Big data is about to transform renewable energy

Big data is about to transform renewable energy

Big data is about to transform renewable energy
This week, the International Energy Agency came out with some new figures that will make many in the European renewable energy sector nervous.

The Paris-based intergovernmental organization says that while renewable generation is on the rise globally, Europe’s lead in the sector is shrinking. The report cites policy uncertainty as the main culprit – this compared with the more solid policy backing now in place in the United States, China, India and Mexico. Dizzying policy changes in Europe are making investors hold back on the cash.

The EU currently has the largest installed and connected wind and solar capacity in the world, according to the European Environment Agency. This has been the result of heavy investment: From 2005 to 2012, Europe led the world in investing in renewables.

But China surpassed the EU in 2013, as did the US did a few years later. Europe has the largest amount of installed renewable plants now – but in a few years time, it probably won’t anymore.

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But there is one way that European businesses can get back on the renewables fast track without relying on policy support – and without even relying on deployment of new equipment. Europe is, in fact, sitting on the key to its potential success right now.

People working in the renewable energy field are increasingly turning their attention to the “industrial internet” as a way to maximize the efficiency of existing equipment. The idea is to use existing big data, combined with new sensors, to create a system that can predict all possible future outcomes for renewable equipment. It’s basically a virtual grid.

Last week, those the industry met in Berlin for the forum “Wind Power, Big Data and the Internet of Things.” Most striking among attendees discussing potential efficiency gains to be had from the use of big data, was just how low-hanging this fruit is.

Rather than building 20 percent more turbines, energy companies can use big data to generate 20 percent more electricity from their existing installations.

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Big data has been a buzzword in the tech world for some years – but business leaders say it’s not mere hype. Big data refers to new methods of processing vast existing troves of digital information, previously unseen and unused, in a way that maximizes efficiency.

As anxieties in the European renewable space increase, people are turning to big data as a potential savior. And it seems that the potential is greatest with wind energy.

Predicting the future by analyzing the past

Pieter Jan Jordaens, head of business and innovation at the Belgium-based offshore wind research organization OWI-Lab, is working with utilities to add sensors to wind turbines in the North Sea.

“Offshore wind energy power plants are remotely located – and so it’s not only investment costs that need to be considered, it’s also the operating costs,” he told DW. They started the project off by adding sensors to wind turbines.

Based on this data, they are able to see how wind and wave conditions are affecting the base of the turbine. “We also look at the conditions of the wind turbine itself,” he said.

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