Digital foundation of future energy needed

Energy efficiency Energy storage Energy production Energy and supply Energy systems Solar energy Wind energy IT systems
Contribution i Altinget: Research holds the key to the future of green energy systems, but the national focus needs to be on the digital operating system that will connect it all.

By: Jacob Østergaard, Professor, DTU Electrical Engineering and Henrik Madsen, Professor and Head of Department, DTU Compute

Denmark is at the forefront of the green energy transition. In addition, we are one of the most digitalized countries in the world. And when we transition to an energy system based on renewable energy sources in the near future, we need a digital layer that covers the entire energy system. This digital layer will enable us to connect electricity, heating and gas systems and align consumption and energy production using digital control and markets, data, and artificial intelligence.

It is a great business opportunity, but Denmark is also obliged to assume leadership in the development of the next phase of the green transition, i.e. a digital operating system for the intelligent, sector-linked energy system of the future.

Expertise equals commitment
In its recently published ‘Climate Programme 2021’, the Danish government emphasizes that digitalization must support the reduction in CO2 emissions leading up to 2030.

As researchers, we are ready to help with the task of designing a digital operating system for the smart energy system of the future. A system that uses data signals and control to link technologies and sectors together and move renewable energy to where it is needed, when it is needed. However, it requires national research programmes to support the development and testing of the digital foundation across energy sectors.

As matters stand, Danish researchers obtain funding for this type of development through EU programmes—competing with researchers from 26 other EU countries. Without national programmes focusing on the development of a digital control system for the future of energy, we invite other countries to overtake us. It is a pity—and it deviates from the path previously set by Denmark regarding the green transition of the energy sector.

And perhaps most importantly, it is a pity because we possess the skill set and experience to perform the task.

Flexibility and management
We have been working on digitization in the energy sector for quite some time now, and soon hundred thousands of green electricity, gas and heat-producing energy sources and consumers are to be connected in a common energy system, all of which relies on a digitized infrastructure across energy types. At the same time, it requires signals and control systems that operate across energy systems and at all levels of aggregation.

We also need lots of flexibility and control in the new, green energy system which lacks inertia.

Today, the inertia comes from large coal and oil-fired power plants, which we are currently phasing out. Inertia means a physical capacity for ‘slowness’. The power plants take time to get up and running as well as to cool down—just as a hotplate needs to heat up, but continues to be hot for a while afterwards. Inertia helps to create a stable energy system without outages.

Due to their power electronics, the green energy sources are easy to get up and running, but they can also make the system unstable much faster if an error occurs. They are similar to a gas burner that heats up very quickly, but lacks the afterheat effect. In turn, when the energy system becomes unstable, the system operators needs to react quickly, meaning they will have to match production and consumption and ensure stability with the help of digital control and flexibility.

Flexibility can be obtained in storage units as large battery systems, as hydrogen produced by Power-to-X plants, through sector coupling or as heat generated by industrial heat pumps. The solutions are many. However, such an interaction in the energy system can only take place with a digital infrastructure for the energy system. An operating system.

In addition to enabling interconnection in the energy system, a digital operating system will also form the basis for being able to implement tariffs and energy taxes in the smart energy system of the future. Just as it will make it possible for Danish companies—as some of the first in the world—to develop ‘apps’ and, for instance, make money off of new flexibility products or marketplaces that sells energy.

The possibilities are many. If we get national programmes, we can ensure that research will support the development of a digital operating system—thus contributing to a new Danish energy export adventure.