VERGE Boston: M2M's 'huge leap forward' on energy savings

VERGE Boston: M2M's 'huge leap forward' on energy savings

At VERGE Boston yesterday, panelists explored machine-to-machine communications, the burgeoning but poorly understood technology that experts predict will constitute a $1 trillion dollar industry by the end of the decade.

Machine-to-machine, or M2M, technology enables all kinds of devices -- heating valves, wireless sensors, in-flight recorders, and more -- to collect and share reams of data with analytics software that can in turn help systems function with near-perfect efficiency.

The sustainability implications of M2M are immense. With applications in fields as varied as energy, building management, transportation, and agriculture, M2M has the potential to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 9.1 gigatons annually. That's equivalent to the 2010 emissions of India and the United States combined.

Panelist John Schultz, who directs AT&T's sustainability operations, noted that investments in M2M could produce carbon dioxide reductions equal to all renewable energy sources combined. Savings in resources like water and fertilizer could be equally significant.

Joining Schulz on the panel were Mark Bernardo, general manager of automation software at GE Intelligent Platforms, and Dan Probst, chairman of energy and sustainability services at Jones Lang LaSalle.

Probst, who last year received a VERGE 25 Award for his leadership in harnessing automation systems to make buildings operate more sustainably, gushed with enthusiasm for the opportunities M2M offers the real estate industry.

Probst observed that, while the concept of building optimization has existed for decades, the last few years have been characterized by "a huge leap forward" in optimization technologies, in large part because of the increased demand for energy savings during the Great Recession.

Probst said the latest M2M technology gives building managers "the ability to pull data out of the buildings, run analytics, and really continuously fine-tune and optimize the energy performance of buildings."

"We're finding incredible savings," said Probst, citing consistent reductions in energy consumption of between 10 to 20 percent in less than two years.

Probst also noted that M2M can produce efficiencies within a building's operations that even the best engineers cannot replicate.

"Building operating engineers cannot watch every valve and damper and how it's performing in the building," he said. "Through technology we've got eyes and ears that tell us when performance is beginning to degrade or when something's not performing in an optimal way and can make those corrections almost instantaneously."

Bernardo has likewise been thrilled with the computational power of machines, which he has seen used to optimize the performance of aircraft engines.

"We collect about 10, 20 terabytes of data off an engine per day," he said, which is then used to determine the optimal engine settings and flight paths for entire fleets of planes.

Still, the panelists were adamant that M2M does not threaten to render human input obsolescent and usher in an era of machine overlords -- at least not yet.

"I'm constantly reminding people that at some point, somebody with a wrench or screwdriver has to go adjust something… or tweak something," said Probst. "We have to remember that there is always -- or at least for the foreseeable future -- going to be some human element that's key to all this."

Schulz, who has seen M2M applied to agricultural operations to optimize water and fertilizer usage, echoed Probst's sentiment.

"There are things that can be done very well by machines," he said. "They can find exceptions, they can find faults, they can find anomalies, and they can flag those." But at some point, "an action is required, a decision is required, and that's where, at least for now, the machine can't do that, or do that as well as a human."

Asked if they had one suggestion to prepare for the M2M future, the panelists all agreed that business owners should start small.

"Identify a source of waste," said Schulz, "and do a small pilot."

Photo by Goodwin Ogbuehi/GreenBiz Group