Key Insights from IASS Program in Digitalization and Energy Transition

[This article was written by Salem Afeworki (bio below), in collaboration with Susanne Kurowski — Research associate, Professorship for Innovation and Technology Management at the Technical University of Munich, Germany. She is passionate about innovation and technologies that assist us in accomplishing the SDGs. Her research analyses entrepreneurial ecosystems for sustainable innovation in the cleantech sector. And Iqbal Akbar — Senior corporate officer in one of the largest Petrochemical companies in Southeast Asia. He works for industry, NGO, and academia, connecting the dots between technology and business in the era of economics without borders. His scientific publications energy technologies and innovation in economics.]

This summer, over 40 researchers, engineers and mid-career professionals from Europe, United States, Asia and Africa attended a week-long ENavi Summer Program on “Digitalization in the Energy Transition” at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam, Germany.

ENavi is one of the four initiatives under “Kopernikus Project for the Energiewende” in Germany that brings together science, business and civil society to develop technological and economic solutions for the transformation of the energy system. The summer program I attended focused on the need to integrate digital technologies for a successful transition to a low carbon economy.

Throughout the week, I participated in highly informative lectures and interactive sessions that covered a variety of topics ranging from big data to sustainable mobility solutions and smart energy markets design.

Key Takeaways

On E-Mobility

  • It’s important to rethink mobility as a part of the energy transition. E-mobility interacts with the energy system as it impacts the load curve. Keep in mind that electric vehicles are good for greenhouse gas reduction if only the energy mix has a high percentage of renewables. Yet, the impact of e-mobility on the operation of the energy system is poorly understood, especially with regard to charging behavior and driving patterns.
  • Digitalization and electrification of the mobility sector are tightly linked and impose both challenges (e.g., establishing an e-mobility infrastructure) and opportunities (e.g., new business models for mobility services).

On Big Data and Cybersecurity

  • Managing and maintaining big data is going to be very important in the energy sector. Big data and respective analytics are necessary for implementing smart grids.
  • Cyber security is becoming a critical issue and requires proactive planning. This became evident as a result of the cyber attack on the Ukraine power grid in 2015.
  • Challenging questions in cyberspace include: (1) who owns the data, (2) how to enforce data protection and privacy; and (3) how to deal with cyber-security and vulnerability.

On Blockchain

  • Significant challenges related to volatile renewables are geographical, time balancing of demand and generation. Our energy system needs flexibility and blockchain can help us accomplish that.
  • Blockchain has potential for systems with a high share of renewables, including congestion management in electricity distribution systems, certification of guarantee of origin, settlementing fees and allocations, termination and change of supplier.
  • Downsides of blockchain include the externalities of the mining process.
  • Blockchain challenges the business model and value chain status quo in the energy space and thus has the potential to drive change.

On Energy Market Design

  • In the future, markets will be highly automated and nearly real-time, increasing the importance of the role of digital technologies. We also may have more specialized markets. However, regulation for smart market designs lags behind so that digitalization-related expertise is needed on the implementation as well as on the regulator sides.
  • Beyond physical infrastructure, we also need to pay attention to economic aspects (the energy market design) that are appropriate for an energy system of the future.

On Social Norms and Behavioral Changes

  • We have good economic, technical and policy measures / models.
  • The hardest work is emerging social norms / irrational trends that affect the way we prioritize and plan the cities of the future.
  • We need opportunity, competence and motivation to affect behavioral change. For example, to get residents to use a new cargo bike sharing station, users should know how to handle the cargo bike and have curiosity for new experiences.

On Transdisciplinary Research and Industry Collaboration

  • Transdisciplinary Research (TR) is being used as a key method for sustainability, which is a collaboration between academia and practitioners. Benefits of TR include secondary feedback loops, discovery of the unseens, decrease in the rebound effect and avoidance of unintended consequences.
  • TR facilitators are skilled professions that foster collaboration between non-academia and science that have different reference systems – they promote leadership, mutual learning (on equal footing) and knowledge integration.
  • Industry collaboration is important as it can create economic opportunities and promote technological innovation. We should constantly seek to find synergies and win-win opportunities.


We all have a vital role to play in the energy transition and decarbonization of the energy sector. This will require effort on a local and global scale. Further action is required to mitigate the negative effects of climate change.

The future energy system will be more complex, distributed and interdependent. Digitalization of the energy system is a promising approach to accelerating the energy transition by leveraging smart technologies, market instruments and comprehensive policy frameworks. It is time for industry to seize the technologies available to us and for government to design policy incentives that accelerate the transition to a cleaner and resilient energy system. Contact us to learn more or get involved.

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