The sweep of the Internet of Things, garbage cans and all

Who could imagine being wowed by a garbage can? In our age of technological whiz-bang, not much floors us anymore. But I confess, I couldn’t stop thinking about the lowly garbage can.

Embedded with smart sensors, it alerts city workers when it’s ready to be emptied, which slashes fuel costs and avoids unnecessary garbage pickups. That may not sound so impressive — at least compared to driverless cars or sending regular folk into space — but when the dumbest of items gains intelligence, we need to pay attention.

We are entering a phase in the cleantech revolution where we are reaping efficiency value from even the most mundane items.

“The garbage app reduces energy costs by 50% to 60%. That’s not pie-in-the-sky — those are real savings for real cities that can make them even more livable and enjoyable for residents,” says Tim Wolf, Global Director of Marketing for Smart Grid Solutions at Itron.

Call it Cleantech 3.0 or Energy Democracy, this new iteration takes us beyond solar energy and the early technologies that kicked off the clean energy revolution. Now bits and bytes are infiltrating everyday objects, allowing them to “talk” to each other and make smart energy decisions. Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore — or at least its wind farms.

Enter the Internet of Things

Why is renewable energy now old school? Credit the Internet of Things, or IoT. Green is still good, but digitally connected green is even better.

IoT is a network of physical objects — devices, machinery, vehicles, buildings and other items — embedded with electronics, software and sensors that enable these objects to collect and exchange data.

Connecting our disparate “things” — and giving them intelligence — creates autonomous systems that are convenient and user-friendly in ways that can drastically improve home and work environments — as in the garbage can that can signal to city trash collectors.

In the energy arena, IoT brings together all kinds of things to create smart networks, such as hot water heaters, home thermostats, solar panels and microgrids. These networks can automate anything that generates, consumes, measures, switches or stores energy.

The power of controlling energy distribution no longer resides with just utilities.

IoT also helps consumers collect granular data so they can track their energy consumption in real time. What you can see, you can save. So now consumers are better able to lower their energy bills.

All of these changes upend the old way of doing business in the energy industry. The power of controlling energy distribution no longer resides with just utilities; it’s become decentralized. You and I gain more control over energy generation and usage.

Putting energy management into the hands of individual consumers and businesses is forcing utilities to rethink their business models. Rather than fighting decentralized energy, forward-thinking utilities are embracing it.

“As the grid moves toward a more distributed model, the command-and-control infrastructure is moving to a more distributed model as well,” Wolf says.

How IoT makes Cleantech 3.0 possible

IoT has made its way into the public consciousness through devices like the Nest thermostat, and it will soon be universal. Businesses of all sizes are starting to realize its power to transform how they handle their energy needs — to save money, improve resiliency and reduce carbon footprint.

According to Tom Willie, CEO of Blue Pillar, IoT is at the foundation of Cleantech 3.0. “Without IoT, you can’t effectively deploy onsite energy solutions,” Willie says. “People are realizing that if you’re going to build a behind-the-meter grid, you need on-site command-and-control.”

Green is still good, but digitally connected green is even better.

“The growth of on-site generation has started expanding exponentially in the past 10 years, but most on-site energy systems are still disconnected and working in silos,” he adds. “You need the ability to centrally connect, control and optimize everything from renewables and back-up generators to microgrids, energy storage and traditional building automation systems. That’s why the new energy IoT solutions are so critical — we need a ubiquitous, connected energy ecosystem.”

What’s truly amazing, Willie says, is that new energy IoT solutions will even allow connection and control of older equipment that was installed before the Internet was around, positively impacting energy usage and costs.

“It’s an exciting time to be at the intersection of IoT and energy management,” he says. “The future is limited only by our imaginations.”

What it means to you

Here’s what Cleantech 3.0 means for those it will affect most:

  • Utilities: Many utilities and energy service providers struggle to integrate renewable energy and energy efficiency into aging 20th century business models. Cleantech 3.0 will prepare them to compete in the 21st century by drastically improving their ability to manage and dispatch distributed energy. This will allow unregulated utilities to embrace behind-the-meter distributed generation to their advantage. For example, by treating their customers’ solar panels, microgrids and other distributed energy resources as an extension of the traditional electricity grid, they can increase resiliency and reduce the burden on the aging infrastructure. Better still, legacy utilities can leverage the IoT to create new services that they can then offer to end-customers, adding additional revenue for shareholders and keeping businesses relevant.
  • Industry: Improving connectivity, access to data and control of energy devices will help industries improve energy efficiency, resiliency and self-sufficiency. In practical terms, IoT can help reduce energy waste, improve operational efficiency and hedge against power outages and rising energy costs. As individual industries realize the benefits of controlling their own energy, this nascent trend will expand to everyone — from healthcare and big-box retailers to data centers and beyond.
  • Consumers: Cleantech 3.0 will help consumers by putting the cost of energy in their hands. Not only does it allow them to choose how to spend their energy dollars, it gives consumers control of every electrical device in the home through smart phones, and increases comfort as these devices “learn” their patterns. It is going to revolutionize how consumers handle their energy needs — and thereby revolutionize energy distribution.

“Cleantech 3.0 will democratize the way people consume energy, and that’s a good thing,” says Robert Cooper, CEO of Embue. “The awareness of what your energy costs are and how you consume it will empower people to use energy more efficiently and cost-effectively. The revolution is coming, and those who are on the cutting edge will be the biggest winners.”

A reshuffling of responsibility

Cleantech 3.0 is causing a reshuffling of responsibility across the energy landscape — and has the potential to affect entire city infrastructures, leading to the development of so-called “smart cities” that rely on IoT.

“The killer IoT apps that will revolutionize cities will be for smart energy and water systems,” Itron’s Wolf says. “Right now, we lose 25% of water we pump through the streets — unacceptable in a world that will soon run short on water resources. And you can reduce street light energy costs by up to 80% if you combine LED replacement bulbs with network-controlled monitoring applications.”

The roles and relationships between energy production, distribution and consumption are changing, and the end-user will ultimately win. How quickly this shakes out will depend on the speed with which utilities and their customers embrace the transition.

Meanwhile, keep an eye on your household devices — even boring ones like garbage cans — they soon may surprise you.