How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: Why Digital Twins are an important part of the solution

Date Published

23rd Mar 2021

Karen Duffin
Corporate Communications Manager, IES

If you’ve read Bill Gates’ latest book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, you’ll know why the number 51 billion is significant. This is how many tons of greenhouse gases (GHG) the world releases into the atmosphere in a typical year. Zero is where we need to get to.

The problem in getting to zero, as Gates points out, is that practically every activity in modern life currently involves releasing greenhouse gases. This encompasses everything from the devices we plug in, the goods and materials we manufacture, the food we eat and the transportation systems we use to get around. As well as the processes, materials and systems needed to construct, operate, heat and cool our buildings. 

We need rapid, widespread change and innovation across each and every one of these areas if we are to have any chance of getting that 51 billion tons of GHG down to zero. Gates puts forward some very compelling arguments as to how we might achieve this, pointing to a range of scientific and technological advancements we already have or need to develop, together with relevant policy interventions.

At IES, our expertise lies in the decarbonisation of the built environment. So, while we can’t speak directly to all of the solutions proposed in Gates’ book, we know a thing or two about how we can get our buildings and cities down to zero emissions. We also know the key role that digital twin technology can play in making this possible.

While Gates’ book does not mention digital twins specifically, he does, more than once, reference the value of using computer models to simulate and analyse the impact of various net-zero strategies. At one point he mentions a project he is funding “that involves building a computer model of all the power grids covering the United States [to study] what it would take for all western [US] states to reach California’s goal of 60 percent renewables by 2030, and for all eastern states to reach New York’s goal of 70 percent clean energy by that same year.”

Gates stresses that computerised energy models like these will become increasingly important as we navigate the transition to clean energy sources, helping to answer questions like: “Which mix of clean energy sources will be the most efficient in a given place? Where should transmission lines go? Which regulations stand in the way, and what incentives do we need to create?” before concluding that he “hope[s] to see a lot more projects like this one.”

The great news is that a lot of projects like this already do exist. We’ve worked with a whole host of communities; ranging from cities, hospitals, schools, universities, governments & local authorities, and even remote island communities, helping them to model their own complex network of buildings and the energy systems that serve them.  With the added integration of live data, we are helping these communities create live digital twins from which they can virtually assess different net-zero strategies and interventions, allowing them to weigh up energy and carbon savings together with socioeconomic factors, to make intelligent choices on the solutions that will work best for their community. They can then continue to use that same digital twin to continually monitor, manage and ensure that the anticipated energy and carbon savings are being achieved over time.

“What does climate-proofing a city look like? For one thing, city planners need the latest data on climate risks and projections from computer models that predict the impact of climate change.”
Bill Gates

This ability to virtually assess different options prior to implementation should not be underestimated. Not only does it help to ensure that the correct decisions are made early on, it’s also a vital tool in securing the necessary buy in at the various government, investor and citizen levels. Gates points out that “we have a large and understandable incentive to stick with what we know, even if what we know is killing us.” Without appropriate tools, such as a digital twin, that can actually give some tangibility to the benefits of zero-carbon interventions, using accurate predictions and visualisations, it will be very difficult to change the status quo in the limited timeframe we have to turn the tide on climate change.

If you haven’t seen the article our CEO, Don McLean, wrote a couple of years ago on the subject of cognitive bias, it’s worth taking a look at this now. These ingrained cognitive biases are responsible for drawing our attention to immediate threats, but also cause us to underestimate the long-term, more complex challenges that threaten our existence, such as climate change. This is a large part of the reason why we tend to stick with what we know. Why take a risk on trying something new, or invest time, effort and money on something which is not an immediate danger? This is what makes a digital twin so invaluable – it can provide a comparative analysis of what will happen if you take relevant action now (and, perhaps even more crucially, what will happen if you don’t) to incentivise the shift away from current familiarities.

This brings us to another recurring theme throughout Gates’ book – the ‘Green Premiums.’ This is the additional cost incurred by opting for a green/carbon-free solution versus their traditional fossil fuelled, carbon intensive counterparts. It is really quite astonishing when you see just how high some of those green premiums can climb - just one of the examples Gates offers being a zero-carbon electrofuel alternative to natural gas for heating with a green premium of 425%.

Gates argues that in order to succeed on our mission to net-zero, it will be essential to drive down the green premiums to make investments more attractive and low-risk. 

The power of Digital Twins is that they can alleviate much of the risk surrounding green investments, again by demonstrating the potential impact of various carbon reduction and net-zero strategies – as well as the longer-term financial paybacks - before they are even implemented. By providing a highly accurate virtual simulation environment, digital twin solutions can not only significantly reduce capital costs, by preventing misguided investments from the outset, they can also demonstrate the longer-term operational cost savings to be expected over time. This can help make green investments much more attractive to governments, investors and consumers. Consequently, as more and more are persuaded to buy in to low and zero carbon alternatives, we can expect to see green premiums fall dramatically to help these solutions become increasingly competitive against their GHG emitting counterparts.

Gates also emphasises the importance of changing the way our cities grow – specifically, how we will manage the carbon impact of rapidly expanding urban populations, while also mitigating “the problems most cities are already struggling with – poverty, homelessness, health care, education.” At one point he asks: “What does climate-proofing a city look like?” concluding that “city planners need the latest data on climate risks and projections from computer models that predict the impact of climate change.” Again, this is very closely aligned with what we do at IES. With our digital twins, we can arm city planners with information of the accuracy and quality they need, combining energy/carbon impacts with socioeconomics, to make better decisions and plan for the future.

In a recent article, Lead Researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Real Estate Innovation Lab, James Scott, pointed to the digital twin IES produced for the NTU EcoCampus in Singapore as “one of the best examples” currently available of “digital twins delivering measurable environmental and cost improvements on a large scale.” The project succeeded in uncovering 31% energy savings, S$4.7 million in cost savings and 9.6 kilotons of carbon savings as part of the university’s ambition to become the greenest campus in the world. 

We’d like to see more communities get involved in similar digital twin projects so that they can unlock the full potential of existing and emerging net-zero solutions and strategies across the entire built environment. If this happens, we are certain we can collectively help to incentivise the shift away from GHG intensive energy consumption to help get that 51 billion down to zero.

To learn more about our digital twin technology and how it can help you reach your net-zero carbon targets, sign up for our FREE webinar on The Power of Digital Twins to Decarbonize the Built Environment taking place Wednesday 31st March 2021, 10:30am - 11:30am GMT.

Alternatively, feel free to contact our team or visit www.iesve.com/digital-twins to find out more today.

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