What Energy Harvesting Means to Smart Grid and M2M Sectors

New terms and jargon sometimes appear over time. “Sustainable” is one example. From a shorthand description of smart, long term practices applied to fisheries and agriculture to thoughtful consumption embedded into modern society, it has achieved jargon status.

The term, and its conceptual basis is now migrating into electronic component power technologies and designs. Self-sustainable operation means that whatever the device or function, it is self-powered, and that has extraordinary possibilities for the Smart Grid and M2M sectors. Just a few short years ago, embedded sensing and communications functions in devices created insurmountable engineering challenges in terms of how to power those devices. No matter how cleverly chip manufacturers reduce energy consumption – there’s still a requirement for some energy. That energy source was either a wired connection to the grid, or batteries. There have been advances in battery technologies at both the micro scale to utility scale, but without an ability to recharge batteries, there is a lifecycle limitation that culminates in battery or device replacement. That limitation in turn impacts the potential of innovative M2M applications in Smart Grid, Smart Infrastructure, and verticals like health.

There’s new research underway that can unlock the potentials for the Smart Grid and M2M sectors. It builds on energy harvesting research, but has the objective of completely eliminating the need for a wired power delivery or battery replacements in devices. The best phrase to describe this growing field of research is energy self-sufficiency. Energy self-sufficiency will be a term used with increasing frequency in the Smart Grid and M2M sectors.

There are a number of promising sources of energy that can be used to deliver energy self-sufficiency such as solar, piezoelectric (kinetic forms like vibration), and thermal energy. There are pros and cons to each of them, and they are already deployed in chipsets – sometimes in combination for power provisioning. But electromagnetic waves can be harvested too – a concept first proposed by Nikola Tesla and Heinrich Hertz over a century ago.

There’s no shortage of ambient wireless or radio frequency (RF) activity around those of us living in developed economies. In fact, we’re practically marinating in electromagnetic waves. Interesting energy self-sufficiency research includes both near-field and far-field applications that harvest TV, cellular, and Wi-Fi signals. Other research continues to build knowledge on optimal operation modes for power-up, sleep, and active states of energy self-sufficient devices.

These technologies may not add up to powering devices like smart phones completely without grid connection, but they may extend the time between needed connections to grids. But more importantly for the Smart Grid and M2M sectors, these technologies may power sensor platforms in a broad range of applications and increase the energy harvesting potential of solar panels that can also perform as hybrid RF harvesters. It’s an intriguing expansion of the green revolution in electronics.

For utilities, this can have significant impacts on projections for future grid-delivered power and in opportunities to apply more “standalone” sensing and control mechanisms into operations. That second impact also translates into new possibilities for Smart Infrastructure applications – particularly where water grids are concerned. Without a doubt, energy self-sufficiency in sensing and communications devices should have communications service providers and M2M application providers cheering as conventional technology constraints decrease and their market opportunities grow.


Energy Data Privacy Risks – What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

Wednesday is Data Privacy Day in the USA, and it should receive heightened awareness after the recent Sony Pictures cyberattack. While media attention focused on cybersecurity weaknesses, privacy is the natural consequence of good cybersecurity. Security – cyber and physical – is a strategy that ensures a privacy outcome.

Unfortunately, determined cyberattackers or the deliberate or careless actions of current or former employees can defeat the best cybersecurity and physical security systems. Mandatory privacy policies and protections minimize the risks that sensitive data will be exposed – whatever that data might be. Sensitive data such as social security numbers, bank account information, and personal health records are managed to protect privacy. Utilities already manage sensitive data too, but need to prepare for significant increases in privacy risks.

Sensors are gathering more and/or new types of data. Inexpensive data transmission and storage makes it possible to handle new volumes, varieties, and velocities of data. Smart Grid technologies can deliver new granularity in time-stamped data about consumer use of electricity, gas or water. More M2M technologies can generate location-based data that accurately maps activity over the course of a day.

