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Energy transition and digitalisation between decentralisation and centralisation: regional and corporate cultural perspectives / EnerDigit

Aims and Tasks

Renewable energy is predominantly volatile: wind power plants are unable to supply electricity without wind, photovoltaic systems rely on sunlight or rather daylight. In regular operation, therefore, overcapacities and undercapacities must be compensated. This leads not only to recurring shutdowns of North German wind farms, but also to passionate – sometimes polemic – debates about sense and nonsense of energy transition.

It is mutually agreed that the infrastructure of the energy transition does not consist of high-voltage power lines, substations, and storage power plants alone. Rather, it is important to foster intelligent networking and to gain control of the numerous decentralised producers and consumers. Accordingly, energy systems for the energy transition have to be regarded as socio-technical systems.

This so-called “energy transition 2.0” is technically not feasible without numerous information technology products, complex control, and distribution systems – including integrated communication and monitoring applications and smart grids. Evidently, digitalisation and energy transition belong together. An intelligent, decentral and flexible connected energy system – concerning production and distribution – is needed.

In Germany, the industrial sector accounted for approximately 46% of total electricity consumption in 2015. This volume is large enough to develop and to explore compensation concepts for the volatility of renewable energies, e.g. by utilizing digital network technologies. Networked production and distribution is discussed in the German-speaking world as “industry 4.0”, in the Anglo-Saxon as “industrial internet”. Both envisage cyber-physical production systems whose components are networked via internet and controlled flexibly in a decentralized manner. An integration of energy management aspects in the control of the cyber-physical production systems can contribute to the compensation of the volatility of renewable energies and thus support the success of the “energy transition 2.0”.

It is the approach of the research and conception project EnerDigit to take a step back from implementation-oriented questions. EnerDigit will have a closer look from the perspective of decentralisation and centralisation on the interlinking between industry and energy systems, as described above. Decentralised production, small sized factories through new low-emission production processes such as additive processes, new urban and participatory production along with co-creation will tie in with the digital and energetic transformation of the industry, so the vision. However, the disadvantage of this decentralisation is the need to manage and control the production and consumption of energy, as outlined above.

Will the often-described horror scenario of externally controlled lives (with remote-controlled household appliances) materialise in industrial production? Who will control production and consumption and how? Who, or which algorithms, will decide who gets energy at what price? How intelligent are these smart decisions really?

Approach

In the first analysis step, EnerDigit asks which decentralised and centralised elements will emerge in networking and control of industrial production processes through digitalisation and “energy transition 2.0” (work package 1). Here, the rather decentralised and coordinated German economic system will be used as a comparison template. Will a similar economic system be formed by digitalisation and “energy transition 2.0”? Or will there be a change in the system?

In a second analysis step, sectors and companies are to be identified that are already characterised by a high degree of networking and control, especially against the background of digitalisation and “energy transition 2.0” (work package 2). The search will lead to the identification of concrete business case studies.

The case studies serve as an empirical basis for the conceptual view of decentralisation and centralisation (work package 3). How does the entanglement in smart energy systems affect the company and its employees? Can experiences of empowerment be observed, or does alienation dominate?

The last step is to evaluate the obtained results in order to identify approaches for an intelligently controlled, yet decentralised and participatory transformation of both, the industrial sector and the energy sector (work package 4).

Cooperation

EnerDigit is a joined project of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment, Energy, the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities in Essen and the Institute for Work and Technology in Gelsenkirchen.

Funding

Ministerium für Wirtschaft, Innovation, Digitalisierung und Energie des Landes NRW

Picture from Logo des Ministeriums Wirtschaft, Innovation, Digitalisierung und Energie des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen