Radio Sputnik discussed this with Steven Griffiths, a member of the Global Energy Prize International Award Committee and Senior Vice President for Research and Development at Khalifa University of Science and Technology.
Sputnik: What are the prospects for renewable energy in the world’s oil producing heartland, the Middle East, in your opinion?
Steven Griffiths: I think the current trends right now are showing that renewable energy is having a pretty good uptake. And what’s good about renewable energy is it’s focused on the power sector predominately, thus we see solar and wind having a big impact. So oil-producing countries, they’re very worried about the exportability of their oil product and so this is more on the transportation side of things. But as far as diversifying the power sector, they are very interested in trying to forgo the use of natural gas and oil in particular in power generation. So with the cost of renewables, particularly utility-related renewables, coming down very sharply I see a good opportunity to continue progress. In the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, renewables in the past year or two have really become a major part of the plans for energy systems. In the UAE in particular, by 2050, the plan of the Ministry of Energy is to have more than 40% power production capacity coming from renewables. And if you then include nuclear in that, and clean coal, we’ll have a very high share of clean electricity in the UAE. So I think that across the region, the Middle East, there’ll be continued progress with renewables because it’s becoming economical, the costs are coming down, and it’s competitive with natural or hydrocarbon-based electricity.
Sputnik: What has the impact of the digitalization of the energy industry been for the United Arab Emirates and how is the country responding to these technological changes particularly if we’re talking about smart cities?
Steven Griffiths: Well the digitalization of the UAE has become one of the most important topics. Just last year we have brought in a new Minister of Artificial Intelligence, so there's an entire government organization now looking at AI. We have a Ministry of Advanced Sciences; digitalization is a big part of the portfolio across the sectors being looked after. So we look at the Government’s commitment to digital technology, it’s happening all the way up at the highest level. Practically speaking, in the energy sector, digital’s going to have a profound impact on what we do in our oil and gas operations. The quantification of digital was found to be the greatest in oil and gas as far as looking at how to improve exploration and production, do drilling better, have a better opportunity to save money and be effective and efficient and how we do oil field operations being able to predict the failure of equipment before it happens, making oil field workers more productive with augmented reality in particular, giving them situation awareness, using drones and robotics to do inspections in places where people shouldn’t be going. So the oil and gas sector will be dramatically impacted by artificial intelligence and digital technology. The power sector also because it’s a smart grid. So we want to be able to try and match supply and demand the best we can without having to have energy storage. So if we have electrical grids that are able to help balance intelligently how we’re going to connect intermittent renewable energy, which is growing more and more throughout the UAE. We then can connect that to end-uses in a sort of way which allows us to do it just as needed. So we know what the predicted forecast will be for renewables, we can tell a system to do that. We know what the predicted demand will be from buildings industry and we then can start to match supply and demand very well and be able to do that through intelligent grid infrastructure. So I think on the power side, digitalization will be good for smart grids and reducing the need to build new power infrastructure, which is a very big problem for the entire region in the Gulf. We're rebuilding power capacity so quickly, that it’s becoming a challenge economically. We don’t want to be doing that.
Sputnik: What are the industry trends in the Arab Emirates spearheading and what role do you and your affiliated organizations have in getting all this to follow its lead?
Steven Griffiths: My organizations in the UAE, we have one major research university, Khalifa University of Science and Technology, so I’m overseeing all the R&D for the university. Under the university we have a research institute called the Masdar Institute, which has all the clean energy research happening, all the energy efficiency research happening, all the water environment research happening. We also have all the nuclear R&D at the university happening. We now have four new nuclear reactors which are going up by the early 2020s, nuclear is part of our R&D portfolio. And then we have the Petroleum Institute, which is a research institute dedicated purely to oil and gas R&D. So at the university we’re pretty much the one entity in the entire country which does all the advanced R&D. The agenda is to increase the amount of research and development that we’re doing so that we get more innovation for energy in the country. We don’t want to be trying to import, or not having to import as much, energy technology. We want to be able to understand what’s needed and develop some of those technologies within the country. Particularly it’s the localization of technology that allow us to use energy technologies better and to our advantage. I’ve mentioned previously, we look at the smart grid we have a major power electronics and energy conversion center under our Masdar Institute, which is now looking at how to develop the smart grid better. We have a very large artificial intelligence work happening now in our Petroleum Institute trying to build robotic systems to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of oil and gas operations. There’s a lot of initiatives trying to create smarter energy oil and gas renewables we’re doing that at the institute.