Gecko Robotics is a partner to the World Economic Forum (WEF). This article was originally posted on the Forum's Agenda.
Countless global coalitions and trillions of dollars are focused on how the world can transition to a net zero future. Yet there is little discussion about the importance of ensuring energy security as a pre-condition for that transition. When energy security is threatened, net zero goals are pushed to the sideline in ways that threaten our shared long-term prosperity.
Much of our existing infrastructure is constructed from steel and concrete. These materials make up our buildings, wind turbines, bridges, power plants, oil refineries, and other critical infrastructure we rely on every day. But concrete cracks and steel corrodes, making once strong structures vulnerable and weak.
Around the world, we see evidence of infrastructure degradation and its effect on energy security. Power plants are breaking down across South Africa, half of the nuclear power plants in France spent months offline this year as Europe faces an energy crisis, and power generators in India are struggling with unprecedented demand.
This problem is projected to get worse as the demand for electricity continues to rise and critical infrastructure ages. As a result, countries are forced to make hard choices when balancing their commitments to reduce the use of fossil fuels with the realities of the demand for energy security.
Here are three things that must change to ensure energy security while we work towards achieving a net zero future.
1) Invest in Protecting Today's Infrastructure
Ten years ago, fossil fuels represented 82% of global energy consumption. Today, after roughly $3.8 trillion in investments in renewable energy, that share is 81%. We have a long way to go, and a lot has to go right to get to net zero. And each time a power plant fails, or demand exceeds supply, our energy security is threatened and our progress toward net zero gets derailed.
The current energy crisis in Europe has presented instructive lessons on how nations act when energy security fails. The European Union has re-classified gas and nuclear investments as green energy, Sweden restarted a 1970s-era oil-fueled power plant in an attempt to alleviate energy cost increases, and Germany has significantly increased power generated from coal. If some of the strongest proponents of moving towards net zero respond to an energy crisis by doubling down on fossil fuels, how can we expect the rest of the world to react as power grids fail and people can’t heat their homes? Net zero will remain a dream if countries can’t keep their lights on or keep families from freezing.
How do we prevent future energy security crises? The answer lies in maximizing the uptime, efficiency, sustainability, and readiness of critical energy infrastructure through the utilization of data. Investing in technologies that generate vast quantities of objective infrastructure health data will enable decision-makers to ensure these four outcomes are met. In turn, helping countries avoid catastrophic failures or crippling blackouts that compromise energy security and threaten livelihoods. Not to mention, armed with reliable data, the world can do more to keep net zero initiatives on track.
2) Adopt Industry 4.0 Principles
Speaking of data. The past decade has experienced a revolution with digitalization transforming manufacturing, supply chains, health care, and global governance. We have even seen increased digitalization in our homes, where smart thermostats optimize temperature and smart appliances optimize usage. While progress has been made in some areas, our energy-generating infrastructure has been slow to adopt the tools Industry 4.0 offers.
That often leaves nations in the dark - figuratively and literally - without the data necessary to make critical decisions on their energy security. Access to objective, in-depth, and accurate data would drive fast, effective decision-making for the proactive management of critical assets.
By modernizing processes through digitization and Industry 4.0 principles, we can unlock data about ground truths that previously weren’t available. That means avoiding catastrophic events, like explosions or leaks, but also preventing costly downtime that increases prices for consumers and leads to blackouts and other power interruptions. Real-time data helps illustrate where we are vulnerable, what repairs to make first and when, and creates a predictive rather than reactive plan for keeping key energy infrastructure operational and safe.
Digitalization provides impactful channels for protecting our world today while on our journey to reaching critical net zero goals. With deep data insights, we can learn how to operate better, build more effectively, and maintain what we already have so people worldwide have access to basic necessities.
3) Prioritize Global Collaboration
Net zero requires an unprecedented level of global collaboration. Protecting our global energy infrastructure requires the same.
It is not enough that individual countries tout their transitions to a carbon-free future while other nations face an increasingly unreliable energy supply. Global energy security requires an international commitment to ensure all countries - regardless of resources - have the opportunity to update their energy infrastructure to take advantage of Industry 4.0 principles.
Historically, one of the major hurdles to infrastructure resilience has been a significant funding gap. We’ve seen some progress: In the United States, legislation has been passed to begin to close the shortfall, and the EU has committed infrastructure funding to developing countries. But more needs to be done.
Energy Security and a Simultaneous Path to Net Zero
If we continue to focus exclusively on new infrastructure while ignoring the security of our current assets, the built world around us will crumble long before we reach our goals. The more our current energy infrastructure struggles to maintain production and keep up with demand, the harder it will be for nations to balance economic and political realities with the steps necessary to realize a net zero future.
The drive to net zero is rightly a top priority, but it must be paired with a global effort to promote energy security. By neglecting our existing energy infrastructure now, we risk leaving our net zero goals out in the cold.