IoT in Industry: Spotlight on Renewable Electric Power

Thomas Galler Windmills and Solar
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Access to electricity has become essential. Not only does the “juice” make most of our widgets work, it is the conduit for our communications, ideas and data. It is plain to see why electricity goes by its other name, “power.” 

The unrelenting demand for cheap power has left most of us at risk of an over-dependence on carbon and pollution-intensive fossil fuels. Today’s renewable electric power industry is a vanguard in global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change. The latest advancements in material science and engineering, remade through the Internet of Things, are leading us into a cleaner and smarter energy economy. 

First, let’s review the remarkable history behind renewable energy, specifically the generation of electrical power. After that, we’ll explore how the Internet of Things (IoT) is playing an increasingly significant role in supercharging the industry. 

HISTORY OF RENEWABLE ENERGY

Don’t have time to catch up on remarkable history of renewable electric power? You can just skip to the IoT related stuff here — but you’re missing out.

THE FIRST INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

There is nothing new about renewable energy. Renewable wind and water energy have been harnessed through the ages: to sail the seas, to spin grist mills and to drive mechanical pumps. Before that, renewable woody biomass burned in the kilns, hearths and homes for millennia. The story that is modern Renewable Electric Energy is one of science-legend. 

During the First Industrial Revolution (circa 1760 – 1820), iconic names like Franklin, Galvani, Hertz, Ohm, Volta, and Ampère set off to develop a fundamental scientific understanding of electrical phenomena. Concurrently, developments in hydraulics, steam engines, chemistry, iron refining and precision machine tools and instruments combined to assist in the electrification of our world. [ 1 ]

THE INDUSTRIALISTS’ DILEMMA

One of the “best sellers” during the First Industrial Revolution was commercially manufactured cloth and textiles using new machines which, at first, were mechanically powered by waterwheels and windmills. Unfortunately, factory output was directly tied to fluctuations in wind speed and river flow rates. Furthermore, there was also no way to effectively store surplus wind or water power to use in times of reduced supply. There was a tangible economic impact to the inconsistent and unpredictable supply of renewable mechanical energy.

STEAM AND COAL

Industrialists found that they could lift these production-limiting natural constraints by shifting away from traditional renewable energy and embracing the new steam engines powered with coal. Energy-dense coal proved to be an optimal fuel and was often cheaper and more abundant than renewable wood. [ 2 ] Coal-burning steam engines soon proved to be powerful and commercially effective and, thus, provided the capability to run factories 24/7/365, free from the whims of nature.

In 1802 the steam engine struck again! This time mounted on wheels and two metal rails, steam locomotives gave Industrialists even greater freedom to ship mass volumes of coal and products long distances. [ 3 ] This enabled them to locate operations beyond the big waterfalls, rivers, and windy coasts. So began worldwide adoption of fossil fuels as a means of industrial power and mobility.  

FARADAY

Perhaps the biggest contributions to the genesis of modern Renewable Electric Power involved Michael Faraday and his work on electromagnetism and electrochemistry. In the 1820’s, Faraday was credited with the development of the first working electric motor, which ran off early chemical batteries. 

Later, in the 1830’s, Faraday kicked the doors open with the invention of the first electric generators. These hand-cranked, disk-shaped, homopolar devices successfully demonstrated electric generation via mechanical and electromagnetic interactions. Hats off to Faraday for discovering a way to convert mechanical work into electric power!

The first working electric generator designed by Michael Faraday.
Figure. The first working electric generator designed and built by Michael Faraday. Source: Wikipedia Commons

THE BECQUEREL EFFECT

Turning motion into electricity is an important advancement, but what about turning sunlight into power like the photovoltaic (PV) solar panels we see everywhere today? To a large extent, we can thank physicist Edmond Becquerel who, in 1839, observed the photovoltaic effect. Using an aqueous electrochemical cell, Becquerel was able to generate voltage and current “when two plates of platinum or gold immersed in an acid, neutral, or alkaline solution are exposed in an uneven way to solar radiation.” [ 4 ] Certainly a significant discovery, but in hindsight, one that took much more time than Faraday’s generator to become commercially viable.

