How big data is about to ignite smart grids worldwide
As individuals, we’re often asked to look at what we can do in our daily lives to reduce our impact on the environment. Whether it’s cycling to work, unplugging appliances when they’re not in use or turning the water off while brushing our teeth, it is true that small changes really do make a difference. As a matter of fact, average electricity usage in U.S. homes declined in 2013 to the lowest level since 2001.
There’s no hiding from the fact that we all need to be more energy efficient to reduce pollution and carbon emissions, and to satisfy growing energy demand from the ever-increasing global population. Between 2008 and 2035, that demand is set to increase by 53 percent, with half of that growth occurring in emerging economies such as China and India.
Unfortunately, the main resources used for energy production — fossil fuels — are running out. This wouldn’t be a problem if we were able to effectively meet all our power needs via renewable sources. However, today we still face challenges that prevent us from relying solely on renewable power.
This situation is unsustainable, and change is imminent. The small efforts we’re making towards changing how we consume energy certainly ease the pressure. But in order to fundamentally transform the way we generate, distribute and consume energy, we also need to turn to technology. Emerging big data analytics technologies, which have taken hold in organizations worldwide over the past several years, will be a major driver of that transformation.
Across the globe, power grids are being modernized and made smarter by a host of new technologies such as sensors, metering solutions and energy management systems, creating a variety of data sets that deliver deeper insights into the infrastructure’s operations and performance. These “smart grids” are generating unprecedented amounts of data — from energy production all the way to consumption — and connecting with various devices and systems, empowering all involved to enhance their energy efficiency.
For example, Intel is working with a regional utility in Germany to devise a smart monitoring system for its electrical substations, requiring fewer hardware installations and providing more security than the utility’s legacy systems.
[Learn more about smart grids at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27-30.]
First and foremost, insights on energy generation, transmission, distribution and consumption allow utilities to effectively and efficiently manage the power grid in near-real time. What this means is that utilities significantly have improved visibility and control across the entire electric value chain from generation to consumption.
This results in better forecast, planning and response to the nation’s power needs, which in turns allows for better management and efficient use of precious natural resources as well as capital assets. It also allows utilities to identify faulty parts of the network so that they can isolate them and mitigate the impact that such faults have on the rest of the power grid, enhancing resiliency and reliability.
Overall, the implementation of smart grid technologies can lead to an estimated cost savings of up to $2 trillion by 2030, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (PDF).
Furthermore, information and communications technology can enable a better understanding of how energy is consumed. Consequently, it can empower utilities to offer customers tailored tariffs suited to individual needs, deliver more accurate bills and incentivize us to be more energy efficient. For instance, to ease the pressure placed on the power grid during peak hours, energy providers can offer reduced rates to encourage usage during off-peak hours. This not only enhances resource and cost efficiency, but improves customer service.
The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy predicts that if homeowners and businesses were to take full advantage of available information and communication technologies to enable system efficiencies, energy use in the United States could be reduced by 12 to 22 percent, which equates to tens or hundreds of billions of dollars in savings.
Pecan Street, Inc., a Texas-based smart grid and consumer-energy research organization backed by the University of Texas and 25 companies including Intel, is a perfect example of leveraging data from connected homes to reduce energy and water consumption. The organization sought homeowners in Austin to volunteer for a home-energy research project that not only connects and monitors appliances and electric vehicles, but also collects usage data for electricity, water, gas and solar power generation.
The data, stored and processed on Intel-based servers, delivers an unprecedented view into home-energy usage. It represents the world’s largest research database of customer energy and water use. As such, it is helping researchers to better understand how consumers and residential systems consume energy, and to develop apps and services that foster energy savings without reducing comfort. For example, they can determine the most productive placement of solar panels; give notice when home appliances or heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems are not operating as efficiently as possible; detect water, gas or air duct leakage; or monitor when the energy load of the neighborhood is highest.
At the same time, Pecan Street research will help utilities to relieve stress on the grid that could lead to power outages or higher costs, as well as to reduce waste and costs for gas and water services.
Although it is vital to the project that devices are connected, courtesy of the emerging Internet of Things, what Pecan Street and its volunteers are doing with the data is making a real impact on the carbon footprint of this Texas neighborhood. The Pecan-Street project is fundamentally transforming how people interact with energy, and is expanding into other parts of the United States and Europe.
Imagine the positive impacts on energy and water savings, and pollution reduction, if these insights were available and used across the globe. Through the insight gleaned, organizations are already creating new products, services and economic opportunities helping consumers to easily and efficiently manage energy consumption, while making their homes more comfortable. Of course, it is of the utmost importance that privacy and security protections as well as customer choice are integrated into such offerings.
It is critical we all still make the little changes — such as unplugging appliances when they’re not in use — but technologies and the insights they enable will allow us to take a macro-look at energy use, helping to ensure the environmental well-being of future generations.
Top image by phipatbig via Shutterstock.