The Internet of Things

New technology and the emergence of the “Internet of Things” is leading the way towards a connected future where seeing and controlling your energy use will be as easy as checking into Instagram. Tim Riley asks, what is this Internet of Things? And how will it make it easier for us to better manage our energy use and reduce our impact on the environment?

The latest International Panel on Climate Change report release is another reminder of the importance of reducing carbon emissions. For Australia, the latest report forecasts an average overall increase in temperature of 2C by 2065, with that figure slightly lower along the coasts. Beyond that, the average temperature is expected to rise another 3-4C by 2100 and by up to 6C on our hottest days. Yes, 6C. No doubt, all of us over the years have tried in our own way to become more environmentally sustainable. But regardless of how focused you are on reducing your impact, it’s hard to see the wood for the trees.

Two of the biggest barriers we face to understanding our impact on the environment are: i) the opaque and complex nature of energy consumption: it’s just not that easy to know which actions have the biggest impact when it comes to reducing your home’s carbon footprint, and ii) no feedback loop: it’s difficult to get positive reinforcement on the changes you are making and how they might be benefitting the environment. But many don’t realise that these barriers to becoming more energy efficient are starting to break down. New technology and the emergence of the “Internet of Things” is leading the way towards a connected future where seeing and controlling your energy use will be as easy as checking into Instagram.

So what actions have the most significant impact on reducing your home’s emissions? What is this Internet of Things? And how will it make it easier for us to better manage our energy use and reduce our impact on the environment? When it comes to knowing what actions we should be taking, one of the best pieces of research I’ve come across is ClimateWorks Australia’s Low Carbon Growth Plan for Australia. First released in March 2010 and updated annually since, the research systematically worked through six sectors of the Australian economy (power, forestry, industry, buildings, agriculture and transport) and identified “54 least-cost opportunities across the economy to achieve a 25% reduction in Australia’s emissions below 2000 levels”. Here was a definitive step-by-step guide for Australia to follow. However, the vast majority of these opportunities depend on supportive policy and regulatory environment; and the support of local, state and federal governments and big business to prioritise and implement them successfully.

And while this research is great for big business, federal, state and local governments, what it didn’t do was make it clear about what householders could be doing. Then, last year ClimateWorks in conjunction with CSIRO released a study called Low Carbon Lifestyles – A Practical Guide for Households. The research identified 29 different actions households can take right now to reduce their energy use or switch to cleaner energy solutions. What is unique about this piece of research is that it analyses three different dwelling types: an apartment, a small house and a large house. Not only this, it does this across four different states: Victoria, Queensland, NSW and SA (each state has a different carbon emissions intensity from energy production. Sadly, Victoria is the worst because of the state’s reliance on brown coal). So for the first time, regardless of whether you live in a St Kilda apartment, a Rozelle townhouse or an old Queenslander in Woolloongabba, there is a study that clearly quantifies what financial and environmental impact each of these 29 actions will have on your household’s footprint. For example, if you live in a small house in Victoria and want to reduce your household’s emissions to zero, the report shows that doing the seven things listed below would reduce your household emissions to zero while reducing (yes, reducing!) your energy costs by 7%:

1. Upgrade to efficient light bulbs – switching from halogen to compact fluorescents
2. Upgrade to water efficient shower heads
3. Eliminate your standby power
4. Reduce your clothes dryer usage – from 5 to 2 loads per week
5. Upgrade to an efficient TV – from a 2 start to a 5 star
6. Purchase 100% GreenPower through your (electricity) provider
7. Switch your natural gas supply to GreenGas provider – which carbon offsets your natural gas usage

Now this calculation assumes that as a rational person, you do all the first five energy efficiency actions first (to save yourself some money) before using some of those savings on your energy costs to pay for switching to cleaner energy sources (which cost you money rather than saving you money). What’s really powerful about this research is that, for the first time, it quantifiably shows us that it is possible to significantly reduce your home’s emissions by taking only a few no-cost or low-cost actions. Further, if you are prepared to take some fairly simple energy efficiency actions, chances are that it will cost very little, or better yet, it may even save you money. Yet, while this research is helpful in showing you the best places to invest your time and money, we still have the problem that it’s difficult for the everyday householder to see how these actions are actually impacting on their home’s energy usage. Seeing is believing.

We are by nature visual creatures – seeing some sort of meaningful result from our actions is important for us to feel good about the things we do and motivate us to do more into the future. When it comes to energy efficiency, this is a tough call because electricity and greenhouse gases are invisible. In Victoria, seeing (and believing) is now possible, with the rollout of smart meters. Smart meters are central to supporting the growth of renewable technologies. Smart grids will help to integrate an increasing amount of renewable energy generation into the electricity network. Renewables present a challenge to aging electricity grids because they are often intermittent and difficult to predict (for example, solar needs the sun to shine and wind energy needs the wind to blow). However, from an energy efficiency perspective, the arrival of smart meters in Victoria means we are now on the cusp of the age of “the Internet of Things”. While the rollout of smart meters have been controversial, the bigger story that doesn’t get mainstream media coverage is that smart meters are a critical enabler to the age of the “Internet of Things” and the vision of the connected home, or smart home. This is because smart meters are digitising the electricity grid.