SCARCITY CONCERNS

Prior to the Second Industrial Revolution, somewhere around the 1860’s to 1870’s, society’s now-entrenched dependence on industrial fossil fuel-burning steam engines spurred a popular debate and fears on the possibility of fuel scarcity. An academic and renewables inventor of the era wrote:

“The time will arrive when the industry of Europe will cease to find those natural resources, so necessary for it. Petroleum springs and coal mines are not inexhaustible but are rapidly diminishing in many places. Will man, then, return to the power of water and wind? Or will he emigrate where the most powerful source of heat sends its rays to all? History will show what will come.” [ 5 ]

Professor Augustin Mouchot 1873

THE SECOND INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

In the early 1880’s, at the start of the Second Industrial Revolution, the world’s first commercial electric power plant was completed. Hydroelectric power plants, situated on powerful rivers, were the first type of commercially available electric power and their popularity grew rapidly. [ 6 ] Of similar concept and design, the first wind-electric turbines came along in 1887.

The invention of the light bulb, circa 1880, expanded demand for electricity beyond the factories and into the public spaces and homes of the industrial era world. Ironically, the fossil fuel scarcity feared in the mid 19th century never transpired. Soon commercial coal-fired electric generators, beginning in 1882 with London’s Edison Electric Light Station, could satiate rampantly growing demand. Coal-burning power plants, like their ancestors the steam engines, were free from many of the constraints of natural cycles and location. Fossil fuel’s energy density, plentiful supply, and portability was difficult to resist. 

One final note on this period. In 1884, an obscure inventor by the name of Charles Fritts successful built and tested solid state photovoltaic solar cells using gold and selenium. [ 7 ] He reached a 1% efficiency (the percentage of the incident solar energy converted to electrical wattage) but it was not nearly as efficient, cost effective or powerful as the generators and turbines of the day. It would take over a century through advancements in silicon p-n junction technologies (which gave us the transistor leading to modern day digital computing and IoT) and incremental cost reductions before solar PV would be commercially viable. [ 8 ]

BACK TO THE FUTURE

Nearly 150 years later the world has changed and much has shifted our needs and hopes away from fossil fuel solutions and back again to renewable energy alternatives. Massive concerns over fossil fuel induced Climate Change and energy security are remaking the renewable electric power industry. Today’s industry is far more competitive and provides much hope.

Despite their sluggish rise, renewables are positioned to be an increasingly credible solution to our clean energy and energy security needs, yet the lion’s share of world capacity is still from fossil fuels. Renewables account for a little less than 10% of the world’s electric production. That’s pretty meager, however, according to a BloombergNEF study, “Wind and solar [will] make up almost 50% of world electricity in 2050” and will take market share primarily from coal. [ 9 ] Compare that kind of growth to the historic levels, shown in the figures below, and you can really visualize a sea change.

Energy consumption by type over time versus annual power consumed in TWh.

Relative levels of Energy consumption by type over time.

Figures: Global energy consumption by type since the year 1800. Modern renewables account for approximately 10% of our current global consumption. Left, shows consumption over time versus annual power consumed in TWh. Right, shows a relative plot using percent of global consumption rather than power. Source: Our World in Data

BENEFITS OF RENEWABLE ELECTRIC POWER

COST

Cost is king. The growing demand and advancements in technology, including IoT, continue to improve efficiency and supply while reducing the unit cost of clean renewable solar and wind electricity. Hydroelectric and geothermal for the most are too capital intensive and, in many cases, also destructive to local cultures and habitats. Solar and wind options, for the most part, have risen to the top. Cost is a big reason why.

