Roles of big tech companies in renewable energy transition
IEA's latest report suggests ending all fossil fuel exploration starting next year, but this is going to be very difficult and the close business ties between big tech companies and fossil fuel industry do not help, says Dr Parakram Pyakurel.
"International Energy Agency (IEA) has recently released a report on how to transition to an emission free energy system by 2050 while ensuring sustainability. IEA suggests ending all fossil fuel exploration starting next year, but this is going to be very difficult and the close business ties between big tech companies and fossil fuel industry do not help.
Facebook has been criticised for profiting from fossil fuel advertising and it has been estimated that America’s biggest oil and gas lobby group the American Petroleum Institute had spent up to $24,00 a day on Facebook ads .
"Big tech companies also enable the fossil fuel industry by selling them cloud computing services and artificial intelligence tools. Microsoft has partnered with a big fossil fuel company Halliburton which could significantly improve Halliburton’s efficiency of producing fossil fuels.
"Another example is a partnership (https://oilprice.com/Energy/Energy-General/Big-Tech-Still-Loves-The-Oil-Business.html) between IBM and the fossil fuel energy company Schlumberger in cloud computing. Artificial intelligence and cloud technologies support from tech giants can greatly enhance fossil fuel extraction capabilities of oil and gas industries, consequently increasing fossil fuel supply.
"Google has said it will discontinue building custom artificial intelligence tools for speeding up oil and gas extraction, separating itself from cloud computing rivals Microsoft and Amazon. However, Google’s deal with a major Saudi Arabian fossil fuel company Aramco to provide cloud-computing services may raise questions on Google’s intentions.
"Amazon also has contracts in the mid and downstream phases of oil production, focusing on pipelines, shipping, and storage for oil and gas companies. As for its own greenhouse gas emissions, Amazon has expressed commitments to reduce its carbon footprint but its greenhouse gas emissions increased by 15% in 2019.
"On the one hand the big tech giants express commitment to reduce greenhouse gases emissions and on the other hand, they partner with oil and gas industries so that fossil fuels can be produced more efficiently and potentially more inexpensively.
"Big tech companies are major stakeholders in renewable energy transitions and their actions need to be monitored closely. They can either support or impede the speed of renewable energy transition. According to the IEA, big tech companies can support by driving the digital transformation of the electricity sector so that efficiencies can be improved. They can also empower consumers to make better informed low-carbon decisions.
"On the other hand, big tech companies can also greatly impede the speed of renewable energy transition by enhancing the fossil fuel industries through cloud technologies and artificial intelligence. As stated by Ma and colleagues, cloud computing technology can effectively reduce the complexity of information collection and control time in the petroleum production processes.
"In fossil fuel industry, timely data transmission is critical to operators. Cloud technologies allow for the transfer of data at very high speed and scale, whether they come from field measurement instruments, land contracts or regulatory documentations. Theycan also help with the complex accounting needs of most fossil fuel enterprises at a reasonable cost and with a high level of reliability - accounting can get very complicated and time consuming in the fossil fuel sector.
"Custom made artificial intelligence is another powerful tool that big tech companies can provide the oil and gas industries to enhance fossil fuel extractions. Koroteev and Tekic have identified several applications of artificial intelligence in fossil fuel industries. They include mapping of reservoir rock properties over an oil region, extracting the geological information from well logs, detecting the drilled rock type and potential failure using real-time drilling telemetry, accelerating the conventional reservoir simulations etc.
"In conclusion, it’s vital to closely monitor and evaluate the actions of big tech companies as they play crucial roles, whether positive or negative, in renewable energy transition."
Dr Parakram Pyakurel is a researcher within the areas of renewable energy, sustainability and energy planning and policy.