All these converging technologies increase data privacy risks, and make the publication of Data Privacy for the Smart Grid* very timely. It’s a key reason I helped write it. The Smart Grid delivers a myriad of benefits to utilities and consumers, but it also creates new risks and new concerns about data privacy. Energy usage data is invaluable to help intelligently manage energy and reduce utility operational costs and consumer costs. Privacy risks emerge in questions of how that energy usage data is used, shared, stored and otherwise accessed.

Utilities have prominent roles in the collection of energy usage data, but they may not be the only entities gathering, receiving, storing, or using that data. In the future it is very likely that businesses other than utilities may manage generation assets or water conservation equipment, sell electricity, or collect energy usage data directly from consumers. The variety of potential players coupled with new services and technologies can easily confuse everyone with blurry responsibilities for privacy protection and more exposure risks. Will consumers always know the “chain of data custody” for their energy usage data? The answer is no, and that has serious policy, process, and training implications for utility executives and vendors of solutions capable of gathering, transmitting, and using this data.

This is definitely a situation where what you don’t know about privacy risks can hurt you – in the forms of criminal or civil litigation and financial penalties, bad publicity, lost goodwill, and reputation damage. What steps should utilities and vendors take to protect the privacy of their customers’ energy usage data and the fallouts of failure? The answers are the focus of next week’s article.

*  Published by Taylor and Francis Group. Co authors: Christine Hertzog and Rebecca Herold. ISBN: 978-1-46-657337-6. Available for pre-sale now.


Why Energy Harvesting Should Become the Next Big Thing for the Smart Grid

Solar panels capture energy from light and convert it to electricity.   This is the most visible form of energy harvesting, but it is hardly the only one.  Energy harvesting captures energy lost as heat, light, sound, vibration, or movement.  Devices that harvest or scavenge energy can capture, accumulate, store, condition, and manage this energy into electricity for consumption.  That’s important, because our existing electricity infrastructure is extremely wasteful in its use of energy.  For instance, today’s technologies used in electricity generation are not energy efficient.  Traditional gas or steam-powered turbines convert heat to mechanical energy, which is then converted to electricity.  Up to two thirds of that energy input is lost as heat.  Those old incandescent bulbs (technology invented by Thomas Edison in 1879) were real energy losers too.  Ninety percent of the electricity flowing into incandescent bulbs ends up as waste heat.   That’s lost energy, which is why smart federal legislation banned incandescents in favor of more energy efficient sources of lighting starting in 2012.

Any aggregated reductions in electricity ease the stresses on our aging electricity infrastructure and give us a little breathing room to evolve to a Smart Grid.  The electric utility industry has put significant focus on reducing peak electricity needs through demand response or load management programs.  These programs are beneficial, but they have temporary impacts on electricity use.

Every electricity-consuming device wastes energy – whether we’re talking about idling vampire loads or every day use of them.  That heat you feel from your smart phone, laptop, or PC is wasted energy.  That vibration you feel or motor hum in a refrigerator or dryer is wasted energy.  If we can identify the right materials to harvest the energy lost to heat, vibration, sound, movement, and light into electricity, we can really embed energy efficiency where it counts – in the basic building blocks of microelectronics found in equipment and devices across the entire Smart Grid value chain of generation, transmission, distribution and consumption.

When it comes to electronics, better energy efficiency through harvesting technologies can also reduce the need for batteries.  Perhaps future smart phones will be powered by light and movement and won’t need batteries at all.  Energy harvesting also has profound implications for M2M applications – particularly those that are not economically feasible now due to remoteness, inaccessibility, or hazardous conditions for periodic replacement of batteries that power sensors.  A sensor that can power itself will have a far better operating lifetime and interesting impacts cost/benefit considerations.

The market projections for energy harvesting are currently assessed at $3B, but this number seems too conservative.  Given the range of applications – essentially embedded technology in every device used in the Smart Grid value chain as well as enabling many new M2M applications – it seems that this number could easily double.  There’s a growing number of companies, mostly small players, that are developing and delivering solutions for civilian and military applications.  However big Smart Grid players like ABB and General Electric are putting more investment into energy harvesting technologies.

