Xavier Daval is the chairman of SER-SOLER, vice-chairman of the Global Solar Council, and founder of independent technical consultancy KiloWattsol. He reckons solar will win out as the energy of the century and be a catalyst for energy digitalization, driven by the different uses.
Xavier Daval, chairman of SER-SOLER, vice-chairman of the Global Solar Council, and founder of KiloWattsol
We are witnessing the emergence of the energy digitalization market. What are the reasons?
The digitalization of energy is a foregone conclusion. It’s a bit like what we saw in the telecom world, where in the space of a few years a widely developed, high-performance analogue infrastructure gave way to a much more versatile, 90% wireless infrastructure. A similar shift is happening in energy. Analogue electricity transmission has inbuilt constraints related to revolving machinery, a paradigm that is now outdated given the new uses and new energy landscape. We currently produce and distribute electricity without knowing whether a user is waiting to consume it at the other end of the line, despite energy becoming increasingly precious. With the digitalization of energy, we will be able to send energy exactly where it is needed and limit losses. This is the dawning of the age of ideal production and ideal distribution. Our electricity supply grids will go from being passive to being active and smart. The only question is when do we consign analogue to history?
How will these new grids be rolled out?
The 21st century will be remembered for a surge in electricity use. More and more uses depend on electricity and the demand is exploding—mobile phones that need charging every day, electric cars replacing IC engine cars, and so on. Energy digitalization will be structured by these uses, and it’s going to have to get a lot smarter! Every electron produced must find its consumer. To do so, many small local networks will be needed. Energy production at the level of street blocks containing homes, businesses, and shops will pooled and delivered exactly where it’s needed: during daytime to businesses, during weekends to homes, etc. That’s what I call smart coexistence enabled by technology: blockchains for supervising all energy-related data, smart inverters, real energy managers, smart valves capable of controlling energy bottlenecks.
What part will solar energy play in these changes?
Digitalization will be driven by renewables that depend on digital converters, whose performance will get better and better. And solar energy will win out. It’s robust, simple, inexpensive, and resilient. The base component of solar electrical energy, photovoltaic panels, are the same the whole world over, be it in a gigawatt farm on a Tibetan plateau or in a several-hundred watt installation in Africa. New electrical infrastructures are being deployed in developing countries to handle solar electricity, notably in Africa. These are modest installations: a smart inverter, a few PV panels, some storage batteries, a bunch of wires between houses in these mushrooms towns to connect them up. Not flashy devices like the models demonstrated in Europe but small infrastructures, pieced together to just work. Yet this system will in due course enable millions of people to be interconnected and to pool their electrons. Necessity stimulates innovative solutions and all progress benefits the whole value chain. That’s the beauty of solar. That’s how energy digitalization will become a thing.
Looking beyond the technology, you also mention the need for user awareness.
Yes. This major technical evolution is a driver of societal and cultural change: energy is becoming a precious commodity so users must view and manage it differently. A conscious effort is an essential if smart energy grids are to develop. That’s what’s happening with the advent of own-use production, a complex subject whereby an electricity producer tries to fulfil all their own needs with those same electrons. I recently assisted a business in an own-use generation installation. Generating its own electrons immediately got it thinking about the production process in order to optimize its energy consumption. This kind of awareness must be pushed out at the same time as smart grids, and today’s conditions are ideal for doing so.
How far on are the stakeholders?
The market and stakeholders are getting their act together. In France, a lot of industrial stakeholders have turned to digitalization in their business and the sooner-than-expected uprise in electric vehicles can only accelerate this trend. Michelin took this turning 10 years ago and it was quite remarkable. The group wants to be a digital world leader, with projects like on-board digitalization, and this necessarily involves interaction with energy digitalization.
In China, things are moving fast. Chinese stakeholders also want a slice of the action and are indeed preparing their forces. At Huawei, the Energy and Digital divisions have just been merged. Elsewhere, where everything is still to do, it’s Chinese operators who are boosting technological innovation and initiating equipment design with manufacturers. I’m impressed with the synergy I’ve seen between Chinese photovoltaic manufacturers and electricity supply operators.
Last but not least, telecom companies and GAFAM will count for a lot. They manage huge data centres, so energy is a real issue for them. Moreover, they already have a digital culture as well as over 20 years’ expertise in rolling out networks with 2G, 4G, then 5G.