I first heard the term “the Internet of Things” a few years ago when I met Adrian Tuck, CEO of US based company, Tendril a few years ago. Tendril is an energy efficiency software developer that leverages smart home technology. The point Adrian was making at the time is that the Internet of Things is here now – and it brings massive business, environmental and social implications for us all. The concept of the Internet of Things emerged due to digital radio communications technology advances which allowed us to insert communication enabled identifiers (think wifi fridges, mobile phones, wifi sound systems). This means that objects can communicate with and be managed by computers over the internet. It is predicted that by 2020 more than 25 billion devices worldwide will be connected to the Internet of Things. The Internet of Things will enable the vision of the smart home of the future. This vision is that by around 2020, convergence of technologies will enable a new generation of intelligent cities and urban development. It might sound a bit Minority Report, but the vision of the smart home or the connected household is a vision of efficiency: better management of the consumption of our resources (electricity, water, food, even bandwidth) in ways that place less of a burden on the environment while saving households money.

Companies like Tendril, GE and LG are all working to leverage digital radio protocols and smart meters to develop an eco-system of smart-enabled appliances and devices that can talk to each other over wi-fi networks. The smart meter provides the foundation that will allow us to interact with our homes in a completely new way. Once an appliance like a washing machine, light globe, clothes dryer, dishwasher, refrigerator, range hood, oven, microwave, TV, hot water system, security system, air conditioner, thermostat or even an electric car is fitted with a digital radio communicator, it means you can control that object over the internet via a smart phone app. Imagine pulling up at the traffic lights in your electric vehicle. It’s been a hot day. You’re 10 minutes from home and your mobile phone sends you a message asking if you’d like to start cooling the house. The GPS in your electric vehicle has notified your smart home of your approach and your thermostat shows its 33 degrees outside and 27 degrees inside your home. It knows you like your home at 21 degrees. Also, since the cheaper, off-peak electricity rate just kicked in, the system asks whether you want to put on the washing you left earlier and run the dishwasher too.

Smart homes are increasingly popping up around the world. The Federal government just finished the Smart Home Family project, in which the Taylor family lived ‘smart’ over an 18 month experiment. The family of four home tested energy and water-saving technologies, as well as generating its own power from solar cells and a ceramic fuel cell. In this way, the family generated most of their power, some of which they stored in electric batteries in both the house and their Mitsubishi i-MieV electric car.

Not many people realise that Victoria is leading the world in bringing the smart home vision to life. If you have a smart meter in Victoria today and you are a customer of AGL (AGL IQ) or Origin (Origin Smart) you can now see how much you are using and spending on electricity, every half-hour of the day. Some Victorian electricity distributors also have online portals that provide similar insights. Origin took visibility of energy consumption one step further earlier this year when they launched a Smart Energy Monitor, allowing you to view your consumption level within seconds. So it is now possible for you to see and track your energy efficiency actions and usage over time. These are big leaps forward in the smart home space, as all three solutions are mass-market services that have the potential to be rolled out in hundreds of thousands of homes within a matter of years. While these products leverage smart technology to give you visibility, the next step is for them to provide us with control over our appliances, heating and cooling systems and devices. This is yet to come, but will in the next few years as more manufacturers and service providers (think companies like Telstra, iinet, Origin, AGL, GE, LG) invest in this space and the cost of these smart technologies and costs start to fall. Price and ease will always remain the main obstacles for adopting technology for the majority of homeowners, so it remains to be seen how quickly these technologies mature and whether widespread household adoption by 2020 is a realistic vision.

Aside from price and ease, other obstacles will need to be overcome in the next few years. There is  a lack of alignment across key energy utilities, ISPs & appliance manufacturers, disincentives for energy retailers, economic uncertainty, and perhaps most importantly, a lack of regulatory and political commitment to a national roll out of smart meters from state and federal governments. Mandating such a move would position Australia as one of the world’s largest smart meter markets, which would encourage economic investment, stimulate innovation and provide environmental benefits for the whole nation by making it easier and cheaper for all of us to make our homes truly energy efficient.

Tim Riley is the founder of Property Collectives. Property Collectives helps friends and family share their money, time, skills and knowledge to invest in property together. To find out more visit Tim Riley was a former employee of Origin Energy and commissioned the Climate Works Low Carbon Lifestyles report.

Illustration by Marc Martin for Assemble Papers.