So how do we accelerate the pace of innovation and deployment in this promising field?  It takes R&D investment in physics to expand knowledge and experience about piezoelectric, thermoelectric, and pyroelectric materials.  Nanotechnologies can also play important roles in innovations in materials and manufacturing processes.  Advanced crystalline and ceramic materials are already capturing and converting wasted energy.  Thermoelectric R&D and product releases are on the uptick, particularly in technologies to increase energy efficiency in industrial processes and automotive applications.

In the not too distant future, kinetic energy – such as people walking on a floor – could be converted to electricity by piezoelectric technologies.  Just think how schools could harness the pitterpatter of little feet to power some of their building needs. But it’s going to take investment in basic R&D to realize the full potentials of energy harvesting.  That means government intervention, because venture capital and corporate funds typically shy away from investments in basic R&D.  The Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) within the Department of Energy programs funded BEEST (Batteries for Electrical Energy Storage in Transportation) to develop innovative rechargeable battery technologies.  A similar program called BEETIT (Building Energy Efficiency Through Innovative Thermodevices) is focused on developing energy efficient cooling technologies and air conditioners (AC) for buildings – and particularly for retrofitting existing technologies.  This model should be applied to energy harvesting innovations, just like European consortiums have already focused in this area.

The bottom line is that in an “all of the above” energy strategy as defined by the Obama administration, we need to look at new energy sources, optimize existing infrastructure and operations, and deploy innovative technologies that support intelligent production and consumption of electricity.  Energy harvesting technologies can produce electricity, and reduce loads across the grid.  Those are two great reasons that energy harvesting technologies could and should be applied across the entire Smart Grid value chain.


Smart Grid Trends to Watch: ICT Innovations and New Entrants

The convergence of information and communications technologies (ICT) with the traditional operations technologies (OT) is an ongoing Smart Grid trend.   Within the USA and its 3000+ electric utilities, Smart Grid investments focused on optimization of transmission and distribution grid operations through machine to machine (M2M) communications and forays into data analytics for applications ranging from revenue assurance to voltage conservation.

This ICT/OT convergence trend is encouraging new entrants into the vendor ecosystem that supports electric, gas, and water utilities.  One of the latest entrants is Dell Computers.  Dell made two announcements in the past two months that illustrate how ICT companies are exploring Smart Grid market opportunities.  2013 will be the year to watch their strategies and progress.

Dell recently unveiled their Smart Grid Data Management Solution which combines high-performance computing, networking and storage to manage data for review and action in utility operations.  Leveraging domain expertise and the PI System™ from OSIsoft, they developed and tested a reference architecture in a simulation environment that modeled a utility’s transmission grid operations.  Transmission grids have been one of the early beneficiaries of the Smart Grid through products called Phasor Measurement Units (PMUs), which are extremely high speed monitors that sense changes in transmission conditions.  Taking hundreds of measurements per second from multiple PMUs leads to large quantities of data that challenge existing data storage practices in utilities. Dell’s solution coupled with OSIsoft’s solution provides faster updates and makes actionable data available to staff, applications and business systems.  It’s an excellent example of how M2M communications and data management technologies can become ubiquitous in the Smart Grid.

This is a noteworthy collaboration between a traditional ICT vendor (Dell) and a traditional OT vendor (OSIsoft) that is focused on grid operations.  But Dell has also signaled its intent to get involved in the consumer side of the electricity value chain by joining the Pecan Street Inc. Advisory Board.  Pecan Street is an energy and smart grid research and development organization, and serves as a living laboratory with a community microgrid characterized by residence-based solar generation, electric vehicles (EVs), energy efficiency and energy management solutions for homes.  The project is conducting research in the brave new world of consumer/prosumer evolutions and their energy interactions through data analytics.

While the term “big data” is used in this project, its volumes are dwarfed by the volumes of data that are generated by today’s PMU deployments.   Similarly, if smart meters ever provide data to utilities at 15 minute intervals, that would constitute really big data, at least as analytics providers in financial services or telecommunications would define it.  It’s more accurate to describe the Pecan Street project as one that offers horizontal complexity and scalability as the types of devices, with all their variations in hardware, firmware, and software will need to be managed in addition to the networks that connect them.  There aren’t too many analytics companies out there that can offer this expertise, and the best ones are proven performers in other industry sectors outside of electric utilities.

