Mind the (energy) gap

 By Corrado Paolucci

Artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchain, the cloud, mobility, big data… these are the key words that are changing the face of the world…

They are changing our lives, our habits, how we look after ourselves, how we get around and even our most intimate relationships. They are changing business models, accelerating and evolving them – and at times smashing them into pieces. These technologies come with an implicit promise of a future in which everyone can access abundant resources , so that we no longer have to be afraid of scarcity.
However, something else has to come first. And it is that something which means I can start this interview with Dario Pagani, EVP Information & Communication Technology Department Eni and Marco Rotondi Managing Director Eni Congo, at the Singularity University Summit Italy 2018 by talking about the urgent need for a new energy model, to meet the amazing promise of a world of opportunities made available to all by exponential technologies.
“In a world where exponential technologies theoretically spell out a future of abundance for all, we want people to reflect on a few underlying facts,” Dario Pagani says.
“It is absolutely clear to us that technologies will change the world and already are doing so in health, in sustainability and in our work. And we also know what they are. Everyone is talking about them and we can mention just a few here: cloud mobility, big data and above all artificial intelligence and blockchain.
“However, we have to talk about access to these technologies and create the conditions to ensure that it really belongs to and works for everyone. We cannot talk about development or about changing the world unless I have the basic conditions in place; access to energy opens the doors to all of this for me.”
How about a practical example? “About 100 years ago, in the countryside around Pavia there were only rice fields, while now we have the the HPC4 supercomputer. That was possible because we had the right conditions: enough energy to run it,” Pagani continues. Like we said: there is something that has to come first.

The rice fields in the Lomellina valley, in Ferrera Erbognone, Pavia

Energy plays such an important role when it comes to artificial intelligence and blockchain. We have seen that as things stand the scarce resource is not so much technological architecture but the energy required to put it into action. To cut a long story very short, if we talk about information and communcation technology then we are really talking about transforming energy into calculation power, into the dissipation of heat,” Pagani says.

Digital divide

So the digital divide also applies to energy access?

There are two key factors,” explains Pagani. “First and foremost there is a lack of infrastructure. We’re talking about connectivity, we’re talking about access to technology. Without the enabling infrastructure I can’t transfer data, I can’t access information, I can’t build exponential development starting from a low-cost technology, assuming of course that I can access it. “The other is cultural. We are facing a huge transformation, which we are seeing in the new, digital-native generations that don’t need instruction books but rather someone who teaches them a method, a usage-based education.” For us energy has now become a commodity. Even when we go to a shopping centre the first thing we do is try to get on the wifi and find somewhere to charge our smartphones.

But for a huge, overwhelming proportion of the world, it really isn’t like that.

Light in Africa

Ten years ago in Congo, there were only two streets with lighting in Pointe Noire:  a section of the road to the airport, where kids would go to play football in the evening because there was no light at home to study by, and the main street. Everywhere else was in darkness, unless they could afford diesel for generators,” Marco Rotondi explains. “In 2010, thanks to the gas discovered offshore, we launched a power plant that today generates 60% of the country’s energy. It was the first time that anyone had decided to exploit gas in Congo, without exporting it, to electrify the country. “Thanks to that gas being converted into electricity, Pointe Noire has been transformed. Energy has brought opportunities to study, open new businesses, access to better healthcare. In a word, it has brought development. And the development continues today with the installation of the third turbine, which will bring installed capacity from 300 to 450 MW,” Rotondi says.

A whole continent where about the 15% of the world population lives only 3% of the energy produced worldwide is consumed.

“Today, the African continent is home to 15% of the world’s population but consumes only 3% of its energy. Over the next twenty years, its population is set to grow by a billion people. Translated into real terms, that means that for about a billion people, the issue is not the exponential development of technology but access to energy ­– the fundamental prerequisite for that technology. “For us, access to energy is the essential requirement to be able to talk about technology, because only those who have energy have got a future,” Rotondi says. 

Closing the gap, together

Eni’s approach is countertrend:

“In contrast to other companies, in Africa we have developed gas production for the domestic market. The reason we made this decision was to run a different kind of race, not that of a sprinter, but to look a little further ahead. We’re losing out in the early days, but we are taking a risk with them. That makes our presence more sustainable and helps to breed trust. Today we are providing energy for 18 million people through our power stations and 700,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa are sustaining themselves independently through farming projects. These figures are still quite small, but they contribute towards major development projects.”

The biggest challenge we all face is to provide access to energy for people who currently do not have it, to help close the gap between the north and south that still divides the world.

READ MORE: MIT’s 10 breakthrough technologies by Peter Ward

about the author
Corrado Paolucci
Content Strategy & Newsroom Manager, Eni