opinion


Using digital to power up in the fight against climate change

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Jan van Tetering, SVP Europe at Nokia argues that digital technologies can play a key role in the fight against climate change and explores what that means in practice.

The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was published just in time for Mobile World Congress (MWC). It showed the “widespread and pervasive” impact on people and the natural world from climate change. The last eight years have been the warmest on record. The temperature is already 1.1 degrees above pre-industrial levels with the effects including increasingly frequent and intense heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, storms and floods. Never before has the change been as rapid as it is now.

The reason is well known: human activities have released large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and even though we are now investing more in renewable energies, around 80% of primary energy still comes from fossil fuels. This shows how big the challenge really is. We are simply pushing far too much CO2, and other greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere and it has left us with an ultimatum – change or feel the increasing, at some point irreversible, consequences.

The green potential of technology is huge

To tackle climate change, there is only one real solution: technology. Take solar energy for example. Despite the International Energy Agency predicting a steady expansion in solar over the last 20 years, the technology advancements we have seen have actually fuelled exponential growth – far exceeding what was predicted. It has moved from the most expensive renewable energy source to the cheapest, with a drop of 89% in the last 10 years, driving huge adoption. Likewise, onshore wind power has fallen in cost by around 70%, again showing how, with the right conditions, new technologies can see incredibly quick adoption.

However, alone, the technology to generate power is not enough. At MWC we emphasised that there is no green without digital and this is a perfect example. Despite the rapid adoption of renewable energy technology, it is not reaching its full potential. Until we optimise the efficiency of renewable energy production, we will continue to fall short in the efforts needed to fight climate change.

Connectivity as a catalyst

This is where connectivity has a leading role to play. One of the biggest challenges power grids contend with is keeping the entire system in balance. By balance we mean that the demand and the generation of energy must match, otherwise the system becomes unstable. This has always been a challenge for energy grids but when we factor in the variables associated with solar and wind power it becomes even more critical. This is where having a powerful, high-speed and real time communications network adds real value.

The power grid needs to evolve from a simple provider to a consumer model and from a standard grid to a smart grid. By moving to a highly complex, distributed grid, where every device that consumes electricity becomes an active, intelligent node in the system, there is a massive opportunity to improve efficiency. By integrating connectivity into power grids, we can create fully digitised and AI-driven grids that can identify who needs power where and when and then deliver that power at the right time and at low cost. This will lead to cost savings for businesses that can plan their energy consumption using Demand Side Response. Consumers benefit from lower bills and a reliable supply of CO2-free energy but most importantly, the world benefits from a reduced reliance on fossil fuels.

Nice idea – does it work?

Put simply, yes and more than that – we are seeing it in action across the globe.  Let’s take the example of the Siemens campus in Vienna. It has a local energy network (microgrid) combined with a secure 5G campus network. Within this network are about 1,000 data points from 34 different devices that communicate with each other in real time and automatically control how much solar power is fed into the grid, optimising usage. This system alone helps save 200 tons of CO2 a year and extrapolating this across the 14 million industrial plants around the world, it’s this approach that can have a huge, positive impact on CO2 emissions.

Now look at the power generation side. Belgian grid operator Citymesh operates 572 turbines over an area of 530 square kilometres in the North Sea, providing energy for one million homes. These turbines are about twice the size they were five years ago, making installation and maintenance significantly more complicated. For Citymesh the solution to this challenge lies in connectivity. By overlaying a communications network, they have instant access to data that helps to understand power generation and enable predictive maintenance. The result is an increase in productivity and a decrease in the costs for power generation.

The approach of layering connectivity to boost sustainability is not limited to energy use cases.  At Lufthansa Technik in Hamburg, high-resolution live video streams of engine parts can be transmitted in real time directly from the maintenance hangar to customers via its 5G campus network. Aircraft engines are disassembled during maintenance and the individual parts need to be inspected by experts. Until now, customers had to travel to Hamburg for this “table inspection” to inspect the parts together with the technicians and discuss the repairs. Thanks to its high reliability and high transmission rates, the industrial-grade 5G network now makes it possible to carry out this process remotely, significantly reducing the carbon footprint of this exercise and boosting sustainability in a carbon-emission heavy industry.

These examples give the smallest glimpse into what is possible. Only 30% of the world economy is currently digital. The possibility to add a digital layer to the remaining 70% shows that there is not only a huge amount left to be done, but also that there is a huge amount that can be done to reduce our impact on the planet.

Predicting the impact

We’ve looked at using digital to impact what is immediately in front of us, now let’s see how it can help going forward. Digital twins are designed to let us understand the present and predict the future. They are a hugely important tool in our arsenal to fight climate change. They are already used across industry, and they combine the physical and digital worlds with highly realistic simulations and scenario analysis to inform decision making. They allow us to see the impact of decisions ahead of time and make the most sustainable choices as early as possible. By creating digital twins of cities and entire countries, we will see the effects of climate change on forests or polar ice in real time. This allows us to analyse the consequences of CO2 emissions much more efficiently. It gives us an opportunity to map our energy, transportation and utility infrastructure across large areas and model scenarios to learn what will change to help us to make the best choices for our planet.

Collaboration is key

To ensure that digital can drive sustainability to its full potential, the telecommunications industry needs three key things. Firstly, radio frequency spectrum. The capacity needed to drive digitisation and the associated sustainability across the board is huge and we need spectrum to do this. The industry needs affordable new spectrum to be released in low, medium, high and ultra-high frequency bands, particularly for mobile broadband, to ensure industries can connect more and emit less.

Secondly, to reach net zero, a key factor will be our ability to mobilise market forces. The investment needed to make the green transformation is impossible for governments and taxpayers to meet alone and instead a different approach is needed. A good example of mobilising market forces is the EU’s emissions trading scheme, a very simple and effective system that has already saved Europe around 1 billion tons of emissions from 2008 to 2016.

And finally, companies need to do the right thing and make technology a force for good. It may sound idealistic, but it is essential to change the climate crisis trajectory. Nokia, for example, has committed to using only renewable energy from 2025, but it is not just pledges that are needed, the ‘right thing’ needs to be at the heart of everything we do.  Developing products that do more with less energy is key, such as using AI in networks, or deploying advanced chipsets for fixed broadband that use only about half the power. Similarly, changing the approach to cooling cellular base stations, using liquid instead of air can reduce base station CO2 emissions by 80%. If every business takes this approach, it adds up to the impact needed to mitigate the effects of climate change.

No green without digital

We can clearly see that digital network technologies provide a huge opportunity for telecommunications to massively reduce not only its own emissions, but also those of its customers.

So far, around 70% of global ICT investment has gone into industries that are already considered digital anyway, such as computers, communications networks and media. Now we need to use the networks to take digitisation to the next level in order to help do our bit to combat climate change. We need to start seriously digitising the world’s traditional industries as well and use the technologies to really move us forward. It puts a heavy weight of responsibility on the shoulders of those working in the industry and it is a responsibility we need to embrace.

 

Jan van Tetering is Senior Vice President Europe at Nokia. In this role, he leads Nokia in Europe including sales, marketing, business management and operations. With more than 30 years in the telecommunications industry, Jan is an experienced international leader with a strategic mindset and strong business acumen. He is passionate about driving both technological and organizational progress and developing innovative business solutions. Jan is highly regarded by customers, business partners, and colleagues across Europe as a thought leader. He is result-driven and enjoys working in complex organizations across geographical boundaries.


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