Embracing the full array of advanced digital technologies is crucial if offshore wind and other renewables are to cope in an ever more volatile and complex energy world, where forecasts are having to be repeatedly recalculated and “mind boggling” levels of growth are expected, experts told a Recharge event.

Tapping into the huge engineering and operational potential unlocked by advances in areas such as digital design, machine learning and artificial intelligence – “the tools of the fourth industrial revolution” – will act as a bridge for the clean-energy sectors as they make rapid adaptions to shifting market demands, the latest Recharge roundtable, on Digitalisation & the Future of Energy, heard.

“When it comes to wind, we need to see how we can speed up innovation to keep track of the market changes we face,” said Daniel Luecht, chief digital officer at turbine OEM giant Siemens Gamesa.

Luecht reflected on the early days of wind industry innovation which were geared around a market dominated by feed-in tariffs where the straightforward mission was “to capture the maximum wind available at the site and push maximum annual production into the grid”.

“We didn’t much care how much this matched demand, for example. Those days are over. All of a sudden spot market energy prices react on a 15-minute basis,” meaning turbine-operators need to be equipped to closely configure their plants to the exact demands of the market – and need sophisticated digital tools to help them, he said.

The need for wind to adopt a “21st century digital” approach was stressed by Thomas Leurent, CEO of Akselos, an engineering pioneer that works with the likes of Shell on ‘digital twinning’ of offshore wind assets.

Leurent said the offshore wind sector needs to mirror the approach of “king solar”, as PV has been dubbed, if it is to achieve the “mind boggling” goal set by the International Energy Agency (IEA) of installing 80GW annually by 2030, almost three times the global fleet in operation now.

We’re using digital, but old digital. We can’t do this with 1970s technologies.

“We’re using digital, but old digital. We can’t do this with 1970s technologies, which is what the industry is doing today with engineering design.”

Instead, the offshore wind sector should tap the potential of digitalisation to underpin a “Moore’s Law-style” push for continual, exponential improvement, said Leurent.

The role of digital technologies in coping with the increasing volatility of markets was underlined by Mari Haapala, digital lead at industrial technology giant ABB Motion – as illustrated by the impact of the pandemic.

“I think everyone can say they had to throw all their forecasting in the trash bin on how the market would develop [because of] the Covid crisis,” Haapala said.

As well as dealing with the unexpected, digital tools can also act as a “vehicle to take energy services to the next level” and raise the speed of innovation, she told the roundtable moderated by Recharge editor-in-chief Darius Snieckus.

Ian Dinwoodie, head of advanced performance engineering at consultancy and service provider Natural Power, agreed that digitalisation can help renewable energy provide the additional services that will be required of it in future and take advantage of opportunities in areas such as dynamic pricing.

“[Energy] is going to get more complicated. They key is to be able to react to that,” said Dinwoodie, adding that digitalisation can also empower smaller players to act effectively in a market that has moved on from “the old-fashioned way of someone in a control room turning knobs and dials”.

Energy is going to get more complicated. They key is to be able to react to that.

Ana Trbovich, co-founder and chief operating officer at Grid Singularity, which is building open source, customised energy exchanges, told the Recharge event that digitalisation is needed to shift approaches to energy management that “haven’t caught up with the facts of life today”.

Trbovich said in a world where markets should be “local, and bottom-up rather than top-down” innovators in digitalisation are “adding choices and using more optimally the resources we have”.

A full replay of the digital roundtable is available here.