By Thomas L Rosenberg, MS, MBA
The “Internet of Things (IoT)” — we’re hearing that term more and more. Some of the promises of the transformation it will bring to our lives seem frivolous, such as having your refrigerator text your phone to let you know you’re out of milk. Others might seem a little too futuristic; predicting that one day your car, house, and phone will all talk to each other without your intervention.
The reality is, the Internet of Things is based on elements that have existed for several years. The difference is, we’re connecting them in new ways, and expanding their application. This is very good news for those looking for more efficient and effective ways to collect and monitor key sustainability data across their organization .
What is IoT Exactly?
The basis of the IoT is what’s called a mesh network. In fact, the Internet is the original mesh network. A mesh network is a decentralized network of “nodes”. In a mesh network, each node is programmed to interact with the rest of the network in specific ways. Mesh networks can be either wired or wireless though as with most other technology in our lives today, wireless is the growing norm.
Wireless mesh networks have several key advantages over their wired brethren. They have lower installation costs; they use the same WiFi standards we’re familiar with at home or the office; and they are easy to expand or contract according to your coverage needs.
So how can IoT help with business sustainability initiatives?
First of all, what IoT won’t do is help figure out what metrics to select. Determining what metrics are relevant to your organization is a vitally important part of any sustainability program. Metrics need to be evaluated and selected based on short and long-term organizational goals and needs. The process for determining which metrics to track and measure isn’t extremely complex, but we’ll leave it for a future article.
Once metrics have been selected, here are some examples — existing and hypothetical — of how the IoT could be implemented.
At a municipal level, Los Angeles’ recent LED streetlight retrofits have provided the City with a means to better manage traffic flow, which reduces air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). The City does this by using meters attached to the streetlights that monitor traffic flow, and thus the cycle of traffic lights. The capability of these meters could be expanded and used for public safety purposes, such as monitoring air temperatures for heat stroke or hypothermia risk, or alerting first responders as well as the utility that power is out in a certain area. It could also help monitor soil moisture to optimize irrigation needs in public green spaces.
Similarly, a water utility could use a mesh network to monitor for leakages in their water mains, which would greatly reduce water waste and mitigate expensive infrastructure repairs, locating weakened pipes before they burst. Or they could monitor water quality across their entire infrastructure, being alerted to flow variances and possible sources of contamination from broken pipes.
Utilities and Distributed Energy
One way IoT could change the electricity markets is by enabling utilities to better manage distributed energy generation resources as they fluctuate during the day. Utilities would also be able to reinforce their distribution grid, and connect micro-grids to ensure greater power reliability and stability. This would require a payment system in addition to the mesh network.
On a smaller scale, a mesh network can help an organization understand where, when and how it is using energy or water, allowing the organization to better manage consumption and application across its facilities. For instance, a mesh network could direct extra heat from the boiler to one unusually cold classroom, while the other rooms just get unconditioned air. It could also let you know where water might be leaking, or whether occupancy sensors are malfunctioning and lights are on in offices where ample daylighting is available. They could also identify an electric motor that might be drawing too much power, in danger of overheating, or burning out. Or they could monitor your data center and identify servers that are overloaded, drawing too much energy, and perhaps candidates for replacement.
The IoT age is already here and it will increasingly become the “new normal” over the next 5-10 years. Select your organizational sustainability metrics carefully, and then explore whether the Internet of Things can make measuring and monitoring those key data points easier and more effective for your organization.
Thomas is a Sustainability Circle Coach with REV. He has been working on energy, climate change and sustainability issues since 1994, in the US, Europe, Latin America, and Asia.