In the early 1980s, a Coca-Cola vending machine in Carnegie-Mellon University became one of the first appliances connected to the internet. Frustrated with long treks to an empty machine or to one recently filled with warm coke bottles, the students of the Computer Science department decided to devise a solution. Micro-switches were installed in the machine to record both the number of bottles present and the time since the last refill, allowing anyone with internet access to remotely check the state of the machine.
Nearly three decades after the pioneering vending machine, advancements in technology have led to an explosion of “smart” technology in the market, from smart buildings to smart cars and even smart household appliances. The result is a vast, interconnected network of objects, appliances and devices that can “talk” to each other, constantly exchanging information in a collective system known as the Internet of Things (IoT). Considering the proliferation of these devices, how can we utilize the extensive networks of the IoT to address today’s pressing issues, such as energy security in an increasingly urbanized and populous world?
An illustration of the Internet of Things. Image from Pixabay.
UK-based company Open Energi believes that the key lies in fine-tuning our energy demand to match the available supply in real-time. This paves the way for far greater levels of variable renewable power generation, such as wind and solar. To accomplish this, Open Energi’s Dynamic Demand tech platform uses the IoT network to communicate with the electronic devices connected to their system. Processes that can be flexible about precisely when they consume electricity, such as supermarket refrigerators and office air-conditioning systems, are asked to adjust their energy consumption according to the current availability on a second-by-second basis.
Infographic of Open Energi’s Dynamic Demand Platform. Retrieved from their website.
This approach enables Dynamic Demand to invisibly unlock small amounts of stored energy for use when there is a deficit in supply. Similarly, the platform can also absorb excess power by asking devices to increase energy consumption when required. Open Energi’s technology reduces our reliance on fossil fueled power stations as a means of balancing electricity supply and demand creating a cheaper and greener energy economy where consumers can control when, where and how they use their electricity.
Infographic from Open Energi’s website.
While the prospect of exploiting flexible energy in devices may sound alarming at first, Open Energi’s Dynamic Demand platform is built to carefully consider the sensitivity and flexibility of each process, with the goal to have zero impact on end-users. This is accomplished by focusing on devices that do not have time-sensitive processes. They contain stored energy that can be tapped into, given that certain parameters, such as temperature of a refrigerator, are maintained within preset boundary conditions. “Any one piece of equipment can only make small changes to the timing of its electricity consumption but collectively, the impact is transformational” states Nicole Gilbert, the Marketing and Communications Manager of Open Energi.
Map of UK’s Demand Side Flexibility by Remi Boulineau of Open Energi.
But what is the potential magnitude of collective energy that may be shifted through the Dynamic Demand platform? Remi Boulineau, an Analyst at Open Energi, has investigated this question by mapping the flexibility of the UK’s energy demand. This flexibility was quantified as the potential to shift electricity usage for one hour outside the peak demand of a given winter day, and is based on publicly available data of annual energy consumption by both domestic and non-domestic users. The map, shown above, reveals that there are 6 gigawatts of peak-shifting potential flexibility throughout the UK. The darker regions such as London reveal greater potential flexibility present in urban areas, illustrating how Open Energi’s technologies may be able to shift significant amounts of energy to improve the resilience of power grids to peak demand. Considering the projected growth of city-dwelling populations around the world, Open Energi’s technology may pave the way for urban sustainable development, with flexible energy usage and decreased reliance on fossil fuels.
Tarmac, UK’s leading building materials construction solutions company and a client of Open Energi. Image retrieved from Open Energi’s website.
Founded in 1999 by a British inventor whose vision was to use stored energy in household fridges to balance electricity supply and demand at a national level, Open Energi today is focused on bringing their innovative platform to industrial and commercial settings. Their diverse client base ranges from universities to hospitals to manufacturing plants. Currently, Open Energi is working on developing artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques such as deep reinforcement learning to further optimize and balance energy consumption across all of a company’s assets, allowing their clients to maximize the saving and revenue opportunities across their sites. Just like the internet-connected Coca-Cola machine that heralded the era of IoT, Open Energi’s innovative technologies illuminate how the networks within our increasingly interconnected world can be used to revolutionize our energy economy, creating a greener and cleaner future for both our people and our planet.
Written by Glenn Liu