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The Internet of Things promises a future in which every device is connected. For a renewable energy grid that means every solar panel, wind turbine, and home meter would be remotely monitored and analyzed. Such a system results in more accurate home monitoring, predictive repairs for major equipment leading to reduced downtime, and more efficient energy usage overall.

But renewable energy comes with a downside. Because renewable energy frequently relies on environmental inputs, it inherits the environment’s natural variability. This variability causes issues in energy distribution when the energy generated by a solar or wind farm is particularly high or low. Too much energy being put into the grid results in wasted energy; too little energy results in the need to periodically power up more stable fossil fuel power sources. These practices of wasting energy or powering up fossil fuel plants are currently the best solutions, but the introduction of IoT-enabled technologies could present a more ideal system.

So what does this ideal system look like? First, it would require that no energy be wasted, so energy must be stored somewhere during high power times when too much electricity is being produced.

Second, it would require that pollution-producing fossil fuel plants not be used at any time, so during low power times there must be stores of energy capable of keeping the lights on. To fulfill either of these requirements, vast quantities of energy must be stored somewhere.

Unfortunately, storing that amount of energy stands just beyond the edge of what is currently technologically feasible. The expense of a system of that scale is too great to justify.

That’s where the greatest opportunity for IoT exists. If there is one thing IoT is particularly good at, it's distributed systems. It allows for disparate things that exist in remote places to communicate with each other and act as one. Where a centralized energy storage system may be too expensive for any one entity, an efficient, distributed system may be collectively feasible for a large enough group of people.

A great example of a solution arising from this philosophy is a pilot currently being run in Hawaii by Steffes Corporation. The pilot is experimenting with using specially equipped hot water heaters placed in nearly 500 homes to act as thermal energy storage mechanisms, allowing the grid to time electricity supply and demand so that they more accurately match up.

This is done by allowing the water heaters to heat their contents to a much higher than usual temperature, but only during times when energy is in excess. In turn, the devices can pull much less energy during times of lower energy production, resulting in lowered need for fossil fuel power plants.

Another, perhaps more conventional, example is the Tesla Powerwall, a battery that powers your home by integrating with solar to store excess energy generated during the day. The Powerwall acts as a buffer between the power grid and the home’s solar system. This smooths out the draw and pull of electricity from the house as a whole. Similar to the hot water heater, this could allow grid operators to synchronize energy supply and demand, making for an altogether more efficient and less pollutive system.

IoT and renewable energy could be a match made in heaven. The potential for further reduction of fossil fuel usage and wasted energy is astronomical. That being said, it will require the coordination of unprecedentedly large groups of people, so only time will tell how successful their integration will be.

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James Schaefer

James is the Director of Engineering at Leverege. He graduated from NC State University in 2016 with degrees in Computer Science and Textile Engineering. His writing focuses on development and security.

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