Editorial - VGB PowerTech Journal 12/2019

Power for the future of digitalisation

Today, it is impossible to imagine our everyday life and our lives without the Internet. The Internet follows us at every turn. At home, in the household, when the Internet accompanies us with information via television, radio or PC, or even in far-away places around the world, when it provides information on what is happening at home via networked devices. Certainly also at the workplace, whether it is an office workplace – today unthinkable without a PC and information networking – or in industry and of course also in power generation and power supply with e.g. digital control and management systems. Even when we reach for our mobile phones, we often forget what sophisticated IT technology is available to us with these portable, powerful “microcomputers”.

Hardly any other technology in the history of mankind has experienced such rapid development in technology and application as IT technology with the Internet.

The origins of today’s Internet go back to the first developments in the USA in the 1950s, when computer-supported, networked structures were supposed to make possible particularly secure and reliable communication. At the end of 1969, four mainframes from two Universities in California and Utah were connected together and with the message “lo” (= 2 bytes of data) on 29 October, the first data transmission succeeded in this network (transmission was supposed to be “log”, but the line broke down on the first attempt).

In 1974, the transmission protocol “TCP – Transmission Control Protocol”, which is still valid today, set the standard for network-wide data transmission and the invention of the World Wide Web – i.e. the linking of files throughout the entire network and thus simple switching from one data source to the next – by Timothy Berners-Lee at the European CERN, computer networks moved from the academic field into practical application.

The data volume and data use are impressive: studies estimate that by 2025 the worldwide data volume will be 175 zettabytes (one 175 with 21 zeros), 8 times as much as in 2017, and in the computer literature around this year 2010/2011 this figure was even higher. Stored on conventional DVDs, a stack of DVDs with this amount of data would bridge the distance earth-moon 23 times. Another remarkable aspect of this figure is that it is expected that in 2025 around 80 % of the data will be stored at companies. Today, private users and companies are still on an equal footing, each with about 50 %.

In terms of data usage, people on earth are expected to interact via the Internet every 18 seconds on average in 2025!

A recent study* commissioned by E.ON from the University of Aachen (RWTH Aachen) draws a remarkable link between digitisation, digital communication and the energy and power supply. Actually, it’s a matter of course, because the Internet and the World Wide Web are “powered” by electricity and a reliable power supply is essential for the network. From the general practice of power supply, the required balance between generation and consumption is known as a physical-technical principle. Deviations can be compensated to a certain extent in the grid, although today the structure of the generation fleet with sufficient controllable capacities ensures this. Digital structures are even more sensitive in this respect, as they cannot cope with even short-term failures or disturbances and the systems “shut down”.

Another aspect is the energy or electricity demand itself. The study analyses the new technical possibilities of digital communication for companies and consumers. With the upcoming 5G standard, companies are building their own mobile networks. In intelligent factories, self-propelled robots network with machines and exchange information. The mobile phone network will be so powerful that films will be available in real time. According to the study, this will require the construction of many small and local data centres, which will often act as intermediate stations to the central units.

With the technological leap to the 5G mobile communications standard, the energy requirements of data centres will increase dramatically. According to the study, 5G alone can increase the already rapidly growing power demand in data centres by up to 3.8 terawatt hours (TWh) by 2025. That would be enough power to supply all 2.5 million people in the cities of Cologne, Duesseldorf and Dortmund for a year.

However, further digitalization, for example through increasing communication, is also seen as a component on the way to the sustainable energy system of the future. The contradiction that appears at first glance between rising electricity consumption due to, among other things, increasing digitalization, as shown above, and sustainability is resolved by looking at the system as a whole: More electricity as “intelligent” energy, energy for instrumentation and control and, for example, for linking the generation and consumption sectors, provides a greater degree of sustainability and energy supply security.