in Vienna from November 6-8. Also speaking at the event will be Joanna Fisher, Thought Leadership Manager at Schneider Electric. And you also can meet the Schneider Electric team here.