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Power line pylons at dusk

A wealth of data means vast opportunities for start-ups to disrupt the energy sector

Martin Wilcox - senior consultant

The UK has committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and the whole infrastructure industry has a role to play in delivering on this ambitious promise. In the energy sector, the focus falls on finding ways to drive down fossil fuel demand while boosting the supply of renewables.

As in other sectors, data-based solutions will be critical in providing the insight and unlocking the efficiencies needed to achieve this. The regulated energy industries are incredibly open when it comes to data sharing, as so much is made available as part of the regulatory process. This ranges from business plans to network maps and equipment parameters.

So there is a mass of data out there – but much of it is stored in the form of Word or Excel docs, making it very hard to use or cross-analyse. This data can be used to build a financial model of the gas or electricity industries, and valuable insights from such a model can in turn be used to spin-off a multitude of apps and tools to help the industry find and tackle inefficiencies.

Another key area is forecasting, crucial in making renewable energy provision as efficient as possible. However, this was much easier in the past when you could simply model energy use against weather patterns. Today the picture is much more complicated. Several buildings host solar panels on their roofs; there is a mix of old and new heating systems, using either electricity or gas; there is the increasing load from electric vehicles; and people’s behaviours are changing, from agile working to a growing night time economy. If start-ups can provide us with a data-driven understanding of these factors to improve demand forecasting, we could cut costs by allocating reserve plant more efficiently.

Confidentiality will prove to be one of the biggest barriers when it comes to data. For example, combining energy usage data of a commercial building with 3D visualisations of the building and surrounding assets could help determine how well its energy system performs. Applying this to a large area could provide valuable comparisons and insights. But this requires the energy company to provide confidential metering data – and for several unrelated commercial clients to agree to the release of their data to a third party. Not easy, but there is certainly an opportunity for energy companies, the regulator and the private sector to work with digital start-ups to unlock the potential benefits.

As well as a surplus of untapped data, there are parts of our industry which suffer from the opposite problem – too little data that can be trusted or used. This is especially the case in large markets with monopolised industries which own a vast number of assets. Innovative start-ups which can combine big data analytics with fields such as 3D mapping could unlock huge opportunities as these companies are forced to make the inevitable shift towards a more data-centred asset management strategy.

Whether it’s a surplus of unused data or areas where data collection is poor, there are rich pickings available to innovators as our industry increasingly looks at digital solutions to tackle our biggest challenges.

Mott MacDonald Digital Ventures is sponsoring the Accelerator at NCE TechFest. We have set digital innovators five key infrastructure challenges to explore where their skills and expertise can bring benefits to our industry. If you think your digital tools, services or expertise can help, apply for the Accelerator now.

Dr Martin Wilcox

Global Practice Leader for Integrated Energy Systems

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