Where IoT Meets The Environment: Building a Greener Future

Our use of technology has caused pollution and other environmental damages. It's only fitting that we use technology to address the resulting problems. IoT networks allow us to monitor and combat energy pollution as climate change accelerates.

2052
Image of a mountain range connecting to hardware through the internet
Illustration: © IoT For All

From networks of useful embedded sensors to AI decision-making frameworks, the impact of IoT has already begun to change both our environment and the ways in which we live within it.

Environmental concerns are playing an increasingly significant role in our everyday lives.  Threats such as climate change and rising pollution are becoming more visible.

And while technology is arguably at least partly responsible for some environmental issues, the rise of IoT is also offering sophisticated solutions to some. The ability to create robust, scalable, interconnected mesh networks of constantly alert sensors (sometimes in remote areas or complex terrain) offers the potential to deliver significant environmental improvements in a host of areas.

And while #Technology is arguably at least partly responsible for some #Environmental issues, the rise of #IoT is also offering sophisticated solutions to some of those problems. Click To Tweet

Using IoT to Monitor Methane Levels

Significant efforts are underway to leverage technology to resolve oil and gas pipeline leakage. Methane, in particular, is not only estimated to be the second largest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide (C02); it’s also a major component of industrial emissions. Indeed, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that more than nine million metric tons of methane leaked from natural gas systems alone in 2014. Converted to CO2-equivalent over 100 years, that’s more greenhouse gases than were emitted by all US iron, steel, cement, and aluminum manufacturing facilities combined.

However, teams of researchers are working to create an intelligent methane monitoring system to provide an early warning system for leaks. One project, involving IBM and US natural gas producer Southwestern Energy, is using silicon photonics to transfer data at the speed of light. Embedded within the infrastructure, the chips would form a network of sensors that could be combined with real-time environmental pressure sensors, weather, and satellite data to monitor large areas and trace pollutants immediately minimizing response times and thus environmental damage.

Another field test was run by Statoil in 2017, which saw the deployment of solar-powered continuous methane detection sensors at its production facilities in Eagle Ford, Texas. The laser-based sensor systems are designed to be mainly self-powered, require low maintenance, and last more than five years.

A large solar array owned by Statoil
Image Credit: HiveMiner

As the company pointed out, the oil and gas industry loses nearly $30 billion of natural gas a year from leaks at disparate sites that require continuous monitoring to combat the leaks. It’s estimated that natural gas leaks can be reduced by at least 40 percent at an average cost of about one penny per thousand cubic feet of gas produced, preventing waste as well as protecting the environment from methane leaks.

How IoT Sensors Can Help Us Combat Pollution

The challenge of pollution isn’t exclusively an industrial one. It’s estimated that poor air quality costs the global economy $225 billion annually in lost labor income, according to the World Bank. With global urban areas set to expand by at least 2.5 billion people before 2050, the air pollution issue is only going to intensify.

A project announced in July 2018 may provide a solution. Fixed and mobile pollution sensors are being rolled out across London’s streets. 100 fixed sensors were placed in the worst affected areas and sensitive locations. Two dedicated Google Street View cars will roam the city, providing real-time air pollution data on the move. The two Google Street View cars will take air quality readings every 30 meters with the aim of flagging pollution “hotspots” by analyzing data trends over a year’s worth of data. Online maps showing the data in real time will give Londoners information on pollution levels at a granular level, enabling people to plan accordingly.

This hyperlocal pollution sensing has also been tested in Oakland, California and Houston, TX, and features specially tweaked Google Street View cars equipped with a sensor platform that measures black carbon, nitric oxide, and nitrogen dioxide.

Hyperlocal data is a major upside of IoT sensors. The advent of increasingly accurate home-based sensors is creating powerful results. IoT in the smart home context has other environmental implications as well, as the potential to apply commercial style building management strategies to homes becomes increasingly feasible.

The potential to cut consumers’ utility bills, reduce waste, and improve the environmental footprint of individual homes is a highly attractive prospect. A host of big-name brands and startups at various stages of product development are keen to capture the opportunity. Two players investing in the space are German energy giant E.ON and Microsoft’s venture to develop a universal Energy Management Box for domestic use. The plan is to create a single platform and interface to manage smart home IoT devices, including heating and cooling systems, PV installations, and battery storage or chargers for electric vehicles.

The system will have the ability to determine when people are home or on their way and to adjust the home’s temperature accordingly in advance. Additionally, it will use AI to control energy consumption intelligently by methods such as preferentially using self-generated renewable power. Another interesting possibility is using a combination of EV batteries and PV generation to store power, then release it into the grid when prices are favorable.

In short, the environmental impact of IoT networks, with their embedded sensors and cloud-based AI decision making, is already beginning to have an impact on everyday life and the environment in which we all coexist. The future holds much more of the same. It certainly looks brighter with IoT on our side.

Written by Martin Keenan, Technical Director at Avnet Abacus