Wednesday, June 19, 2024

REPower EU: A critical moment to make next generation infrastructure digital by design

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Promoting and adopting cutting-edge technologies in infrastructure is crucial to overcome the EU’s current energy crisis and achieve the bloc’s green and digital goals.

Bernardo Matos is Director of EU Government Relations at Bentley Systems.

Infrastructure is like the ground we stand on: we only notice it when it gives in beneath our feet.

In the EU, infrastructure has become a top political priority in recent months. From the current energy crisis and the ramifications of Russia’s aggression on Ukraine, to record temperatures making railways inoperable, and flash floods prompting calls for a coordinated EU water policy, the importance of future-proofing our infrastructure has crystalized before our eyes.

As President Von der Leyen prepares to deliver her third State of the Union address, there is a realization that the vision laid out in the Green Deal of making Europe the first climate-neutral continent—and which critically depends on the ability to execute on infrastructure—has proved challenging.

In particular, the important link between the “green” and “digital” prongs of the twin transitions is often underestimated and misunderstood.

EU member states face different challenges when it comes to going digital in infrastructure. A quick review of the 27 National Recovery and Resilience Plans reveals that the word “digitization” is used to describe many different types of projects, from the conversion of public administration filing systems into electronic formats, to ambitious plans to modernize transport and water management infrastructure.

In no other field is this dichotomy between “green” and “digital” more relevant than in relation to the REPower EU Plan, published by the European Commission in May. Announced as a comprehensive set of measures to eliminate the EU’s dependency on Russian fossil fuel and accelerate the EU’s transition toward renewable energy, it is a once-in-a-generation plan in its ambition and scope.

At the same time, however, the Commission exempted member states from the 20% minimum spend requirement on digital for the new, energy-focused chapter, which they will now add to their respective national plans.

While the current crisis explains why the Commission sought to lower implementation requirements on member states, and EU officials have been at pains to publicly encourage national efforts on digital, there is a real risk that the need to move fast will result in a missed opportunity to modernize European energy infrastructure.

Take infrastructure digital twins for a sustainable grid, for instance—a realistic, dynamic digital representation of a physical asset, process, or system that connects the physical infrastructure asset and virtual world while synchronizing work to make sense of the right data at the right time across the entire lifecycle of the asset. By enabling seamless collaboration between different engineering disciplines and exponentially better visibility on outcomes through the power of AI and machine learning, digital twins lead to better decisions—whether these relate to an electrical grid, a hydroelectric dam, or a gas pipeline in need of retrofitting.

Going one step further, if such infrastructure digital twins are based on openness, interoperability, and robust cybersecurity principles, policy makers can manage energy infrastructure from a holistic perspective to achieve key EU objectives, such as energy security, resilience, and diversification. Digital technologies will enable the implementation of an “energy efficiency first” principle across all sectors of the economy.

This “ecosystem” approach to energy is key to the EU’s future. It is the difference between looking at static assets in isolation, removed from their context and surroundings, and looking at energy needs and outcomes collectively. It is through digital that the EU will move beyond discussing the energy needs of individual member states and execute on policies where the entire EU acts swiftly as one.

It is, therefore, vital that both the execution of REPower EU by member states and other EU initiatives, such as the Action Plan on the Digitalization of the Energy Sector, promote the adoption of cutting-edge technologies such as digital twins. Infrastructure technology has advanced since the days of CAD [CAD: Computer Aided Design] and BIM [BIM: Building Information Modelling] — and it is important that EU policy advances along with it.

The EU is a worldwide leader when it comes to ambition and long-term vision on infrastructure. And it is in infrastructure—the often-invisible things that make our society and economy run—that the biggest and most immediate welfare benefits from digital will be felt.

Now is the time to accelerate toward next-generation EU infrastructure. Going digital will help propel the EU out of this crisis in its truest form: open, resilient and, above all, united.


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