15 years ago, mathematician Clive Humby hailed data as “the new oil”. While it may indeed be valuable, it’s not until data is paired with energy that benefits for communities will be fully unlocked.
In the same way that the wind and the sun have been harnessed to generate renewable power, so too will data need to be harnessed in order to complete the transition to a net zero economy. Linking up our power grids to our wider community infrastructure lies at the heart of managing the low-carbon transition.
So much progress has already been made in decarbonising the power industry, with coal-fired power stations giving way to solar panels and wind turbines. Yet the next steps in tackling the climate crisis are even more challenging, with the need to switch our heating and cooling from fossil fuels to electricity, as well as embracing electric transport instead of petrol and diesel.
Those heat and transport transitions will, in turn, require more and more electricity to be generated from renewable sources, increasing the strain on the transmission and distribution networks. That increased demand will trigger the need for investment in physical infrastructure to both generate the power and then get it to the homes and businesses that need to use it.
One way to reduce the cost of investment – which will ultimately need to be met by consumers, either through higher power bills or direct taxation – is by bringing data into play. If power companies have accurate information about when consumers are travelling from home to work and vice versa then they can better manage the balance between supply and demand.
Spikes in power demand during Coronation Street’s commercial break or after the final of Euro 2021 are no urban myths. If every home and every business also needs to charge its electric vehicles (EVs) and power its electric-source heating from the national grid then the pressure on ageing wires and substations will mount exponentially.
Spreading sensors around our communities and then linking them to central smart control systems will help to provide the data that will be needed to manage how energy is used. Giving power networks more information about the locations of consumers and their requirements means controllers can increase supply to help meet demand.
That supply could come from hydro-electric power stations or from grid-scale batteries, where renewable power has been stored until it’s needed. It could also come from the EVs themselves, which – in effect – are electric storage batteries on wheels.
If there’s a sudden surge in demand from an industrial user at night then the grid could slow down the flow of electricity to EVs that are charging. Their sleepy owners will awake none-the-wiser as long as there’s enough juice in their battery for their morning commute.
Cornwall Council is among the early adopters of the sensor technology that’s required to kickstart this transition. The unitary authority is working with SSE Energy Solutions, whose technology partners include Aaeon and Intel, to install optical sensors that can count and classify objects such as vehicles, bikes, and people.
As the low-carbon transition accelerates, that data could help to balance the power grid, feeding real-time information into smart city platforms to predict and manage supply and demand. Yet meeting the demand from EVs and electric-source heating is just one step on the journey.
Submeter data can also be used to identify which substations have spare capacity - helping councils pinpoint areas for housing or industrial development by liaising with distribution network operators. Making the most of existing grid infrastructure will keep costs as low as possible during the transition to net zero.
Data can bring other benefits too. Sensors fitted to smart street lights can be used to monitor congestion, with a control system redirecting traffic away from an accident, roadworks, or other hold ups. Additionally, data from these assets can be paired with police statistics to find out if crimes are committed when streetlamps are dimmed or off. Councils can then take action to help keep citizens safe.
Air pollution can also be tackled by using the data from sensors. If a road is particularly congested then pedestrians or cyclists could be advised through an app to take a different route, while any petrol or diesel burning vehicles could also be diverted, reducing the build-up of further harmful gases and particles.
This flow of data alongside energy requires the highest standards of anonymisation so that individuals cannot be identified, with the tightest levels of cybersecurity to prevent hackers from penetrating key infrastructure, such as power grids or smart city control systems. Yet these challenges are surmountable, with leading engineers developing and implementing robust mitigating measures.
Humby may have seen data as the new oil – but data may become even more valuable than the “black gold” of days gone by as we tackle the climate crisis by making the transition to net zero.