Data only has value if it is used

Electricity meters and concrete wall - 3D illustration


Digitalization is crucial to controlling future energy systems from the consumer side. Size too is crucial, or else Danish utility companies will have no muscle for vital digital innovation, according to Eva Berneke.

All the chips and supercomputers in the world will never be able to produce power or heat. Nevertheless, digitalization is a key element in the renewable energy systems of the future because data and intelligent control can even out peak-load curves and contribute to more efficient use of the distribution and transmission grid.

Renewable energy sources are far less flexible on the production side, so we need to turn consumption up and down. To do this, we have to pull data from the systems, and digitalization is the key to smart systems management, says Eva.

After holding positions such as vice executive president at TDC and CEO of KMD, in 2022 she took over as the CEO of Eutelsat, the French satellite company. Eva is a member of the board of CIP Foundation. Eva is the anchorperson for digitalization initiatives.

Based in Paris, one of the key challenges is just outside Eva’s door.

There’s no avoiding it: the grid must be made stronger. We’ve got super-quick chargers for electric cars, but here in Paris you have to drive a long way outside the city to find one, because the grid just isn’t powerful enough, she says.

We don’t go out and charge in the evening

However, establishing and strengthening the electricity grid is expensive. And this is where digitalization is an essential tool.

The electricity sector talks about the period from 17:00 – 20:00 as the ‘peak hours’. This is when families cook dinner and probably also put a wash on.

Most electric-car owners are well aware that this is not the time to plug in the Tesla or ID4.

But on the other hand, it’s no good if everyone charges their car at eight: that’ll just cause a new peak. We all know this. But we don’t go out and charge the car at ten or even later in the evening, says Eva.

The solution is what in technical jargon is called an aggregator. This means that your electric car can communicate with the electricity system, and either recharge slowly through the whole night at low intensity, or wait until the early hours of the morning to couple up with the grid.

Sceptical consumers can put a brake on an efficient electricity grid

Electricity consumption can be aligned with electricity production in other ways as well. Heating a house with a heat pump can ensure that the house is warm just before the ‘peak hours’ demand, and the heat pump can take a break while the temperature slowly falls from the high end of the comfort zone to the low end. Moreover, a heat pump can be put back to work after eight in the evening.

If systems like this are to work, they need to be digital and automatic. The solutions are easy enough to talk about, but much harder to implement in the real world. They require huge amounts of data, and there are already barriers in this regard.

Companies that can exploit data commercially are very rarely the same as the companies that collect the data. In recent years, an idea has spread that data is very valuable, but data is only valuable if it is used, says Eva.

Getting consumers on board can also be an obstacle. Some consumers are concerned that the electricity companies will now also want to monitor when they turn on a hairdryer.

But there’s absolutely no need for data at that level. Consumer scepticism is one of the obstacles we have to deal with as soon as possible.

The framework conditions play a crucial role. If you can only harvest data from consumers who actively give you permission, things will be difficult. You won’t get permission from more than around 50% at the most. Therefore, regulations have to be designed so that consumers have to opt-out rather than opt-in, says Eva.

Differentiated price structure

Data alone cannot even out consumption to take the top off peak demand. Higher consumption spread over many more hours a day means that the price of distribution for a single kilowatt-hour will be cheaper because the distribution and transmission grid is being better exploited.

But just as Eva has experienced in Paris, Denmark too needs a stronger electricity grid. Besides electric cars, more heat pumps, and the electrification of industry, existing towns and new urban neighbourhoods are seeing a sharp population growth.

The electricity grid is a relatively expensive investment, and digitalization and data modelling can be a strong tool in this context. Grid companies must secure sufficient capacity in the grid.

However, the grid would become too expensive if what corresponds to a six-lane motorway were installed, where actually just a main road would do. An important factor is whether industry or primarily families with children or pensioners move into a new urban area. Data and machine learning are important tools to enable grid calculators to aim more accurately than previously.

