Renewable Energies and AI: a symbiosis in the 2021 energy sector

We can finally say that: one of the exciting new challenges of 2021 is a democratic Smart Energy adoption. We, as “Smart” citizens, are now better educated on the benefits of adopting technologies directed to renew and control the energy production we daily strive for.  However, when you talk with your friends about “Smart Cities” some knows what you mean, and some others think on the Chinese attack when it would be the time for the 5G rise. I hope you have more friends of the first option I’ve cited, keen as you to make your best for a sustainable life. Feeling part of the wave of people that opt for a better future, shaped by smart choices is simply the best option we now have. We start to be exhausted of feeling guilty for the current climate change, resources depletion and titanic amount of pollution created by our specie. Finally, the majority of us seems to be almost ready to embrace a big energy sector transformation. Yes, you are right! Green is the leading colour that let us feel part of a process directed to sharp and maximize our current energy provision through AI optimization models: a large volume of data, a bidirectional energy flow, greater energy storage, higher power for transmissions systems. Today we have a very special and smart protagonist in this big “energetic” picture. Artificial intelligence is taking under its umbrella the technology of renewable energies (RE) making it smarter than before. We live in a time when more and more peers, researchers, investors and international industries face multiple requests and challenges related to increasing the optimization of the sector that grant our existence. This is why AI and RE face together a new kind of growth and resilience for their smart partnerships.

Stem Inc. is the well-known example of business able to match energy storage with artificial intelligence, to let customers store renewable energy on a major scale. Then, they can use it efficiently when and where they need it, saving time and money.

Let’s start with a bit of history…

The renewable energy (RE) gained momentum during one of the major energy crises registered in history. OK, I know, it was not that long ago and you probably know what happened already, but this is not a boring story. Part of you probably remembers pretty well what happened in the middle of the seventies when the risk of running out of conventional fuels lead research labs and companies to find alternative solutions able to fulfill the percentage of demand. Some prototypes of alternative energy sources where to expensive and demanding to be produced massively and their efficacy was not reaching expected standards. Then we had the eighties when the majestic economic miracle brought new waves and forms of new-age pollution, global warming and problems leading to a cascade of resources, energy dependability and provisions required to satisfy the needs of a huge increasing number of people. It is only in recent years that citizens show higher awareness of the renewable energy sector. People try to make choices in terms of technology (see the latest boom of e-cars) and tools that could grant, even on a small environment such as a private maisonette, lower carbon emissions and almost constant energy regeneration. This could be seen as a possible tangible answer to the desired safer environment people aim to, and consequently human health standards. Renewable energies (RE) present today a concrete option to the previous CO2 oriented energy sources. They started to gain momentum when people truly believed they could match the qualitative and quantitative solutions they were offering matching with the constraints, consumption habits and climate challenges people were deeply familiar with. In fact, during the nineties and subsequent years, global weather health was kind of weary and slowly in its ability to cope with the running release of athletic carbon dioxide. The subsequent result is more than known, and increasing parameters of pollution, global warming and resources depletion made the rest. Today, after thirty years of projects in the field of RE, multiple prototypes, incentives for privates and the public sector, interesting public grants and all sort of environmental campaigns, the situation is different from the one that our parents and relatives breathe in the past. Therefore, we should consider ourselves lucky.

Just think on our advantages: if you have enough money to buy your first tiny tiny apartment or house, you can receive money from the State to renovate the electronic grid if it is old and opt for solar panels and a home automation control system. Other incentives are given by the State and car companies if you want to invest in an e-car, that has now even an elegant shape and looks pretty sexy. The same is going on if you manage a company, a business, a farm but the message is the same: we reached enormous progress in terms of smart citizenry energetic choices. When I open the newspaper or talk with a friend working in the chemistry, biotech and microbiology industry, I’m getting how we are running forward, investing more and more resources in the renewable field of research.

Advertising is more effective when it can educate, and solar had an education problem. Everyone knows that solar power is better for the environment than fossil fuels, but most people don’t realize that it can be less expensive than electricity from the grid. The differences between various panels are too subtle to matter to most consumers, so companies leading the sector changed their advertising with a focus on what consumers care about most: dollars and cents. Today a better awareness and careful consideration of the efficiency of solar panels as energy supply is part of more and more of us: citizens are making smart choices after the information campaign is successfully applied.

We are doing damn good in finding ways, methods and technologies able to respond to our global demand for clean and cheap energy.

Achievements are more visible as citizens are now smart, and mature to recognize that our planet is not in optimal shape. The latest events of crisis – not just environmental and weather oriented – are presenting a condition that is in its under balance. Today the situation is maximized as people are spending more time at home, and they need more energy as every member of the family (imagine the big enlarged ones) have diverse needs that should be fulfilled, even in the same time-frame of the day. I’m sure that you noticed how the energy grid faced a serious challenge along the first months of this year where every one of us was forced to re-arrange the multiple environments of a “daily life” between a smaller number of walls. And they had just a limited number of power supply…

To feed the countermeasures to the new crisis we faced along this year of multiple lock-downs, researcher invested more resources to improve the design of the energy infrastructure, along with the deployment and production of renewable energies able to match even with AI (Artificial Intelligence) algorithms and networks. Let me make a little digression, saying that AI is the area of computer science that add intelligence to applications going through a further stadium of developments, giving computers and computational systems human-like abilities. So, just as an example that is pretty simple to grasp, Alexa, the well-known AI device that tries to delight us in these afternoons at home is manifesting its “smart abilities” replying to our questions and requests using a large amount of data she is feed with since its training, to behave as an amenable person.

