Four ways digital can power a just energy transition

May 17, 2023
Solar panel and building
Photo: UNDP Zimbabwe


Today’s climate, energy, and development challenges are interconnected and require systemic innovative solutions. The world must urgently decarbonize energy systems and shift to sustainable consumption. As countries are putting forward long-term low-emission development strategies and Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which are the shorter-term climate pledges to limit and prepare for global warming, these strategies offer a unique opportunity to make the fight against climate change also a journey of multi-sectoral digital transformation.

It’s estimated that digital technology can significantly boost the energy transition by decreasing greenhouse emissions by 15 percent. But the power of digital technologies goes beyond reducing emissions. Combining them with sustainable energy is a powerful lever to support climate action and community resilience. Taking a whole-of-society digital transformation approach to green energy systems, or by using renewable energy powered, inclusive digital solutions, we see opportunities to also inherently contribute to climate change mitigation and resilience of other sectors. From smart power grids and energy monitoring systems to climate-resilient farming and better public transport, here are four ways digital technologies are helping to transform energy systems across the world.

1. Smart energy management 

It’s estimated that improved energy efficiency can provide 40 percent of the reductions needed to keep the 1.5C goal within reach. Digital technologies provide powerful tools to enable energy efficiency, and can in particular be a game-changer to make existing power grids more efficient. 

In Mauritius with UNDP’s support, the government is developing a smart grid. This includes setting up a digitally-enabled advanced distribution management system that can automatically address power outages when they happen, and optimize the performance of the grid. This enables utility companies to better meet customers needs. It makes the power supply more reliable while improving the quality of the electricity distributed, supporting the use of renewable energy, enhancing data security and strengthening the resilience of the grid to disasters.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, digital technologies are helping to make building power consumption more efficient. Buildings are a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. It’s estimated that buildings and the construction sector account for up to 40 percent of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. A UNDP project has helped the government put in place a energy management information system to collect, monitor, and analyze information related to energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in 75 percent of the country’s buildings. This database has been key to help decision-makers prioritize investments to support energy savings. Such real time information can also be used for integrated planning, and potentially at times of disaster, or for future risk mitigation. 

2. Decentralized energy systems 

Energy is central to socio-economic development. It supports livelihoods, agriculture, and businesses. It also powers essential services such as schools and hospitals. Yet 733 million people, close to one in 10, don't have electricity. Many of them live in remote areas where extending the national power grid is seen as too complex or costly. 

Decentralized energy systems are a great solution to bring electricity to these communities. However, their energy needs are often relatively low, and they require an adaptive system that is reliable and keeps energy affordable.

Digital solutions can enable such adaptive, flexible energy solutions for communities living off the national grid. Installing smart metres helps to remotely check the reliability of the energy supply in the case of extreme weather. It also makes it possible to monitor energy consumption in real time and to set up a pay-as-you-go system, where the user is only going to pay for the electricity that has been used. UNDP’s Africa Minigrids Program is working with 21 sub Saharan countries to disrupt energy markets, including by introducing digital solutions, to scale-up solar minigrids.  

3. Climate-resilient farming 

Combining digital technologies with renewable energy is also providing promising pathways to enable climate-resilient agriculture, which can in turn bring a stable demand to renewable energy businesses. Climate change is already hurting farmers wordwide – from extreme and unpredictable droughts to reduced crop yield or nutritional quality and decreasing livestock productivity. 

Innovative digital solutions can help farmers address these complex challenges. In Serbia, UNDP has supported small and medium-sized family farms set up an solar-powered, automated monitoring and irrigation system – a first in the country. A computer collects microclimate and soil fertility information through sensors in the soil and a digital weather station. This system then automatically irrigates the field, adds fertilizer and transfers the information through a mobile application to the farmers. Famers report that their yields have increased by as much as 30 percent.

4. The example of public transport 

An easy-to-use and reliable public transport system is key to reducing transport-related emissions, as well as traffic and air pollution. But in many cities the poor quality of public transport leaves the network under-utilized. Digital technologies and data management provide valuable tools to improve the network as a whole. Electronic ticketing, integrated multi-mode transport electronic system, smart traffic information system, and integration and monitoring of passenger safety technology solutions are all solutions that can make public transport more attractive.

When applied to low-carbon buses, these digital solutions help make sustainable transport solutions the best available option for public transport users. This is the approach that the city of Podgorica in Montenegro is, with UNDP’s support, taking as the city transitions to an integrated, digitally-enabled, sustainable public transport system. 

Digital innovations for just transition and climate resilience require healthy public and private partnerships that empower local digital ecosystems. Reach out to the authors to discuss partnership opportunities.