Internet of things can help solve energy trilemma

By encouraging the efficient use of costly carbon fuels, machine-to-machine technology would not only cut bills, but also reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as Jessica Twentyman reports


The world is caught on the horns of what the World Energy Council has termed “the energy trilemma”.

The vast majority of consumers want energy that is reliable, affordable and environmentally friendly. But this requires governments and utilities companies to perform an unenviable juggling act in which they must cater for rising demand, identify and exploit new energy sources, and keep prices low, all while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Achieving these goals, without making trade-offs along the way, is tricky. Reliable power costs money. Affordable energy isn’t necessarily clean. Clean power may not be the most reliable. And so on.

If greater energy efficiency provides at least part of the answer to this trilemma, as many believe it does, then the internet of things (IoT) may be chief among the technologies to help.

For a start, IoT-enabled energy efficiency could help curb market demand for power. Many customers would be happy to lower their consumption, after all, if it meant lower bills. But to do that they need more information on how and when they’re using power, and how much it’s costing them.

Smart domestic devices and apps that can communicate this data wirelessly to customers could make all the difference in encouraging them to turn down their central heating or use a ceiling fan less often.

That’s why search engine Google paid $3.2 billion in January for Nest Labs, a four-year-old startup that makes smart thermostats for the home, allowing users to turn down or switch off their heating from anywhere, using a smartphone app.

At Apple, engineers are hard at work on a software platform that will enable iPhone-owners to use their smartphone as a remote control for lights, security systems and other appliances.

SMART METERS

Many utilities companies, meanwhile, are now installing smart meters in the homes and offices of residential and commercial customers. As of April, for example, California-based utility company Pacific Gas and Electricity (PG&E) had rolled out smart meters to almost 4.7 million of its electricity customers and more than 4.1 million gas customers.

“When people understand how they use gas or electricity, then they have clear direction on how to optimise their own usage, with positive effects for their monthly bills and for the environment,” says Jim Meadows, director of smart grid research at PG&E.

Smart domestic devices and apps that can communicate data wirelessly to customers could make all the difference in encouraging them to turn down their central heating

Smart meters also mean increased visibility for utilities companies into their own operations, so as well as contributing to more energy-efficient demand patterns in “smart homes”, the IoT will help utilities to improve control supply patterns in the “smart grid”.

This involves instrumenting their networks with intelligent sensors to forecast demand, track customer usage patterns and prevent outages, says Rod O’Shea, Europe, the Middle East and Africa internet of things marketing director at chipmaker Intel.

To do this is particularly important, he says, in a world where power production in most countries is moving from a centralised structure, dominated by a handful of providers, to a more distributed model, in which smaller wind farms and even domestic solar-panel installations play a role in feeding the grid.

“The complexity of managing this model is clearly very tough without insight and many utilities companies are already struggling to understand where power is produced. Instrumenting smart grids can give them the information they need to understand what’s flowing through their networks and how it might be most efficiently stored and allocated,” says Mr O’Shea.

But while more efficient management of supply and demand in energy grids will make a huge contribution to achieving environmental goals, the IoT’s sustainability potential actually reaches much further, says Andy Hobsbawm, co-founder and chief marketing officer of EVRYTHNG, an IoT company that works with big brands, such as Unilever, LVMH and Diageo.

TAGS AND SENSORS

Virtually any product that can be equipped with smart tags or sensors, which wirelessly connect it to the internet, can now become “intelligent”, he says, creating a direct communications bridge between its manufacturer and the end-customer.

“When a manufacturer knows how, when and where a customer uses its product,” he says, “then that makes it possible for them to communicate how the product might be used more sustainably throughout its lifetime, and disposed of responsibly at the end of it.”

It’s an interesting proposition, with implications for countless companies worldwide and their customers. The owner of a smart printer, for example, can be educated on how to use less paper or ink. The owner of a washing machine can be advised to use it on a lower setting for certain loads. And these smart products, says Mr Hobsbawm, will be the basis of the “sharing economy”, where a manufacturer is able to allocate usage of a single product – a power drill that might otherwise be gathering dust in a garden shed – by multiple customers, who are able to book time using it via a mobile app.

Some manufacturers might initially balk at the impact this could have on their revenue models, Mr Hobsbawm concedes. But in an increasingly digital economy, he says, every firm needs to be thinking about how it wraps physical products in an information-based layer of value-added, revenue-generating services. And it’s up to customers to use this information better to manage their own carbon footprint.