Currently, solar and wind are on average cheaper than oil and nearing the cost of natural gas per unit of electricity. Coal remains the lowest cost per unit energy but with large environmental impacts. [ 10 ] According to a 2017 International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) report, on-shore wind and solar PV projects are regularly delivering power for $0.04 per kWh and are on track for $0.03 per kWh by 2020. [ 11 , 12 ]

Additionally, the capital expense of new plants must also be considered in deliverable cost to consumers. According to a 2017 study from Lazard, it is currently cheaper to build a new solar or wind plant than to build new coal or nuclear plants. [ 13 ] This makes institutional investment in this industry even more appealing.

CARBON EMISSIONS

Perhaps most importantly, modern commercial renewables crank out power with much lower Carbon Equivalent (CE) emissions than the big three fossils — oil, gas, and coal. [ 14 ] Roughly 25% of all global greenhouse emissions come from the production of electricity and heat. Transportation accounts for another 14%. [ 15 ] Renewable Electric Power, combined with the latest electric vehicle technology, is providing the tools to significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

Figure. Global sources of greenhouse gases by sector. Source: EPA / IPCC
Figure. Global sources of greenhouse gases by sector. Source: EPA / IPCC

SCALABILITY

A limitation with coal and natural gas fired electric power plants is that they require large economies of scale for viability. They are most effective and efficient when centralized, built large, and located close to a supply of coal or a pipeline. This is an area where wind and especially PV solar power shines. 

Residential to utility scale, there is a broad spectrum at which renewable systems can be effective. Furthermore, capacity can be incrementally increased by adding new panels or turbines with far greater flexibility and lower cost than fossil plants. Finally, there is minimal infrastructure and no supply lines, smoke stacks, spills or pipeline ruptures to worry about. 

WHERE IOT MEETS THE RENEWABLES

So finally, how does the relatively new Internet of Things Industry compliment the Renewable Energy Industry? 

DISTRIBUTED YET CENTRALIZED 

Solar and wind renewable assets are found almost anywhere from rooftops, to empty lots, desert buttes, rural fields and shorelines. Such a heavily distributed topology can be costly and difficult to manage, secure, maintain and optimize. Perhaps IoT’s greatest value is to enable centralized monitoring and management of massively distributed and remote networks of things. It’s a perfect dovetail with renewable electric power, a match made in heaven. 

IoT with low-cost and low-power, wide-area communication technologies, such as 5G or LoRa, are leading the way for the next generation of massively distributed IoT networks. IoT allows for centralized monitoring and control of an otherwise distributed, decentralized network. This is enabling a holistic approach, where big data analytics and AI can be used to better manage and predict system behavior and performance all from a centralized back office.

AUTOMATED SITE MONITORING AND CONTROL

As with almost any production facility, renewable energy requires site safety, security and equipment monitoring and control. When facilities are scattered about massive geographies this is a difficult job. Many sites have minimal onsite human resources making IoT assisted operations and reliable automation vital. IoT can help automate processes and detect and respond to faults and accidents in real-time while alerting a centralized command center.

PREDICTIVE MAINTENANCE

IoT benefits renewable production by enabling predictive equipment maintenance and safety. Take wind farms for example; monitoring ambient weather conditions like wind speed in tandem with turbine vibration, torque, and bearing temperatures is now used in the prediction of wind turbine failure. [ 16 ] Proactively catching these issues to avoid any unwelcome surprises is vital to ensure reliable and safe operations that allow renewal energy options to be competitive in the market. [ 17 ]

BALANCING THE LOAD ON A SMART GRID

When renewable electric is integrated with the power grid it can be used to supply and balance the load on the grid. Load balancing prevents outages and even serious system failures from occurring. IoT supports efficient load balancing by collecting accurate performance and capacity data of fielded renewable electric utilities. This data helps grid operators better predict and respond to real-time production to ensure that the grid capacity is optimized despite naturally fluctuating renewable supplies. 

WEATHER MONITORING

A particular idiosyncrasy of most renewable electric power sources is that their output is dependent on weather, climate and periodic cycles. These fluctuating localized weather conditions impact output with varying levels of predictability. Using distributed IoT, weather monitoring stations enable far more precise observations which can be used to troubleshoot failures, call in maintenance or to predict output. This intelligence is critical in utilizing renewables within the larger grid for load balancing. It also supports maintenance, troubleshooting, and performance assessments. 

