Saudi Arabia’s digital ambitions are key to low-carbon future
At the recent inaugural Saudi Green Initiative Forum and just days before the start of the recently concluded COP26 conference in Glasgow, Saudi Arabia announced its net-zero carbon emissions commitment.
The announcement reinforces the Kingdom’s previous pledge to achieve half its energy production from renewable energy and half from natural gas by 2030.
Saudi leaders are also pursuing a range of other significant sustainability initiatives, from the development of a trading platform for carbon offsets and credits generated in the Middle East and North Africa, to the massive sustainable NEOM development and its 650-ton-per-day green hydrogen project.
These targets and projects, along with many others, will benefit from another goal that Saudi Arabia has set for itself: To become a global leader in artificial intelligence by 2030.
That is because AI, digital transformation and data analytics can be a powerful enabler of the energy transition and drive to net zero. In fact, they should be considered alongside deployment of wind and solar, nuclear power and lower-carbon natural gas turbines as important building blocks of the sustainable future we want to achieve.
They are powerful tools in optimizing operations and performance of these energy technologies, as well as many other avenues that will be important to the Kingdom’s sustainability drive — including green hydrogen and carbon capture, use and sequestration, and hard-to-abate sectors such as heavy industry, petrochemicals and manufacturing.
AI and digitization can help all these sectors increase efficiencies, reduce costs, lower emissions, manage volatility and other risks, and improve quality.
The proposed carbon market offers a good example of the role AI and digital can play.
Industrial companies participating in the carbon market will need to measure, monitor and control their carbon emissions. Digital solutions can help them collect and analyze data at the level of the asset, plant or enterprise, giving visibility to their Scope 1, Scope 2 and even Scope 3 emissions. The software can then recommend operating parameters to lower emissions to help meet targets, and later, to identify opportunities for further emission reductions. If they start down this path now, they will be ready when the market emerges.
Likewise, AI and digital solutions can help improve the performance of complex emerging technologies such as green hydrogen and CCUS, both of which will help the Kingdom lower emissions at energy-intensive sectors, such as aluminum smelting and steel manufacturing, and eliminate emissions altogether from gas-fired power plants.
At every step along the CO2 capture, processing, transportation and sequestration infrastructure and value chain, digital transformation can optimize operations. Similarly, the production of hydrogen and its transportation, storage and distribution infrastructure are all complex and interconnected, thus can benefit from digital solutions to lower costs and improve efficiencies.
A third area that will be a major beneficiary of AI and digitization is the grid. With intermittent renewable power and distributed energy generation growing steadily, alongside the increased electrification of transportation, manufacturing and other sectors, tomorrow’s grid will need to be much smarter, more agile and more robust to ensure stability and security of the system.
Transmission and distribution teams will have greater control, awareness, and insights into their networks, making it possible to achieve higher levels of reliability and availability, even in the face of power supply and demand volatility and uncertainty throughout the energy transition.
Breaking down silos
Digital transformation also can drive operational improvements and efficiencies by eliminating the data, system and workflow silos that leave untapped value in the enterprise. Digital solutions make it possible to gain visibility across an organization and to integrate different operations and systems.
For example, inventory management and asset management are often viewed separately, but if these systems are connected through a plant or enterprise platform, operators can make better decisions regarding inventory in light of real-time asset health and maintenance requirements, thereby reducing operational risks caused by parts requiring long lead times.
By connecting environmental, health and safety workflows with emissions management and general operations, plant managers can use EHS data to reduce emissions or make other beneficial changes, in areas such as design and engineering.
Although Saudi Arabia has recently made its net-zero carbon emissions commitment, the country has been working on decarbonization for many years and has already demonstrated leadership with bold commitments and innovative approaches. The role of technologies such as renewable power, nuclear power, lower-carbon gas turbines, hydrogen and CCUS is clear.
However, it’s crucial that now — as these systems are being designed and developed — we recognize the critical and complementary role that AI, digitization and data analytics can play in helping these systems to operate more efficiently, with less fuel and lower emissions, and with more optimized operations that deliver higher quality and lower risks.
With Saudi Vision 2030 as a springboard for various decarbonization initiatives, and having digital technologies as enablers of these commitments, the Kingdom is in a strong position to build a more sustainable future, with benefits that extend not only to its people and economy but also to the region and the world at large.
• Hisham Al-Bahkali is president GE Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.