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Watts meet bytes: the new energy frontier

Murray Hogarth tackled the emerging “Internet of Energy Things” at the All Energy conference earlier this month.

Traditional environmental journalism in the 1990s didn’t prepare me for the extraordinary convergence of clean energy technologies and information and communications technologies now under way. Nor did corporate sustainability strategy consulting in the 2000s.

Now in an evolving new career guise with Wattwatchers, a digital energy start-up company, many conversations quickly move to the point where I’m compelled to make a standard disclaimer: “I’m not the tech guy!” Far from it, in truth, and much better identified as a techno dummy.

Fortunately I’m not the only one who is scrambling to understand and navigate the new energy frontier where watts meet bytes. Every significant energy sector conference these days includes a topic stream exploring the new space variously labeled “The Internet of Energy”, “The Internet of Things”, or as a fusion of the two “The Internet of Energy Things”.

Another way of describing it is an “Intelligent Energy Ecosystem”. A lot of the main species in this ecosystem are technology “geeks”, “digital natives” and their ilk. They speak in binary. Without in any way questioning the importance of these species – the innovative people who are giving us inexpensive rooftop solar PV, large-scale renewables, battery storage, electric vehicles, smart grids of all sizes, big data solutions, energy management apps and more – it can help we non-techie laypeople to dumb things down a bit.

Which is how I came to conceive of the “Intelligent Energy Ecosystem” as a layer cake. I’ve called the layers The Fog, The Cloud and The Blue Sky. This needs a bit of explanation.

The Blue Sky at the top is the outcomes layer, the ultimate destination for progressive energy system reformers seeking a technology-enabled fast tracking to a 100 per cent renewable, distributed, zero-carbon, super-efficient future within decades.

The Cloud in the middle is the data processing engine room of cyberspace, the smart solutions layer.

The Fog is the layer of confusion and complexity that currently exists at ground level, with billions or even trillions of potential data points but little capability to join up all of the dots.

The Fog requires a little more interpretation. It turns out that as an extension of the now common term “cloud computing”, there’s also a technical term of “fog computing”. In techno-dummy speak it means delivering computerised solutions via hardware devices and data processing at a physical level rather than pushing all of the data from meters and other sensors off to the virtual, software-dominated, soultions layer of The Cloud.

For some applications “fogging” is likely to be most efficient and effective, but nonetheless in a scalable “Intelligent Energy Ecosystem” most of the big data heavy-lifting and number-crunching will happen in The Cloud, then come back to The Fog for action – think remotely controlled alerts and switches, among other controls – to drive everyday progress towards The Blue Sky.

The equation is simple: more renewables coupled with greater energy efficiency get us there faster and at reducing cost, especially as rising demand volumes, better data and communications, and improving performance drive down the price of the technologies that harvest the free and essentially unlimited “fuels” from the sun, wind and tides. Clean, distributed energy replaces the dirty, centralised kind, and instead of one big grid we have many mini grids that can be joined up by data and communications if not by poles and wires.

Let me work these metaphors a little harder. Reaching for The Blue Sky is like flying in an aircraft that’s broken out of the fluffy white cumulous clouds into the clear upper atmosphere, with breathtaking infinite space beyond. The Cloud conveniently obscures the dark, difficult realm below. But down in The Fog you can’t even see The Cloud, much less The Blue Sky. Being here is akin to turning on vehicle high-beam headlights when driving in an actual fog, where you get blinded by the light bouncing back at you. That’s analogous to the state of disruption and disarray that currently afflicts the energy sector.

We were warned about how the digital revolution would disrupt traditional sectors like energy a surprisingly long time ago. The much-celebrated Canadian philosopher of communications theory, the late Marshall McLuhan, famously predicted the World Wide Web in the mid-20th century, three decades before it came to pass. McLuhan also anticipated today’s energy scenarios, where laggard utilities are clinging to old business models and outdated technologies such as so-called “smart meters” to manage in an entirely new paradigm, writing: “Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools and yesterday’s concepts.”

My non-techie analysis extends to how we escape The Fog and ascend to The Blue Sky post-haste for energy. Perhaps counter-intuitively, this means not getting too carried away with the more fantastic possibilities of technological innovation, with its oh-so-sexy futuristic allure of Hollywood-style home and building automation, robotics and more. Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good, because the value proposition of rapidly achieving a clean, distributed and intelligent energy ecosystem is powerful in its own right.

So what are the big barriers down here in The Fog that are holding back this smart energy transformation? I see:

  • Lack of data from “behind the (utility) meter” down to individual circuit, machine and appliance levels
  • Persistent utility control over what data there is, which holds back independent energy services providers
  • Poor and out-of-date tools – metering and sub-metering devices tend to be over-sized, over-engineered and over-priced, and therefore under-deployed
  • Confusing and ill-conceived alternatives, with innovation attempts often trapped in trying to fix old-model failings rather than moving us on to the “future model”
  • Incompatibility across many of the competing technology paths in the would-be solutions space, when the priority needs to be interoperability across all of key actors
  • Dud early-generation “solutions” undermining consumer faith in change (the Americans have a darkly humorous metric with the acronym MTTKD, standing for “mean time to kitchen drawer”, for faddish devices that quickly fall from use)

The good news is that capturing and productively sharing accurate, timely (real-time), comprehensive energy data – freed from the stranglehold of the traditional utilities and their metering systems – can now be achieved via a rapidly growing array of “Internet of Energy Things” technologies. Data diversification will open up the energy market “behind the utility billing meter”, making every significant circuit in The Fog manageable via The Cloud to enable Blue Sky outcomes such as distributed virtual renewable power stations servicing community-run and commercial mini-grids.

These solutions will be much smarter than utility-style smart meters, and vastly more value additive than early gimmicky gadgets like in-home display devices. There is a limit to the number of households and businesses that want to DIY-obsess about their energy consumption and generation, but automated and third-party managed solutions to save money and cut pollution are another matter entirely as long as the right data is readily available with good returns on investment.

As they become commercially available for households and small businesses, intelligent systems will soon perform valuable functions like the automated high-performance integration of solar PV generation, on-site storage, load control for major appliances ranging from airconditioners to electric vehicle chargers, and lowest cost mains electricity grid backup. Active monitoring of solar systems – to track performance and troubleshoot remotely – already is taking off for new installations, and may become compelling for retrofits too given the 1.4 million-plus mainly unmonitored systems on Australian rooftops.

When many homes and businesses have thousands of dollars invested in on-site energy technologies including PV and battery storage, the value of real-time, accurate and comprehensive monitoring data will be self-evident. In NSW, for example, 150,000 solar households currently earning 60 cents a kilowatt-hour (kWh) for pumping home-generated renewable energy into the grid will be phased off the generous feed-in tariff at the end of 2016, and will drop to a token 4c/kWh. Overnight their priorities will shift from maximising grid exports for healthy returns to minimising imports at circa 30 cents or more per kWh. However they respond, granular data will help.

Billing will become just one of the functions of pervasive metering, rather than its primary purpose, and low transactional costs for circuit-level independent monitoring and datasets will open up a new world of consumer-focused third-party energy services and solutions.

The Fog is thinning and energy visibility is improving. The Cloud will soon be swelling with consumer-controlled data. The Blue Sky is getting closer.

Murray Hogarth is a sustainability advocate and commentator turned cleantech entrepreneur as a director of Sydney-based digital energy company Wattwatchers.

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