One interesting example is in the active control of the pitch, or angle, of the wind turbine blades. Using precise weather observations, on-blade sensor readings and actuators, IoT-enabled pitch control allows the turbine to dynamically maintain maximum power output while ensuring safe operating speeds. [ 18 ]

SOLAR TRACKING

Solar panels can be mounted to motion control devices and dynamically steered for an optimal orientation to the sun throughout the day. IoT integrates the data from the solar tracking light sensors and the solar panels themselves to responsively, and precisely, adjust individual panels in solar installations. Automated solar tracking allows most solar energy installations to be much more efficient than fixed panels when averaged out of a year.

SMALL SCALE GRID-TIE-IN

On a much smaller scale, yet highly distributed, are the residential and small commercial grid-tied PV solar installations. These are beginning to become common and may play an important part in our energy security. There is vast potential when using IoT enabled small scale PV in conjunction with smart meters. Even when owners of grid-tie-in systems are out of the house, their rooftops are able to contribute excess power to the grid which, in turn, could then power the air conditioning in their workplace! IoT also allows for accurate billing for these grid-tied customers, who earn credits for excess power supplied to the grid.

IoT has not only made it easy for homeowners to check their home’s rooftop power output from anywhere in the world, but it has also made it possible to dramatically expand the geographic distribution of power generation. The combination of grid-tie-in and smart metering enables grid controllers and utilities to accurately account for distributed energy sources and better forecast holistic supply and demand. 

SUPPORT FOR POWER PURCHASE AGREEMENTS (PPAs)

Homes and businesses wishing to install renewable solar or wind on their property may find the capital investment and cost of maintenance of these systems a barrier to entry. There are a multitude of companies who offer equipment, installation, management and maintenance of small scale systems for no cost. The catch with the PPA is that you get the benefit of renewable energy at an agreed cost from the provider without the hassle or upfront cost. IoT allows the provider to discreetly monitor system health, better maintain the hardware, project revenue, and accurately bill the customer for energy used.

SOME USE CASES

  • Vestas Wind Energy designs their mass wind turbines with dynamic input from IoT deployed with the current customers’ turbine installations. IoT enables engineers with a feedback loop to address flaws and better optimize future products. [ 19 ]
  • Schneider Electric with the Lagos Solar Project in Nigeria helps to keep schools and clinics that were once strictly powered with unreliable and polluting diesel generators, powered with solar electric power. The integration of IoT and Microsoft Azure IoT allows for the monitoring and maintenance of the generators and the ability to balance power production with solar loads and daily usage. [ 20 ]
  • BBOXX in the UK provides solar installations about the world. They have found that IoT installed at their locations allows for easy remote monitoring not only to ensure quality of service but to more rapidly and accurately bill customers for the power used. [ 21 ]
  • Sirus Solar uses NetBurner turnkey Serial to Ethernet servers to provide solar monitoring and control from the internet for solar powered cellular infrastructure in highly remote and rugged locations. Read our article on their product.

IS THIS THE END?

The pursuit of clean, affordable, limitless power may be civilization’s most important and existential endeavor. Significant long-term investment in renewable energy is essential to energy security and is our greatest tool against global climate change. There are numerous industries, such as steel and concrete, that will continue to require fossil fuels as part of their industrial processes. Aspirations to explore space and develop the Moon and Mars will require massive supplies of energy-dense fossil fuels for propellant. A renewable energy economy allows us to conserve our finite resources for where they are most needed.

We have covered a lot, from the history of renewable electricity to IoT in the future of the Renewable Energy Industry, and there’s so much more to cover… concentrated solar, bioenergy, nuclear, smart grids and buildings, and industrial scale batteries. Thanks for hanging in there!

If we missed anything, or if there is anything you would like to share, please comment below.

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