Developments in the US and China are eroding Europe's lead in renewable energy. But if the EU could harness the power of the big data, it could increase outputs from wind energy by 20 percent - without much building.
This week, the International Energy Agency came out with some new figures that will make many in the European renewable energy sector nervous.
The Paris-based intergovernmental organization says that while renewable generation is on the rise globally, Europe's lead in the sector is shrinking. The report cites policy uncertainty as the main culprit - this compared with the more solid policy backing now in place in the United States, China, India and Mexico. Dizzying policy changes in Europe are making investors hold back on the cash.
The EU currently has the largest installed and connected wind and solar capacity in the world, according to the European Environment Agency. This has been the result of heavy investment: From 2005 to 2012, Europe led the world in investing in renewables.
But China surpassed the EU in 2013, as did the US did a few years later. Europe has the largest amount of installed renewable plants now - but in a few years time, it probably won't anymore.
But there is one way that European businesses can get back on the renewables fast track without relying on policy support - and without even relying on deployment of new equipment. Europe is, in fact, sitting on the key to its potential success right now.
Size doesn't matter
People working in the renewable energy field are increasingly turning their attention to the "industrial internet" as a way to maximize the efficiency of existing equipment. The idea is to use existing big data, combined with new sensors, to create a system that can predict all possible future outcomes for renewable equipment. It's basically a virtual grid.
Last week, those the industry met in Berlin for the forum "Wind Power, Big Data and the Internet of Things." Most striking among attendees discussing potential efficiency gains to be had from the use of big data, was just how low-hanging this fruit is.
Rather than building 20 percent more turbines, energy companies can use big data to generate 20 percent more electricity from their existing installations.
Big data has been a buzzword in the tech world for some years - but business leaders say it's not mere hype. Big data refers to new methods of processing vast existing troves of digital information, previously unseen and unused, in a way that maximizes efficiency.
As anxieties in the European renewable space increase, people are turning to big data as a potential savior. And it seems that the potential is greatest with wind energy.
Predicting the future by analyzing the past
Pieter Jan Jordaens, head of business and innovation at the Belgium-based offshore wind research organization OWI-Lab, is working with utilities to add sensors to wind turbines in the North Sea.
"Offshore wind energy power plants are remotely located - and so it's not only investment costs that need to be considered, it's also the operating costs," he told DW. They started the project off by adding sensors to wind turbines.
Based on this data, they are able to see how wind and wave conditions are affecting the base of the turbine. "We also look at the conditions of the wind turbine itself," he said.
Jordaens notes that not all wind sites are the same. Some locations can wear out the turbines quicker than others because of harsher power surges, greater wake effects or sporadic surges in power.
Using big data, the company can recreate the conditions experienced by the turbine - creating a replay of certain events to learn how the turbine responds to them.
Through an analysis of the history, they can predict the future and make sure the turbine is operating at the maximum efficiency, squeezing out every last drop of potential from the existing equipment.
Picking through the data
This is, in fact, quite a complicated endeavor. Although the data are mostly already there, the main problem is sorting through it - and making sense of it. Factors include weather station data, geospatial information, tidal phases and equipment usage - all of which come together in a sort of data tsunami.
"The trick is to translate all these data streams into an efficient process to analyze them," Jordaens said.
Many large industrial companies - including Vestas, Siemens and GE - are now undertaking major pilot projects to start this process. Some of these big "digital wind" projects were on display at an Internet of Things world congress in Barcelona this week.
Business leaders there discussed how the use of big data is about to transform all kinds of sectors, from healthcare to transport to manufacturing. But one of the hottest areas of interest - and one with the most potential for short-term gains - is energy.
Industry leaders are keen to showcase their advances. Danish energy company Vestas was the first to successfully implement big data analysis, in an initial limited scope, at its wind farms in Denmark three years ago.
GE launched its "Wind River Smart City" hardware and software with a demonstration in New York last year, with an eye to rolling out such farms across the globe within a few years.
And Siemens has opened a remote diagnostics center for wind turbines in Denmark, monitoring big data from more than 7,500 installed Siemens wind turbines worldwide.
Manna from heaven?
Alessandro Annini, an academic with the Grenoble Graduate School of Business, believes it is not yet clear whether big data represents the "manna from heaven" to save them, as the sector becomes more competitive globally. But he notes that Vestas' early experience is a positive sign.
"Vestas was able not only to implement this technology at the state of the art, but also to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage based primarily on its know-how," he told DW. The Vestas case "clearly shows that big data projects can turn out feasible and successful, even in this industry."
For his part, Jordaens believes that big data is the key to making Europe competitive with other regions of the world, as they get ever more into the renewables game. "In general, I think Europe is more of a follower when it comes to big data - the main active companies are in the US," he says.
But in the field of renewable energies, Europe is still at the forefront, he added. It's also ahead on grid technology. "We have all these sites, and they need to communicate with the grid. We just need to capitalize on what we have."