Eva Berneke points out that the framework conditions have to be supported, and that we have to establish an efficient and smart energy system. One example is that, in the past, it has been difficult to exploit the surplus heat from data centres because of how the tax system was put together. Fortunately, this problem has been resolved.

Moreover, consumers have to get used to the energy itself and distribution in the grid being on market terms. The roll-out of remotely read meters that measure electricity consumption on an hourly basis also brings entirely new opportunities. This became abundantly clear to many consumers when the Russian invasion of Ukraine led to spiralling energy prices, and suddenly they could make significant savings by moving their electricity consumption to the right time of day.

Data sharing is no quick fix

From her time at KMD, a leading Danish software and multi-sector IT solutions company, Eva has many examples of how data and machine learning can ensure smarter solutions. This applies to everything, from rat control in sewers, to using data to ensure waves of green traffic lights on the roads. At building level, there are also major benefits from digitalizing so that the temperature, ventilation and much more in a building can be controlled centrally.

Masses of great projects have demonstrated that there are major benefits. Today, the challenge is to scale up these projects, she says.

Not only sceptical consumers stand in the way of more data sharing. Companies too are reluctant to share their data. There are already many examples of companies or municipalities that measure electricity or water consumption themselves because they can’t get real-time data from utility companies.

Securing data sharing and open data in the years to come is crucial. This isn’t something we can fix once and for all, it’ll be an ongoing process. It’s a bit like cleaning. It’s good to do the spring cleaning once a year, but you still have to clean once a week. New data is generated and other data has to be adjusted to secure data protection, and we must constantly question whether there is other data that can do the job even better,” says Eva.

Size and scalability are paramount

She points to the consolidation in the Danish electricity sector as a positive start. Fewer and stronger companies forge far better opportunities to create the necessary digital innovation.

Size is a paramount outset, according to Eva. She points to her own experience at KMD.

KMD offered municipalities a common platform for all Danish municipalities to manage IT development. We had a common system for maternity/paternity benefits, social security and much more. It was very efficient, because we didn’t have to go and ask an individual municipality about whether one project or the other was a good idea. That’s just something they can dream about here in France. There are 36,000 municipalities in France, and they all have their own opinions about IT development. This impedes joint investment in common solutions that can interact with each other, says Eva.

Looking at the Danish utilities sector as it stands today, the electricity sector is far, far more consolidated. Solutions can be designed to include more customers, and this gives a much larger data basis. On the other hand, water supply, wastewater and waste utilities are all characterised by many more, smaller companies. These companies don’t have the muscle to make the vital innovation, and their data volumes are less valid.

Denmark has a strong foundation. Compared with other countries, digitalization has a much wider anchoring in the public: for example people are much more willing to accept digital correspondence rather than a lot of letters. But whether you look at the situation through micro- or macroeconomic glasses, developing scalable solutions is imperative. Many small companies just don’t have the volume, she says.

The point of departure in the electricity sector is much stronger than in other utilities, because many small companies have been replaced by a handful of larger players. You simply can’t underestimate the significance of looking further than your own backyard,” stresses Eva.

Denmark is a small country and it’s difficult to get the scale when investing in new solutions. This is one of the biggest challenges. If you only look at one municipality or region when you design new solutions, they’ll never be scalable. You have to think internationally, she says.

The CIP Foundation as a pathfinder

Eva also questions whether homeowners, housing associations and property companies can meet energy optimisation requirements in the property sector.

There are good potentials in Denmark, and at European level they are colossal. Investments will often pay back within a very manageable number of years.

Here too we’ll gain ever more knowledge through data and digitalization. In my opinion, it’ll make sense to see whether we can accelerate developments with new financing models. Perhaps utility companies or others can finance energy optimisation, she says.

Eva Berneke sees the CIP Foundation as a sort of pathfinder and scout that can show both politicians and businesses the way forward to develop energy systems and move into new ground.

Our role in the foundation is to identify projects for testing. We can identify where there is good potential, and where there are areas to be described in more detail. We will contribute to progress and an informed basis for decisions, she says.