Data-led energy transition

Online Editor

Winds of change blow in for energy companies. By Sandra Merten

The energy transition is happening, and it’s happening rapidly. Despite the economic disruption caused by the pandemic, investment in the low-carbon economy boomed in 2020, reaching half a trillion US dollars for the first time. Bold net-zero targets are being championed by government initiatives, such as the Paris Climate Agreement, as well as household-name corporations like IKEA and Microsoft, and industry initiatives like RE100 and Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi). And of course, in the wake of this year’s COP26. Ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable energy is an essential part of achieving these ambitions, recognised by the UN as the seventh sustainable development goal.

Offshore wind is a huge opportunity for offshore energy companies transitioning to reduced carbon sources. It is an area where they can repurpose their existing supply chains and expertise in managing large offshore projects. Wood Mackenzie reports that all six of the European oil majors already have major plans for renewables, including for wind energy, which will make them important players in the renewables sector. Yet, for companies to be successful in these projects, a digital overhaul is required. Data is the foundation on which offshore projects are safely built, but the screening and development of new sites is held back by difficulties finding and accessing relevant data, including geological, geophysical and environmental data. If offshore wind is to become a viable energy source, the industry must first tackle issues around data accessibility and usability.

The data time drain

Offshore wind projects require a vast amount of geoscientific, geotechnical, and geospatial data throughout their life cycle. Scientific literature is particularly valuable at the beginning of a project when companies are trying to answer crucial questions around the viability and safety of potential new sites for wind farms. Companies need to perform geological desk studies and consider existing environmental surveys before making investment decisions in new projects. 

Although geoscientists and engineers rely on data as they branch out into low-carbon energy, they are challenged by the number of sources and formats they have to contend with. Accessing, aggregating, and analysing data from many different sources makes research a time-consuming and cumbersome task. Researchers may spend almost as much time searching for articles as actually reading them, averaging more than four hours for searching and only five hours for reading. This infringes on time that could be spent on analysis and decision-making, slowing down the development of a project.

Compounding accessibility issues is poor usability. Often, geoscientists and engineers resort to manually reviewing and refining internet searches, such as those produced by Google, to find data on specific locations. If they spell the name of the location incorrectly, or if it appears in the original document in a different language or under an abbreviation, then it may not be found in the search at all. Geoscientists need access to geospatial intelligence — the ability to precisely associate data and maps with a particular location and run analyses and interpretations on that data. If this information is missed, it could lead to additional costs like duplicate purchasing of data, and could have potentially critical consequences for the project further down the line. 

Accessibility and usability are paramount in energy transition efforts as geoscientists and engineers develop new skills outside of their traditional remits. Companies need to enable their workforce to upskill in these new fields. Not only does this mean retraining, but also bringing in or acquiring data expertise. By integrating better data practices and promoting user-friendly technology, the development of new offshore projects will become more efficient and bring organisations closer to their overall renewable energy goals.

A wind-wind solution 

Successfully adopting new data practices starts with having an authoritative source of data that is easily searchable and accommodates multiple file formats. Geoscientists need to easily find information that is already available in the public domain alongside what is stored in journals. They must be able to make confident judgements by avoiding overlooking important information and prioritizing opportunities to make wiser investment decisions.

Unlocking hidden data, such as maps and tables from scientific articles and other documents, and being able to spatially discover data is key. Further, semantic technologies, such as Natural Language Processing (NLP), enable algorithms to “understand” the content in a document, saving time and making sure no data are missed. These capabilities also provide an extra layer of trust in research, ensuring data are discoverable, actionable and accurate. A flexible, user-friendly platform that is custom-built specifically for geoscientists provides further support. For example, data should be downloadable and able to seamlessly integrate with other industry solutions, e.g., GIS, to make analysis as straightforward as possible. 

An effective energy transition must fulfil the energy triangle of being sustainable, secure, and supportive of economic growth. Offshore wind has huge potential to meet these requirements. Once a wind farm is set up, it generates a large amount of low-carbon energy. Integrating better data practices is essential to accelerating the development of offshore wind, so that enough sites can be set up to meet global energy needs. By embracing digital technology, offshore energy companies will be able to repurpose their existing expertise and bring us all closer to net-zero ambitions.

Sandra Merten is senior product manager Geofacets, Elsevier 

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