Is Digital Engineering A Solution To The Energy Trilemma?

VP & Field CTO, Aerospace, Energy & Industrial at Ansys.

SCOTT PARENT  shares expert his  insight with Charlie King on the energy trilemma, looking at how modern technological solutions — such as the extensive use of engineering simulation — could be the key to solving it and providing energy that is not only sustainable, but reliable, robust, and available to everyone globally.

CHARLIE KING: What is the trilemma facing the energy industry?

SCOTT PARENT: As businesses, organisations, and governments all over the world put more and more effort into decarbonising the economy, the energy industry faces a trilemma, which can be broken down into three main pillars. Firstly, it needs secure, affordable, and scalable energy to serve a growing population. Secondly, that energy must be delivered, converted, and consumed more efficiently. And thirdly, there is a need for new, cleaner energy sources to support growth, whilst replacing the widespread use of fossil fuels.

CK: Do you think the current conversation around decarbonisation takes into account all three pillars of the trilemma?

SP: The conversation surrounding decarbonisation can often be too narrow, which risks neglecting the wider trilemma. Conversations can be dominated around potential solutions like, ‘banning all fossil fuels’ which doesn’t take into account how complicated of an issue this is. If we are to succeed in providing robust, reliable, and affordable energy to everyone on the planet, each pillar of the trilemma needs to be addressed.

For example, if we look at the first issue, there is the need to significantly increase the number of people who have access to electricity. Although an additional one billion people have been given access to electricity in the past few decades, there are still around one billion people worldwide who do not have access to electricity. Additionally, there is the issue of efficiency – currently, around 65 per cent of the energy that is sourced, converted, and consumed worldwide is wasted through inefficiencies.

So, before we even look at the third pillar of the trilemma – developing a new, cleaner energy source – there are significant things that can be done to improve the situation in the short term and increase the energy we currently supply, through a big improvement in efficiency.

In this endeavour, digital engineering is making great strides forward. The application of digital technologies to engineering, design, simulation, optimisation, and the operation of systems and processes across the whole life cycle of a product is making a significant contribution to energy efficiency and sustainability – and its contribution will only increase over time.

CK: What can be done in the short term if we are to achieve our net-zero goals?

SP: In the short term, whilst we are in a transitional period where new technologies and energy sources are being discovered and developed, improving energy efficiency in all products and processes is the best way to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. If efforts are focused on this area, it could reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions by up to 40 per cent, which would go a long way to helping us achieve our short-term net-zero ambitions. Currently, 31 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions footprint comes from converting fossil fuels into electricity and heat; of that electricity, a massive 45 per cent is used in electrical motors in isolation. This means that currently, 15 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions produced by humans come from electric motors. This is particularly significant as the global transportation sector is currently embarking on a vast electrification effort, meaning that the use of electric motors is set to exponentially increase in the coming decades. As a result, any efficiency that can be improved in electric motors could reduce global emissions by a few per cent. Although that may sound small, this would be a huge win for the planet, as this solution is made up of many smaller percentage reductions in the aggregate.

CK: How can digital engineering be employed in the design process to improve sustainability?

It is crucial to consider sustainability right from the off in the design process. This is because the majority of a product’s cost and environmental impact are locked in during the development and design cycle. One such decision that is critical to the overall impact that any product may have is that of materials selection. The materials that are used determine weight, and therefore overall efficiency, but also the recyclability. This is where the extensive use of digital engineering is pivotal. Firms are able to use digital engineering to input the exact properties of countless materials to be used in their simulations that are done at the beginning of the lifecycle. This means they get full insight into the most energy-efficient and cost-effective materials to use. Once the materials are chosen, further simulations can be done to determine the optimal shape and makeup of a product, again reducing material usage, but critically without reducing strength. All of this works together to make a product that is more efficient in the first instance but also goes a long way to improving the overall life cycle of the product, including having less material to recycle at the end of the lifecycle, thus reducing energy consumption even further.

CK: How can digital engineering be employed as the energy industry transitions to a more digital future?

SP: On our path to a more sustainable future, there are many new technologies that will be employed. The evolution of technologies such as the Internet of Things and 5G communications are driving the digital transformation of the industry as a whole and will play a crucial role moving forward. However, the challenge comes with regards to energy assets and infrastructure that were commissioned long ago, well before the explosion of the digital age. A big component of shifting the entire industry forward will be installing sensors, actuators, and communication devices so they can all be incorporated into the Internet of Things, and this again is where the extensive use of digital engineering will be critical. It will allow a digital thread to be created that links all assets, old and new, into a single system that can be monitored by digital twins. Digital twins are a virtual replica of a real-world asset that allows engineers to understand how that asset will work in any given scenario. The use of digital twins allows teams to optimise efficiency, reliability, durability, and real-time performance – all absolutely crucial to ensuring the long-term sustainability of any given product. 

  • Parent is VP & Field CTO, Aerospace, Energy & Industrial at Ansys.

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