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Widespread AI adoption in energy could add trillions to global economy, report finds

Image: Shutterstock.

Image: Shutterstock.

Applying artificial intelligence technologies across just four sectors, including both energy and transport, could boost global GDP by more than US$5 trillion (£3.82 trillion) while slashing emissions, a new report has found.

PwC’s ‘How AI can enable a Sustainable Future’ report, commissioned by tech giant Microsoft, examines the potential application of AI technologies in agriculture, transport, energy and water.

It concludes that harnessing AI would create financial benefits worth US$5.2 trillion (£3.9 trillion) by 2030 – an effective increase of 4.4% relative to business as usual – while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 4%.

The productivity improvements realised by using AI meanwhile would also hold the potential to create 38.2 million net new jobs across the global economy within the same time period.

“Put simply, AI can enable our future systems to be more productive for the economy and for nature,” Celine Herweijer, global innovation and sustainability leader for PwC UK, said, adding that the technology could support much wider decoupling of economic growth from rising emissions.

AI applications would be most productive in energy and transport, where PwC has particularly heralded its use in clean distributed energy grids and enhanced environmental monitoring.

The tech could optimise distributed generation, help automate manual and routine tasks and reduce energy emissions per unit of GDP by as much as 8% by 2030.

The authors of the report, which include Microsoft representatives, have narrowed in on five key enablers which would help unlock AI’s potential, including;

  • Facilitating awareness, value alignment, collaboration and multi-disciplinary partnerships, including industry, academia, policy makers and ‘technologists’,
  • Ensuring that we start with ‘Responsible AI’ and extend this principled approach to include societal and environmental impact,
  • Addressing digital infrastructure needs, access to AI tools and data, and wider complementary technologies,
  • Providing opportunities and training for upskilling and reskilling for sectors to adapt to technological transformations, and;
  • Encouraging R&D from research to scalable commercial deployment.

Furthermore, PwC also opens the door for further exploration of AI’s contribution towards the accelerated decentralisation of power grids and electrification. Its current model assumes a modest transition towards renewable energy supply, but if this happens at a much faster rate than anticipated then more research may be required.

But while there are obvious benefits, the report also warns that widespread adoption of AI would also expose energy systems to risks associated with bias, security and control. Significant barriers to adopting technologies in such sectors would also need to be overcome.

“Technology firms and industry alike will need to champion responsible technology practices, considering social, environmental impact and long term value creation.

“What is clear is that the companies and countries that fare best will be those that embrace the simultaneous changes and reinforcing opportunities of the AI era and the transition to sustainable economies,” Herweijer said.

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