However, Dell has proven abilities in the arena of data management, and they understand a thing or two about consumers after successfully building a competitive business that sells direct to them.  So their moves into the Smart Grid sector portend more than a continuation of the ICT/OT convergence trend.  It also highlights another trend – that of businesses (others are Verizon and Comcast) that are experienced in consumer retail operations and engaged in exploratory activities to directly engage with electricity and water consumers.  Traditional utilities may discover that their business models are disrupted more by this second trend than the first.  Of course, this second trend is a riskier play, and it is too early to tell if these new players will become intermediaries between consumers and utilities.  It will be interesting to watch Dell in 2013 and see how these trends progress.


Smart Cities and the Smart Grid

There are natural parallels between the Smart Grid and smart cities in terms of concepts and deployments.  Both rely on ICT technologies and M2M (machine to machine) communications applications to enable devices and systems to be remotely monitored and controlled.  Both are infrastructure plays that often require significant financial investments and have payback periods that are not always immediate.

But there the similarities end, because cities have much more experience at evolution than the traditional electrical grid.  After all, cities have been adopting radically new technologies that disrupt the state of the art and the status quo for centuries. The Romans created aqueducts and fundamentally changed how water could be controlled and distributed in cities.  Discoveries in hygiene and disease transmission and control allowed people to healthily live in population densities with minimized odds of large scale epidemics.  And then automobiles exerted their benign and malign influences on cities.  In each case, city systems, policies, and people changed to accommodate new technologies, new knowledge and new practices.

Just a couple of decades ago, the ability for a customer to have equipment that created dialtone (the private branch exchange or PBX) was a mind-boggling different systems approach to the old model of a central office switch delivering dial tone for all devices, which by the way, were very proprietary and closed.  The technologies had changed over time, but that system model persisted.  The PBX fundamentally changed the telecommunications model and market, and encouraged more opportunities for technology innovations.  The culmination is the coming explosion of M2M applications.  As often noted Alexander Graham Bell wouldn’t recognize the modern telecommunications networks or technologies, but Thomas Edison would feel right at home with the North American electrical grid.

Distributed generation (building-scale solar, wind, geothermal) and energy storage + energy efficient designs and materials + energy and water management systems are the grid’s equivalents of PBXs.  There’s no going back once building owners see compelling financial justifications for these investments.

The evolution of buildings was a primary topic at a roundtable sponsored by the Consulate General of the Netherlands in San Francisco recently.  My talk focused on the relationship between the Smart Grid and smart cities, and the Dutch delegation shared fascinating information about urban planning and development, sustainable retrofitting of existing building stock, and M2M applications to make buildings intelligent.  While in the USA energy is a fraction of overall cost of living expenditures, in Holland it is about 50/50 spent between energy and housing.  That motivates Dutch political leaders and business to develop policies and technologies that reduce energy consumption.

Residential and commercial buildings are dumb now, but intelligent buildings will contain M2M applications such as automated energy and water management systems and be built or renovated with energy efficient designs and materials.  Buildings will become participants in energy markets.  Some are already participating in demand response (DR) programs that put a value on negawatts.  As regulatory policies change, more building owners will find it financially feasible to participate from a kilowatt perspective, and buildings will upload electricity that was generated or stored onsite.  Buildings that operate as prosumers in energy markets can disrupt the existing business models and the systems in place that are designed for electricity flow in one direction – from centralized sources.

M2M applications will have very interesting impacts on cities, and on their commercial and residential buildings.  Ambitious goals such as zero net energy buildings will change the relationships that physical structures have within cities, and in turn change the relationships that occupants (full or part-time) have within buildings and within cities.

As discussed in last week’s article, sustainable transportation leverages ICT and M2M applications to re-think how we move people and goods.  The same will be true for cities – we need to think of them differently in terms of how systems and models (and our assumptions) will be disrupted by new technologies, ideas, and policies; and how smart cities will interact with the Smart Grid.