The UK’s climate is changing at an alarming rate, with the 21st century so far being warmer than any period of equivalent length from the last three centuries. In July, the temperature broke all records by reaching 40 degrees centigrade – an unprecedented extreme heatwave, which was made at least 10 times more likely by human-caused climate change.
As the impacts of climate change become increasingly severe and apparent, so too is the urgency with which we need to move away from fossil fuels – that’s an undeniable fact.
Being an island means the UK has plenty of opportunity to produce clean energy from the sun and wind – not coal, oil and gas. The government has already outlined ambitions to become a global leader in green tech, with its ten point plan pledging to mobilise £12bn of government investment in areas such as advancing offshore wind, driving the growth of low carbon hydrogen and accelerating the shift to zero emission vehicles.
Needless to say, digital innovation is integral to achieving this ambition. Before we explore how digital technologies can help drive forward the green agenda, it is first important to quickly note the differences between green, clean and renewable energies.
While these terms are often used interchangeably and there are crossovers, green energy is energy sourced from nature; clean energy is energy that, when used, does not pollute the atmosphere; and renewable energy, sometimes called sustainable energy, comes from recyclable sources.
There are many examples of inspiring green, clean and renewable energy projects currently taking place across the UK. Let’s take a look at some of these.
Scotland: Offshore wind energy
Scotland’s strong offshore winds make it an ideal place for floating wind farms. In 2017, Scotland became home of the world’s first floating wind farm, Hywind, which is situated 29 kilometres off Peterhead, covers around four square kilometres and is expected to provide renewable energy to an estimated 20,000 UK homes annually.
The turbines are covered in sensors so that data can be collected from the wind farm and used to monitor key factors such as ballast, mooring and structural strains.
North East Scotland and Shetland: Carbon capture and storage
North East Scotland and Shetland are set to become centres for the UK’s carbon capture and storage (CCS) industry, which is forecast to be worth up to £100bn annually by 2050. CCS, which works by capturing CO2 emissions from gas, petrol and oil and transporting it via ships or pipelines to be stored underground, is increasingly being seen as a critical technology in the race to net zero. These locations in particular are thought to be well-positioned to benefit from CCS due to their expertise in engineering.
South Wales: Floating wind farms
There are plans to make significant investments in floating wind farms off the coast of South Wales, with the Crown Estate – the property business owned by the monarch – leasing space to generate enough power for four million homes. The floating wind farms, which would be built around 40 miles from the coast, could add up to £43.6bn to the UK economy by 2050 and create 29,000 new jobs.
North Wales: Tidal energy
North Wales Tidal Energy & Coastal Protection is working to build a world-leading integrated tidal energy impoundment and coastal protection system in North Wales. As part of this mission, it is proposing to build a £7bn, 150 square kilometre tidal lagoon, which could produce enough electricity to power every home in Wales, in addition to creating 22,000 jobs in the area. It is estimated the tidal lagoon could generate around £500m a year for the next 120 years.
Coventry: Electric vehicle chargers
ESB EV Solutions and Siemens have been working with Coventry City Council to install 39 rapid charging points across Coventry – 24 of which are already in operation. The chargers are able to recharge an electric vehicle in as little as 30 minutes using 100% renewable energy. ESB has also created a real-time, interactive map, which allows people to find their nearest charging point and availability.
Teesside Valley: Green hydrogen
Earlier this year, EDF Renewables and Hynamics unveiled plans for a green hydrogen production centre in the vicinity of a former steelworks. By using the green electricity from a nearby Teesside offshore wind farm, along with a new solar farm to power its hydrogen electrolyser, Tees Green Hydrogen will supply local business customers with hydrogen to support decarbonisation efforts and a significant reduction in industrial pollution.
Swansea: Blue Eden
A 12 year renewable energy proposal for Swansea Bay includes a tidal lagoon with underwater turbines, aiming to generate 320 megawatts of renewable energy from the 9.5km structure. The scheme also includes a 72,000 square metre floating solar array, a 94,000 square metre data centre, battery manufacturing facility, and an oceanic and climate change research centre.
Advancing progress with digital technologies
A 55% reduction in emissions by 2030 is needed in order to keep goals of the Paris Agreement on track, with digital technologies widely heralded as having a crucial role to play in accelerating net zero trajectories.
A report from the World Economic Forum found that deploying digital technologies in the highest-emitting sectors – energy, materials and mobility – could reduce emissions by 20% by 2050, and that accelerating the adoption of technologies in these sectors could lower emissions by an additional 2-10% by 2030.
