HKUST 25th Anniversary

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Switching to IT for a brave new world of greener energy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 October, 2015, 9:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 November, 2015, 10:40am

In the wider debate about energy, much attention is still focused on market prices and possible new sources of fossil fuels. However, the real issues, which no one can afford to ignore when considering the future of energy, now lie elsewhere. 

Oil, coal, shale and hydroelectric schemes may be the usual topics, but in a fast-changing world, the way ahead will be all about how we can produce energy more efficiently, prioritise sustainability, and consume far less than now.

“For this, we need simpler, more flexible and more scalable industrial architecture, leveraging the best of IT technologies,” says Jean-Pascal Tricoire, chairman and CEO of Schneider Electric, during a lecture on “The New Energy World” given as part of the Distinguished Speakers Series organised to mark the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST).

“These need to connect energy [sources], automation and software and recognise the revolution of solar, which provides power without consuming fuel,” Tricoire says.

As a global specialist in energy management, the company is a key player in the drive for cleaner, reliable, sustainable power to help industries improve productivity and enhance day-to day living.  

Achieving that vision entails a certain shift in priorities and widespread acceptance of the importance of change at every level, from government policy and corporate investment down to the way individuals live their lives.  

For example, the new energy world will have more electric cars and more temperature-control systems. It will be more connected, with IoT (Internet of Things) developments fast extending the range of possibilities for machines and devices to communicate with each other. It will be more “distributed” in the sense of having a greater number of local energy facilities plus more homes and buildings generating at least a proportion of their own electricity. And, of necessity, it will be more efficient with more intelligent grids and smarter processes making it possible, overall, to consume 30 to 50 per cent less energy than is used today.

“Buildings are a massive source of energy inefficiency and this has multiple implications such as the dependency on oil suppliers,” Tricoire says. “But the paradigm has to change, and it can with the use of intelligence, sensors and automation. Also, I’m a big believer in renewables and solar. You do still need to solve the problems of outages and intermittency, which will take a bit of time, but in China for instance, you have to find a way to substitute coal with cleaner forms of energy.”

A number of so-called megatrends illustrate the importance of this mission. Firstly, around 1.3 billion people around the world still don’t have access to electricity which, these days, can almost be regarded as a basic human right. A further one billion have only an intermittent or irregular supply.

Secondly, the process of urbanisation now sees around 1.2 million people moving to cities every week. This makes it essential to achieve gains in productivity and efficiency to sustain growth.

And thirdly, research shows that over the next five years digitisation and the acceleration of technological change will spur explosive IoT growth, with a forecast of 40 billion more machines being connected to the internet – along with two billion more people. 

“Sometimes, we don’t see the changes coming,” Tricoire says. “And while we may think it will be linear, in fact it will be exponential, and that will create a massive energy issue.”

It involves meeting increasing demand, while halving emissions, migrating to more carbon-friendly methods of generation, and capitalising on new efficiencies.

However, the possible efficiencies don’t have to be new and, in cities like Hong Kong, many of them fall into the “no-brainer” category. For example, householders and business owners who run air-con units at the recommended setting get an immediate payback through lower bills and, at the same time, show they get the message about reducing consumption and emissions.

“Hong Kong has to remain the flagship of Asia and being green is now a big part that, though some people don’t quite realise it yet,” Tricoire says. “As a city, it offers an invaluable ecosystem for the research and design of smart solutions built around renewables, storage and electronics. There is the capacity to prototype very fast, with a network of suppliers and manufacturers and the ability to transform innovative ideas into action is as good as anywhere else in the world. Clearly, Hong Kong has the potential to take a lead in innovation and technology.”

With this in mind, Schneider Electric has announced an agreement to collaborate with the HKUST-MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Research Alliance Consortium to advance IoT adoption and solutions.