Angela Daly, former Reader at Strathclyde University Law School and incoming Professor at Dundee University Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science (18 October 2021), is a member of the Law Society of Scotland’s Technology Law and Practice Committee and the COP26 Climate Change Working Group. She has been leading an interdisciplinary research project funded by the EPSRC STEM Equals initiative entitled ‘Enabling Digital Renewable Energy - Ensuring Safety and Sustainability’ on which the other authorsSimal Efsane Erdogan, Gareth Gill and Lucille Tetley-Brownare working as research assistants.

The past twenty years have ushered in an enormous shift in the ways in which digital information plays a part in our lives. Alongside this, a similar shift in attitudes toward sustainability and climate awareness has played a huge part in the rollout of renewable energy technology. This roll-out may be even more necessary given the current shocks we are seeing to energy prices and supply, with gas in particular in low supplies in the UK and energy prices increasing. There are a number of reasons behind this price rise, but among them is low output from UK wind energy after a very calm summer, which shows the reliability of renewables may vary, but we can expect better output over the winter when the wind is normally higher.

Renewable energy can be generated in a number of ways, but principally through water, wind and sunlight. We most commonly see hydroelectric and wind power in Scotland (perhaps for obvious reasons). We also see different sizes and new locations for power generation via renewables, from vast offshore wave, tidal and wind generation plants to much smaller scale community energy projects and even people with solar panels on the roof of their houses.

These different locations for power generation show that aside from the main input into such power generation no longer being fossil fuels, there is another change afoot, that of decentralisation. Modern electrical power networks are becoming to a great extent decentralised – gone are the days of sole reliance on centrally-planned fossil fuel power plants. Widespread uptake of wind power, solar power, electric storage systems, and electric vehicles has hugely impacted how we capture energy, use energy, and where our energy comes from (both geographically and source-wise). All of these things can, to an extent, be put anywhere they’re needed, meaning old faithful central planning methods simply don’t make sense anymore for managing the new, more widely-distributed parts of the power network. There are many advantages to this more distributed model but one disadvantage is the uncertainty introduced into supplying energy including through reliance on changeable weather conditions - which we can see with the decline in wind power generation.

There is a new hope however: data. Without digitisation, this push towards renewables is not sustainable as regards the way most power networks operate, meaning data is only going to become more integral to the basic functioning of these systems. This is both good and bad news.

Good News: Benefits of Digitalised Energy Systems

The good news is that digitalisation is becoming widespread in the energy sector in different countries, including here in Scotland, enabling a more decentralised energy system and blurring the traditional energy sector boundaries, with more integration with buildings, mobility solutions and industry. The ‘smart grid’ concept has gained traction in recent years, against a backdrop of automation, integration of machine learning tools and data analysis, large-scale data collection and smart meter rollouts.

Digitalisation is accelerating the pace of the energy transition by (i) enabling customer interaction with the energy systems, (ii) optimising energy operations, and (iii) enabling new models for traditional energy actors as well as opening up space for new entrants from other sectors.

Digital technologies are also facilitating a cost-effective, clean energy transition, mainly by increasing energy efficiency and flexibility, as well as enabling the integration of renewable electricity into smart grids and developing low-carbon solutions. Other benefits include the use of data for monitoring the functioning of offshore renewables sites, including in Scotland, which may be too dangerous for humans to visit in the winter months.

Bad News: Environmental Costs, Security Threats and Trustworthiness

However, there are certain risks and challenges that digitalisation of energy brings. There are  questions about the sustainability of digitalisation itself – creating digital data and the infrastructure it relies on has energy costs, which must be internalised to determine whether a particular digital renewable energy deployment is indeed sustainable and reducing carbonisation. We can see the example of bitcoin, and the blockchain on which it runs. Blockchain can facilitate peer-to-peer trading in renewable energy networks including community energy and thereby can secure efficiencies and ensure producers are paid directly. However, blockchain also requires an enormous amount of energy to perform its functions, which raise questions about its overall sustainability even to achieve clean energy goals.

Further issues relate to cybersecurity, data protection and privacy – the generation of digital data gives rise to cybersecurity risks, and this can be catastrophic for a utility as important as energy. A real-life example is the Stuxnet worm which attacked and disabled suspected nuclear energy plants in Iran. However, the cyber-infrastructure of energy closer to home in the UK is also at risk from attack. There is a legal framework in the form of the EU’s NIS Directive and its implementation in Member States, including the UK through the still-applicable Network and Information Systems Regulations 2018, to address cybersecurity issues. However, ensuring compliance remains a challenge. Privacy and data protection are closely related issues, given the data collected in digitised energy initiatives will likely involve data about identifiable people, thereby triggering the application of data protection legislation such as the Data Protection Act 2018. The use of smart meters has already given rise to privacy concerns.

When looking at the data itself, we also need to think about how ‘trustworthy’ this data is – does is present an accurate picture of energy generation and also accurately represent any energy ‘costs’ such as pollution? We can see how a lack of accurate data can be very damaging to achieving sustainability goals through the Volkswagen emissions scandal, or ‘Dieselgate’, whereby VW installed ‘defeat device’ software in its cars which ensured that low nitrogen oxide emissions (and data about them) were released when the cars were being tested by regulators, but during ‘normal’ driving by consumers higher emissions were in fact being released. The scandal has attracted regulatory action and litigation in many jurisdictions, including the UK and EU. This scenario shows us that actually understanding and being able to verify data generated and processed, so that fraud or mistakes are avoided, is a key challenge for digitalising systems, including in energy.

Further issues arise in ensuring data justice and data access. What data is being generated? Should it be generated? Who can access data generated in energy? What can be done to that data?

Policy and Legal Framework in Scotland

The increasing role of digitalisation in energy sector has posed many questions that the law should address or at least try to address. Given the fast-evolving nature of the new technologies, law and policy struggle to keep up with the speed of the digitalisation. At the international level, digitised energy has not so far been subject to any international agreement.  At the regional level, the EU’s twin transition policies offer a guidance and promise more regulation in many areas of the energy industry where digitalisation might take place. But the UK is not a part of the EU anymore, and neither the UK nor Scotland has to implement EU law following the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. However, both parties executed the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement to establish a general framework for future of their relationship, including affirming cooperation on climate and renewable energy, in particular offshore wind in the North Sea.”?

In one sense, Brexit created room for manoeuvre to the UK to draw our own sustainable future roadmap. Due to this regulatory freedom, we have been witnessing an increasing number of policy initiatives in energy as part of the UK’s green revolution plans and regulation of energy related data is an area where more guidance is expected to emerge.  The benefits of digitalisation of energy, including renewables, have been promoted lately in UK – and other countries’ – digital policies, but the costs and complexities are less well emphasised. The assumption is that digitalisation is good and will result in good outcomes from efficiency and environmental perspectives. We consider that this demonstrates the immaturity of institutional understandings of digital data and digitalisation, which instead need to take a broad and sober approach to the benefits and challenges presented by data. It is true that ‘costs’ of digitalisation are becoming more acknowledged but this is still at an early stage. This immaturity may relate too to the complex and, at times, overlapping regulatory frameworks which govern this area, including data protection, cybersecurity and energy regulation. Clarity, pragmatism and coherent legal and policy frameworks are needed to deliver efficient, safe and fair digital (renewable) energy.

The Enabling Digital Renewable Energy - Ensuring Safety and Sustainability project team will be running an event on the topic of data and sustainability at Woodlands Community Garden in Glasgow as part of the COP26 Fringe. Find out more.


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