Technology trends for the energy sector

Artificial intelligence and blockchain are trends among the technology pioneers impacting the energy sector and beyond
Published: Mon 30 Jul 2018

In the start of the millennium, the World Economic Forum launched its ‘Technology Pioneers’.

Since then, the list has named an impressive line up of companies, such as Google, Dropbox and Airbnb. In the energy sector, there are companies such as EnerNoc (now part of Enel in North America), Silver Spring Networks (now part of Itron), Opower (acquired by Oracle), Nest Labs (acquired by Google) and blockchain startup Electron.

The Pioneers are usually early stage companies which are considered as having the potential to significantly impact business and society through new technologies and innovation. As such, it provides a barometer of the market. So what does the 2018 lineup tell us about the current trends?

First, with 61 companies, this is the largest cohort to date, and they cover the widest range of sectors – eight in total. In addition to energy which is combined with the environment (seven companies), these include digital and entertainment (19), cybersecurity and digital identity (8), mobility (7), production (6), finance (6), health (4) and food security and agriculture (4).

Energy innovation

A review of the energy and environment pioneers is itself telling, with three blockchain companies, a total of five out of the seven as platform providers and only two as technology providers. This is clearly indicative of the key role of digitalisation for today’s utilities.

Arguably the best known of the group is the German blockchain startup Grid Singularity, which is also one of the founders of the Energy Web Foundation developing a standard platform for the energy sector. Another company with a blockchain offering is ME SOLshare from Bangladesh, which has developed a peer-to-peer solar trading platform and pay-as-you-go solution for rural electrification.

The other IT solutions are from Israel’s Raycatch, which has developed an application for remote performance mapping of solar PV installations; Utilis, also from Israel, with an app for detecting water leaks from satellite imagery; and Plataforma Verde from Brazil, with a software as a service blockchain solid waste management solution.

The two technology solutions are from Cadenza Innovation in the US, which has developed a low-cost, high capacity cell design for lithium-ion storage systems, which should further improve both their cost competitiveness and performance; and Watergen from Israel, has created a solution to generate water from air.

Two others also worth noting outside the sector but with potential impact are the French drone company Delair, which is developing machine learning-based solutions for asset management that can be applied to power grids; and the Swiss H55 which is developing electric aviation propulsion systems.

Artificial intelligence and data

From the energy and environment companies, some factors are immediately apparent – the advance of blockchain in these sectors, the role of platforms and software as a service. Let’s delve deeper into the others.

The presence of no less than 27 companies in the digital and cybersecurity categories is indicative of the general importance of ICT, and that makes it apparent how digitalisation is being brought to bear across society in manufacturing, production and service delivery.

Another notable point from the 2018 cohort of companies is the growth of artificial intelligence (AI), featuring across almost all the sectors. Almost one-third of all the companies are working with AI, with applications ranging from a plug-and-play solution for enterprises to product recognition and scientific innovation.

Augmented reality and robotics also are featured, with a notable example being a cloud solution with applicability for the smartening of cities (from Blue Vision Labs in London).

Blockchain, on the other hand, is almost absent from the other sectors with just four other companies with solutions, two in finance and two in digital. Compared with the three companies in the energy and environment category this demonstrates how the energy sector is very much at the forefront of developing this technology and points to its potential applicability in the sector.

“Technology and start-ups are not just about computer software, consumer apps and social networks,” commented Fulvia Montresor, Head of Technology Pioneers at the World Economic Forum, at the announcement of the 2018 Pioneers. “Technology Pioneers 2018 are tackling complex challenges such as environmental sustainability, efficient energy use and access to healthcare.”

If the line up of previous pioneers is to go by, these companies and their technologies are ones we will be hearing a lot more about in the future.