COVID-19 looms over the 2021 sustainability outlook, and the pandemic has and will continue to impact all aspects of society in large and still unknown ways. Connected World discussed this topic with Matt Kromer, head of grid integration at Fraunhofer, who shared his thoughts on 2021 sustainability trends, how IoT (Internet of Things) technologies will help businesses and governments pursue sustainability in the next year, and how COVID-19 will impact sustainability goals and initiatives in 2021 and beyond.

From a macro-economic perspective, Kromer points out that COVID-19 spurred a large drop in energy use in 2020. For instance, DNVGL projects an 8% reduction in global energy use, and this is largely due to the pandemic-induced economic downturn. “While the first order impact of this trend is a net reduction in CO2, this is not a healthy trend,” Kromer says. “We want CO2 reductions driven by decreased carbon intensity of a growing economic pie, not by shrinking the size of the pie. The economy is likely to rebound, but a long-term challenge will be decreased money available to fund longer-term projects that can facilitate an energy transition.”

2020 also saw a deceleration in renewable energy projects. However, Kromer sees this as a temporary hiccup rather than a long-term trend. “There were already signs of these industries picking up in late 2020,” he explains. “This would suggest that 2021-2022 are likely to see robust growth in solar and wind that largely replaces the 2020 COVID-induced shortfall. It is likely that these projects continue the trend towards more and more projects that couple renewable generation with storage or standalone storage projects as distributed generation comes to form a higher share of generation.”

A shift toward remote work was another important trend in 2020 that impacted sustainability and energy use—and this will continue to have ramifications in 2021. “Working remotely definitely has a large impact on how we use energy, but it’s less obvious whether this is a net-win for sustainability,” Kromer says. “For example, looking within the transportation sector, people are commuting less, but those that are commuting are far more likely to use a personal automobile than to use public transportation. Moreover, we are all relying far more on shipping and home delivery than we have in the past. In the building sector, household (residential) energy use—in particular due to space heating and cooling—has increased significantly, but this has been more than offset by energy use in the commercial and industrial sectors.”

As to how IoT technologies will help businesses and governments pursue sustainability in 2021, Kromer says there is a lot of opportunity in finding new ways to use IoT data to support sustainability. “I think a lot of (IoT) data is being used to provide end users with information—e.g., visualization tools that offer insight into one’s operations or how energy is used—but they rely on the end user to figure out what to do with this data,” he explains. “The area that is still very emergent are the toolsets that can help users close this loop with action—e.g., either devices that can either directly modify operations and/or provide end users with specific recommendations.”

The economic impacts of COVID-19 have been enormous. But has this set companies back in achieving their sustainability goals? Yes and no, depending on whether you take a long or a short-term view. “While I don’t think long-term sustainability goals have been meaningfully changed by COVID-19, I think that the ability of organizations to successfully execute these initiatives has almost certainly been affected on the margin,” Kromer says. “In short, when the economy is bad, sustainability is often one of the easiest areas to trim.”

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