Renewable energy is taking the world by storm, with demand greater than ever, and governments chasing ambitious targets, including Net Zero and the UK’s goal of generating enough wind power for every home by 2030. Falling costs are making renewable energy more accessible and popular, and infrastructure must keep up with demand.

With digital infrastructure an integral part of our interconnected world, there are new opportunities for the renewables sector. These range from performance-tracking sensors on wind turbines and solar panels, to 5G-connected robots and drones inspecting and repairing turbines, to Internet of Things-enabled streetlights and power plants.

Data centres will also be a crucial consideration for the expanding renewables sector. While their CO2 emissions match the commercial airline industry, a digitised green energy industry will depend upon them. It’s therefore imperative that we find ways to reduce their carbon footprint.

Sarah Mills, Managing Director for Wholesale and Smart Infrastructure at Neos Networks, explains why digital infrastructure and renewable energy should go hand in hand.

What does the current landscape look like?

Renewable energy and digital infrastructure have much in common, including an interest in emerging technology, but not all renewables firms value digital infrastructure. One survey revealed that 94% of wind power and digital services employees think the offshore wind industry under-uses data and digital technologies.

However, projects like the Seagreen offshore wind farm are making the most out of digital technology. Through a wide area network, they’re giving engineers at their command centre access to supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and technical equipment at the offshore substation, to better manage power flow to the substation. Upon completion in 2022-2023, Seagreen’s communications and data capabilities will allow it to power 40% of all Scottish homes. 45% of the UK’s energy in the second quarter of 2020 was renewable, a 10% increase from 2019.

Elsewhere in Europe the Clean Energy Transition sub-programme dedicates a large portion of its €1bn budget to ‘accelerating technology roll-out and digitalisation’, to remove market barriers holding up the ‘socio-economic transition to sustainable energy’.

How can digital infrastructure improve the renewable energy industry?

Strong digital infrastructure allows renewable energy companies more flexibility to track demand, performance and power surges. HD cameras enable detailed remote analysis of issues at energy production sites. Dark Fibre on power lines can be used to monitor temperature and acoustics. This can then be used alongside other software in order to identify and resolve faults early, or to predict them before they even occur.

Smart grids and the DNO-DSO transition are increasingly facilitating the decentralisation of the grid. Businesses demonstrating new strategies to take advantage of this shift include SolarEdge, who enable battery storage, electric vehicles and more to be controlled from cloud-based ‘virtual power plants’, and Manchester-based UrbanChain, who use AI to match energy providers and users via their peer-to-peer marketplace.

How are big energy firms and governments preparing for digitalisation?

American powerhouse the GE group, composed of GE Renewable Energy, GE Power and GE Digital, exemplifies digital’s role in transitioning to renewables. Chief Digital Officer of GE Renewable Energy, Brian Case has spoken about the firm’s aim to reduce renewable energy storage costs and boost efficiency. He believes AI could be used to process data and images to troubleshoot remotely and early, but expressed concern about the challenges to the energy industry posed by outdated infrastructure.

Of course, this requires advanced, reliable networks and digital infrastructure. The UK government is keen to see digitised, upgraded systems in the renewables sector, and launched the Energy Digitalisation Taskforce (EDiT) in collaboration with Ofgem and Innovate UK. Minister of State for Business, Energy and Clean Growth, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, highlighted the need for smart, information-sharing solar panels, electric vehicles and heat pumps to help the UK meet climate change targets. For all this, the energy industry needs high capacity, low-latency, reliable and stable communications networks.

So what does the future hold?

Diminished fossil fuel supplies and lower costs have powered growth for renewable energy. COVID-19 lockdowns have highlighted humanity’s environmental impact and boosted demand.

However, sceptics are concerned about the risk of blackouts like those seen in Texas in February 2021, and want more investment in battery storage and load-smoothing technologies. The renewables sector will need to meet these requirements and prove they can form a backbone for the grid, in order to get critics onside.

Digital infrastructure is crucial to support data transmission, which enables the renewables sector to keep the lights on. In turn, the vast amounts of data involved require cloud storage and computing, which will also lean upon upgraded, high-performance network connections.

Whatever way you look at it, digital infrastructure will be a crucial component of continued expansion in the renewable energy industry.