Nowadays we know AI mainly in the guise of algorithms capable to perform predictions and generalizations at high speed (bare in mind that we as humans cannot offer the same performance under the stimulation of the same data flux and processing unless) flexibility and symbolic reasoning. AI is like a sort of gather of a new era based on optimal and rapid use of knowledge and information.

You probably remember the time when AI was presenting its achievements through neural networks research, cognitive computing and machine learning, promoting the next step through energy services in terms of management, monitoring and grid performance optimization. Well, today the AI domain, nourished with advanced machine learning and cognitive computing abilities seems to be an enabler of unforeseen economic applications for a more sustainable and smart energy power grid.

What is the purpose to match AI with RE

The rise of AI began in the nineties. It gets its right momentum after the genius of Alan Touring, Claude Shannon, W. Ross Ashby and Norbert Wiener (and the list of minds who made a huge contribution to the field is a long one, as you know) maintained constantly a debate on its features and around its potential forty years before.  Astonishing, incredible chess tournaments between men and “intelligent” machines, dressed with questions fillings the conferences of cybernetics made the rest of the magic. Today AI is not anymore a matter of the “ones of elitist, intellectuals groups” as its use is massive in many domains we know and work with: robotics, home automation systems, medicine, optimal production chain supply and many others. What could appear as new is that today the sector of renewables starts to be part of the AI melting pot.

AI is characterized by three main features:

  1. LEARN –> continuously and automatically to increase the knowledge coming by algorithms that aim to collect a big amount of data (features also known as machine learning)
  2. RECOGNIZE –> similar situation and processes, confronting previous data and new ones
  3. ACT –> being totally (or almost) autonomous, reaching some precise goals
“It is the thesis of this book that society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it; and that in the future development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine, are destined to play an ever-increasing part.”
– Norbert Wiener –

Isn’t that great?!? The aim to solve real-world problems is leading the current AI technology to make predictions, recommendations based on our taste in terms of music, entertainment, films, news, books, clothes, cooking tools and more. AI systems can make smart decisions leading to lock our cars when we forget that simple small action being too busy to buy things, following the demanding list of “perfect holiday atmosphere” requirements. Here we even try to be, as much as possible, polite with the world, which is pretty impressive! Well, AI supports us in the venture to maintain our car and dignity, once we get back and we realized that maybe we forgot an important act before going out of the vehicle, for God sake still where we left it. Once in and ready to go back home, having an AI system able to automatically play our favorite Symphony of this holiday season: Chopin Nocturne Op.9 No. 2 is priceless. Therapy, in comparison with our beloved AI, will be just a plus.

As I mentioned, today the three AI main features (see above!) start to apply even to the renewable energy sector. The match seems to be perfect. Think for example on the methodological optimization between the production and stock of energy when conditions are favorable. We could use it when environmental condition is under-performance, having an accurate data prediction to avoid unwanted losses. We save money while respecting the natural condition of the environment we live in. Think on the negative side of normal RE tools: the energy production of a solar panel is uncertain as it depends on the surrounding environment sun exposure, which cannot be forecast perfectly. You have solar panels too; you know how it works. Now, in case of private use, this is not that bad in terms of efficiency, cope with the lower performance registered along winter rainy days. Now imagine the case that a whole business, company, animal/vegetable farm is depending on this energy source. A lower level of performance, prolonged across months, could bestow both the living than the overall efficiency of the smart power grid people invested in…

We get the point here: the power supply stability and the power grid balance are somehow musts in a systematic network of energy sources, as supply interruptions and even a partial lack of control of the grid can determine additional costs for the producer and the single ones. Therefore, one of the upcoming goals of RE grids is to optimize the production rate considering the stochastic values of wind, solar, water rates amounts, looking for a better fitting to unwanted peaks. Here, AI is coming to play a nice part in the game, helping also in terms of energy demand and supply.

When private users produce energy from renewables, they can easily request energy from the power in case their production is lower than their needs, or vice versa send some precious electrons flux back when there is some supplemental energy in comparison to their consumes. It sounds like a very fair, flexible, responsible and smart exchange between consumers and energy providers.

Nowadays engineers and scientists are working on new sorts of algorithms, some hybrids, that require less computational time and have better accuracy when is time to perform, taking decisions due to a nice amount of data, weather forecasting and the constraints determined by the grid.

The large data set enable AI to identify cyclical models and patterns leading to simulations, predictions and management decisions able to forecast trends in terms of energy production (supply) and demand (from privates and business). The result is an increment of the energy efficiency and truly effective optimization of the power grid. I do not even exclude some learning capabilities here as an integrated AI system in the RE smart grid could be able to make autonomous decisions based on previous experience or human hints integrated into the available data, comparing what done with new information coming from diverse contexts. The directed effect is more supervision and control on operations. A contribution to a sector that is rising, as I said also thanks to national and private incentives and grants, matching the two goals of engineers dealing with this “intelligent” stuff:

  1. Solve real-world problems
  2. Identify the ideas able to solve these problems, as key to explain the reached (or expected) intelligence of machines

I mean, for me this interesting cooperation between Artificial Intelligence and the sector of Renewable Energies sounds like a must and a recommendation for 2021 and the years to come.

With that spirit, have a great, healthy and green-oriented 2021!

All the best,

LH

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