The Internet of Things: paving the way for renewable energy?

This trend causes concern for some. How will it impact data privacy? Will we become over-reliant on technology? What are the implications for employment?

However, from an environmental perspective IoT devices are a welcome development as they are capable of both communication and analysis. They have the potential to reduce resource consumption, improve monitoring, and protection of anything from forests to fish stocks, and ensure we miss fewer opportunities to reduce negative environmental impacts, as shown in the examples below:

  • Connected home devices like Nest or Toon allow users to manage heating, cooling, lighting and other connected home devices, reducing energy consumption and utility bills.
  • In agriculture soil sensors can communicate with sprinkler systems to regulate water use, reducing consumption in drought-hit areas like California.
  • Emissions monitors can identify air and water pollution and even communicate with heavy machinery to decrease noxious fumes.
  • Sensors on IoT devices can be tracked throughout their supply chain and lifecycle, increasing efficiency of manufacturing as well as alerting suppliers when devices need repairing and recycling at the end of their lifetime.
  • Smart cities can monitor lighting, parking spaces and public transport systems to improve efficiency; in the Netherlands one bus operator expects a 5% reduction in fuel use due to monitoring driving efficiency, and parking apps can eliminate wasted driving miles by pinpointing the closest parking spaces.

These uses contribute greatly to resource efficiency, ecology and emissions reductions; however is the IoT’s greatest environmental contribution the way it enables the spread of renewable energy?

Traditional energy grids have long been set up to provide supply at any time, based on a small number of large, centralised generators that can provide a baseload of energy. This baseload is essentially society’s minimum demand for power, and whilst it varies throughout the day and seasons the “base” demand remains broadly constant.  As society’s energy demands have increased over time we have constructed ever larger central power stations, each of which have high sunk and marginal costs.

But this demand-oriented system, which obligates the grid to fulfil users’ energy requirements at any time, is being reversed to one in which demand responds to supply, and IoT devices are a vital part of this complex relationship. They become part of a smart grid, connecting a huge range of devices and a growing number of decentralised generation points in a more responsive system which works in cooperation with industrial and residential users to manage demand according to supply. By turning on and off according to energy supply and price these devices enable us to take advantage of a more flexible yet less reliable energy source: the elements.

One of the most obvious criticisms of renewable energy is that we cannot control the natural forces that create it, and industrial-scale energy storage is neither economical nor efficient yet, meaning it does not guarantee an energy supply in all conditions. However in a world of smart, connected devices able to adjust their power consumption according to energy availability and cost this would be less of an issue.

IoT devices working in a smart, connected world have many tangible benefits, for our health, food production, transport and for the environment, as mentioned above. Yet I would argue that their most positive environmental impact is actually an indirect one; helping to reduce the barriers to widespread use of renewable energy, making its fluctuating nature less of an issue, and providing an environment where renewable energy production can be embraced and increased.