The Internet of Things (IoT) is a technology which has revealed its true scope as new applications have emerged. For most people, the smart home is the first thought — it is easy to imagine connected fridges which can reorder groceries once they drop below a certain level, or a thermostat which begins heating the house once you come within a certain distance of it. This is the softer side of the IoT, a development in consumer products which feels less like an explosion than steady progress.
The real IoT boom will be seen elsewhere. Smart cities and industry are the two areas in which the most sweeping change will be seen, as well as the areas in which the most devices will be deployed. According to Statista, the number of connected devices installed worldwide in 2025 will number over 75 billion. Many of these will be, for example, small sensors used in the supply chain to monitor the efficiency of a given process. They require very little energy to power, but the combined weight of their energy requirements will be astronomical.
Powering the Connected World
So how do we power all of these soon-to-be prolific IoT devices? Batteries will be infeasible for a lot of them. If we consider a supply chain fitted with hundreds or even thousands of connected devices, the process of periodically replacing the batteries needed to power them could be prohibitively extensive and costly. The problem is only compounded when these devices are fitted in impractical or hostile locations like offshore wind farms, for example.
Ultimately, companies want to be able to establish their IoT networks and then forget about the devices themselves, working only with the data they bring in. The less the networks need to be maintained, the better. The obvious answer to this is, of course, sustainable energy. Devices being able to harness energy themselves on which to function not only solves the maintenance issue but would significantly mitigate the energy usage concerns of the booming industry.
One company working on a potential solution is Silicon Valley solar cell manufacturer, Alta Devices. Its small solar cells are made from gallium arsenide and have, up until now, been used to power small satellites. An even smaller form of this technology could power IoT devices in difficult-to-reach outdoor spaces, meaning that these devices can be left to power themselves with maintenance only necessary in the event of damage.
Solutions such as this are not, by any means, a blanket remedy for the environmental concerns related to the IoT, though. The sheer raw materials needed to create the billions of devices, as well as the computational power needed to process the impending avalanche of collected data will be vast. It’s this that makes it so important that, after an IoT network is established, it is at least carbon neutral, preferably having some net positive impact on a company’s footprint.
A Two-Way Street
If the IoT achieves its goals, the sustainability drive will be a two-way street. It will need to be powered by sustainable energy, yes, but it will also need to contribute towards creating that sustainable energy. Also, if it functions as it should, the IoT will be responsible for energy savings in myriad areas. Every company deploying IoT networks will be hoping to improve efficiency by doing so, which will result in energy demands dropping. Similarly, energy concerns are chief among the goals of most developing smart cities, which will invariably be underpinned by some form of IoT network.
A good example comes from lighting company Philips. In collaboration with data analytics company SAP, Philips installed 91000 smart lights in Argentina’s Buenos Aires. The network gives engineers access to data visualisations about light usage and light adjustment protocols which mean they can adjust the city’s lighting in real-time. The results have been powerful. Buenos Aires has seen an increase in operational efficiency and has realised energy savings of over 50%, according to TechNative.
Building a Better World
It is crucial that IoT projects develop with the primary goal of addressing sustainable development challenges. However, according to the World Economic Forum, many of the executives that don’t necessarily see a link between their projects and sustainable development goals are missing the point. 84% of IoT deployments, the report finds, are addressing some of the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs). “Additionally, 75% of these concentrate on the five goals that correspond to some of the most profitable industry applications. This suggests that these projects’ significant impact on sustainability is almost unintended, or at least not their main driver.”
Ultimately, the IoT will not be able to function as envisaged without some form of independent renewable energy built into the devices themselves. The idea of ‘deploy and forget’ will make IoT projects all the more enticing for industry and business. Concern about how the IoT will power itself is possibly misplaced, though, given the potential benefits of installing efficiency-boosting networks across our cities and supply chains. The IoT will depend on sustainable energy, but it may also help create it.