Digitalization of the energy industry

Bruce Douglas, Deputy CEO and Chief Operating Officer of SolarPower Europe

Bruce Douglas: "Digital technologies are a major opportunity for solar". Seven questions on the digitalization of the energy industry for Bruce Douglas, Deputy CEO and Chief Operating Officer of SolarPower Europe.

Mr. Douglas, tomorrow's energy world will be digital. What is the most important difference to the previous energy system?

New digital technologies are breaking down the traditional boundaries within the energy sector, opening the door to a new era of flexibility. At the same time, we are in the process of transforming our energy system into a more sustainable and renewables-based system. Electricity will also be used increasingly in sectors such as transport, heating and cooling. This calls for more flexibility in the energy system and changes in the way we build and operate our electricity networks. Digitalization can unleash these innovative solutions. The most important difference to today’s system is likely to be the visibility of what is going on the grid. In the past, network operators were largely operating the grid “blind”. In the future there will be connected digital sensors across the entire network constantly providing data on the status, allowing for more effective network management – and better integration of renewables.


Digitalization will play an important role for the future of renewable energies?

Digitalization will be central in the future of solar and renewables, and it already is today. Digital technologies are a major opportunity for solar, not least because it is a means of integrating more PV into the grid, gaining system-wide benefits and new revenues for solar installations. Analysts from the Global e-Sustainability Initiative have estimated that digital grids could lead to 810 billion euros in extra revenues for renewables between now and 2030.


What do digital solutions of photovoltaic systems look like in tomorrow's energy world?

The advent of new technologies such as big data analytics, the internet of things and blockchain allows for the emergence of entirely new solar business models and for the improvement of existing models making them more profitable. One example is smart buildings appliances: electric heating and cooling with smart thermostats, smart electric vehicle charging and, last but not least, battery storage. All of these technologies form the smart building package in which solar plays an integral role. Other business models include “Solar as a Service”, smart collective self-consumption, grid-connected microgrids and peer-to-peer solar electricity exchanges.


What will be the benefits?

Digitalization can be put to good use to reduce costs right across the solar value chain, both in the utility-scale and rooftop markets. Lower cost solar equals more solar. A great example of this is how satellite mapping and remote design software can reduce the cost and time required for customer acquisition and installation design in rooftop solar.


Renewable energies require more flexibility – also in pricing?

A more flexible electricity generation system is indeed essential to the integration of ever higher shares of renewables, and digitalization is a key catalyst for demand and supply flexibility. The move to time of use and dynamic pricing is also essential in order to give users an incentive to adapt consumption based on price and therefore supply.


What importance do you attach to the blockchain technology for the PV industry?

Blockchain technology is a disruptive phenomenon that could also be applied in the solar industry. We are not religious about blockchain, but we are optimistic about its potential application in our sector. Both blockchain and solar are distributed technologies, and are therefore a good fit. Blockchain technology has huge potential and can be applied in many ways to the PV sector, including balancing supply and demand within the grid to off-grid solar microgrids, peer-to-peer energy trading, new cryptocurrencies and smart contracts. New innovations in blockchain are important to the further development of decentralized and distributed solar power, especially innovations that address the high energy consumption of some blockchains, with the cryptocurrency SolarCoin now being used to encourage more solar production by decreasing the payback time on solar installations.


What are your most important demands to politicians in order to create the appropriate framework conditions?

We recommend that policy makers accelerate the deployment of smart grids, reform incentives for network operators and reward the speed and accuracy that solar can provide in grid supported services. This will maximize the opportunities arising from digitalization and increase the cost-efficient deployment of solar and renewables in Europe. One of our key messages to policy makers is to go digital to make the most of the renewables revolution. Going digital will boost the EU’s industrial leadership in smart solar and renewables, making the energy transition more cost-efficient and consumer focused.


SolarPower Europe’s Digitalisation & Solar Task Force has published its “Regulatory asks on solar and digitalisation” which sets out the policy changes needed at national and EU level to promote the digitalization of the sector.  Here you can download the position paper.