We are already seeing how digital technologies are helping to improve key areas in green energy solutions, such as efficiency, data management and decision-making. I’ve chosen the following five examples to demonstrate the variety of ways this is being done.
Smart energy powered by IoT
Buildings account for 40% of the UK’s carbon emissions, meaning there is still much work to be done in improving their efficiency. While smart meters continue to play a key role in reducing energy consumption, we are now seeing technology being used in increasingly clever ways to manage buildings.
Active Building Centre, for example, uses a range of different technologies to create buildings that are able to generate and store renewable electricity to meet their own needs and intelligently redistribute the surplus to other buildings and back into the grid. These buildings have the potential to ease the strain on energy infrastructure by reducing the need for high-cost power stations and giving people greater control over their usage.
Digital wind farms
Digital wind farms work by pairing real-world turbines with a digital twin that can monitor and optimise the turbine as it runs and generates energy.
GE’s digital wind farm begins with a cloud-based model which enables engineers to mix and match up to 20 different turbine configurations to make sure they are building the best turbine possible for the real-life location of the farm. Once the physical turbine is installed, the digital twin collects and analyses data to suggest how to make it more efficient. GE says this increases energy production by as much as 20%.
Solar energy forecasting
Solar power forecasting is the process of gathering and analysing data in order to predict solar power generation and mitigate the impact of solar intermittency. With our climate conditions increasingly fluctuating, it is becoming even more important that we are able to make these forecasts accurately.
Advancements in artificial intelligence and IoT technologies are making it possible for deep learning techniques to do this using historical solar energy data. This same study notes the potential to apply this framework to other fields, such as air quality forecasting and energy consumption forecasting, too.
Using quantum computing to study CCS
Quantum computing is being recognised as having a crucial role to play in mitigating climate change, with research increasingly exploring its role in improving carbon capture and storage capabilities. Energy company Total has been working to develop new quantum algorithms to improve materials for CO2 capture. More recently, it has been using quantum computing to research a family of materials that are capable of absorbing carbon dioxide with low energy requirements.
Big data driving sustainable decisions
Calvium recently collaborated on a project aiming to revolutionise the perennial energy crops (PEC) industry and encourage non-fossil fuel use. Energy crops are grown purely to produce energy by consumption, and so we were tasked with developing a mobile web app that enables users to investigate the suitability of growing energy crops on different land sites.
The calculations are made possible by a large data set which includes information needed to predict how well some different species of tree and crops should grow across Britain. Read more about how the PEC-DSS project is helping to meet net zero goals here.
Software as a critical enabler
Whether supporting the running of digital twins and quantum computing or smart metres in people’s homes, software has a vital role to play at all stages and aspects of the green energy process. However, we cannot ignore the extraordinary amount of energy that software and digital technologies use, often dividing people on whether it is part of the climate problem or climate solution.
Green software and coding is something Calvium is increasingly looking at and being mindful of. How do we code? How are the digital technologies we use and build supporting the environment? Can we use refurbished kit instead of buying new?
As we move forward with our own net zero journey, we are trying to make decisions that support the green agenda and align with the mission of The Green Software Foundation, which is working to change the culture of building software across the tech industry so that sustainability becomes a core priority alongside performance, security, cost and accessibility.
Like them, we want software to become part of the solution.
Ending fuel poverty through sustainable investments
At the time of writing this, oil and gas firms are making abnormal profits while the public are facing an extreme cost of living and energy bill crisis. Many economists are reasonably arguing there should be a restraint on profits and dividends, rather than squeezing economically-disadvantaged and middle income communities.
Investment in, and rapid roll-out of, clean energy, based on the UK’s own solar and wind power, would end our reliance on fossil fuels and ensure households do not fall into fuel poverty.
As noted by Faith Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, we cannot afford to ignore either today’s global energy crisis or the climate crisis, but we do not need to choose between them – we can tackle them both at the same time.
“A massive surge in investment to accelerate clean energy transitions is the only lasting solution. This kind of investment is rising, but we need a much faster increase to ease the pressure on consumers from high fossil fuel prices, make our energy systems more secure, and get the world on track to reach our climate goals.”
While there is undoubtedly much to be inspired by, which I hope this article has highlighted, the UK needs more than inspiration – it needs ongoing significant investment and action.
Nicholas Stern, chair of Grantham Research Institute, summed up the urgency with which we need to act during a recent radio interview: “It’s the total amount of emissions over time which matters. It’s no good charging along merrily as we are and then suddenly in 2045-46-47 trying to drive down net zero; it’s the total sum of the net zero emissions.”