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3 Energy and Sustainability Trends to Watch in 2023

With the year in full swing, we expect to see further innovations to increase energy efficiency, reduce water consumption; and overall, advance sustainability in the energy industry.

As 2023 continues, we can see that sustainability is becoming a key focus for many organizations, companies and government agencies — particularly within the utilities and energy sectors.

In recent years, the energy industry has seen the emergence of an array of technologies and methods of operation being introduced into all parts of the energy system for improved sustainability — production, transmission, distribution, storage, and maintenance. The goal of each innovation can be tied back to a mutual, industry-wide desire to increase the use of renewable and distributed energy resources (DERs), decrease reliance on fossil fuels for energy, and boost overall energy efficiency. Together, such actions are designed to create a more sustainable future for the energy sector and the world as a whole.

The IEEE Standards Association (IEEE SA) expects to see three key trends in the energy sector this year:

1. Changing electric infrastructure

With a yearning for more sustainable energy solutions, the utilities and energy-production, -transmission and -distribution industries are undergoing a pivotal transformation. Electric infrastructure is moving to a more decentralized model; and within this, we are seeing a variety of adjustments and innovations being made in response to several timely factors.

As electric infrastructure shifts to embrace grid modernization and sustainability, IEEE SA continues to work alongside industry stakeholders to develop standards that address infrastructure evolution for safe and reliable energy availability to global customers.

Regulatory updates

Distribution networks are undergoing fundamental changes, occurring in tandem with new global regulatory requirements which are creating solutions and imposing challenges on different areas of the developing energy infrastructure. In 2023, we anticipate other regulatory updates to be ratified: In the United States, for example, FERC Order 2222 directs regional transmission organizations and independent system operators to proactively plan for giving DERs access to wholesale energy markets.

Utility operations and control

As the energy industry moves toward a more distributed infrastructure, tests of grid resilience arise. There is a necessity on the part of the operations and control sector to keep all systems functioning while simultaneously undergoing massive transformation. These revisions are influenced by the incorporation of more renewable energy sources and thus, inverter-based resources (IBRs) into the system, in addition to other moves, such as greater demand response and the adoption of electric vehicles and programmable electric loads.

New technologies

Driven by grid modernization in support of new, low-carbon technologies for sustainable energy solutions, energy generation, transmission and distribution are evolving with accelerated urgency. With renewable and distributed energy resources and other smart technologies being incorporated into the energy system, IEEE SA is developing standards and initiatives that respond to these issues.

One notable technology providing far-reaching implications for the shifting electric infrastructure is a grid-forming inverter. The growth of alternative energy sources used to power the grid may increase demand for the use of grid-forming inverters, as they allow solar and other IBRs to manage outages and restart the grid independently.

The industry is also seeing a resurgence of low-carbon nuclear energy sources being considered for grid incorporation. Worldwide, mounting pressures to find reliable, low-carbon power alternatives have led organizations to reconsider using nuclear technology to power the grid.

Altogether, the industry is seeing growth in these alternative energy technologies and utilization of them by DERs is becoming a priority for managing the grid. This growth brings about unique struggles with integration which IEEE SA addresses through solutions such as the IEEE 1547 Education and Credentialing Program.

Integration of system elements

Currently, IBR investors and especially transmission developers face challenges related to the siting and permitting of new IBR technologies. These are, in part, because as a relatively new technology there is no comprehensive formal process for integrating inverter-based resources into the power grid. This has resulted in a hold up of IBR-related projects and integrations, which could have a negative impact on industry-wide sustainability goals.

2. The water-energy nexus

All energy systems — whether they utilize low-carbon sources such as wind, solar or nuclear; or high-carbon sources such as natural gas, coal or oil — need some amount of water to produce energy. According to one estimate, annual global electric power production in all forms consumes more than three trillion gallons of water, with some systems consuming more than others. For example, thermoelectric or thermal power plants — which use high-carbon energy sources — consume massive volumes of water. Conversely, low-carbon renewable power sources — such as photovoltaic (PV) solar and offshore wind — require little water.

With more than 80 percent of the total energy produced globally still coming from fossil fuel-powered thermal plants, we are seeing a trend of proposed solutions for diminishing their massive water consumption and an altogether shift away from this kind of energy production in favor of low-carbon and low-water alternatives.

3. Energy efficiency

In the past decade, by virtue of the sheer number of initiatives and technologies implemented, we’ve seen great opportunities to improve efficiency — whether in transportation, buildings or energy generation.

Moving into 2023, the energy industry is seeing more businesses pursue LEED and other certifications for their offices, plants and other dedicated facilities to achieve energy efficiency and sustainability goals. In just a three-year period, LEED-certified buildings conserved $1.2 billion in energy savings, $149.5 million in water savings, $715.3 million in maintenance savings and $54.2 million in waste savings, in addition to contributing 50 percent fewer greenhouse gases (GHGs) than conventionally constructed buildings. Beyond just the recognition that sustainably certified buildings receive, companies that invest in these certifications also reap the economic, health and environmental benefits — many state regulators will even fund energy-efficiency projects with the goal of reducing energy demand.

In terms of energy efficiency, data centers have risen to the forefront of implementing energy-efficient technologies in response to a longstanding reputation of being “energy hogs.” Despite data centers using an estimated 1 percent of all global electricity, a recent study found that efficiency improvements across the globe’s data centers have kept energy usage almost flat, even as the amount of computing done in those centers has grown by about 550 percent.

Most of these efficiency innovations fall under IT, power infrastructure, airflow management or HVAC and can easily be replicated in other industries and business verticals. In the next year, we will see more companies following the data center industry’s lead and implementing similar efforts to further their own energy-efficiency standings.

With the year in full swing, we expect to see further advancement of efforts and greater technological evolutions toward increased energy efficiency, reduced water consumption, and a more sustainable future for the energy industry.

Learn more about IEEE SA’s work in energy and sustainability.