Taking Energy to Always-Connected Devices, No Matter Where
An aid organization using drones to deliver relief packages directly to people in zones of conflict. A university research department using sensors to measure the humidity levels in a rainforest. A state water department using smart devices to monitor hundreds of miles of pipes for leaks and pressure. Welcome to the new world of the Internet of things (IoT) where smart, always-connected devices receive and relay massive amounts of information to and from remote places all over the world.
A cozy B&B with free WiFi to keep you connected.
The revolution in smart devices—from drones and sensors to home appliances and fitness trackers—that talk to each other and to data centers via the Internet has made our world significantly smaller. “Remote” places, previously inaccessible to all but those who lived there, are coming online via all kinds of electronic appliances. Even the poles now have live webcams that allow researchers to measure and monitor conditions 24/7. Additionally, anybody with Internet access can access these cameras and see what’s happening there real-time.
Energy Fuels the Change
Yet, to function, all these devices need access to energy sources. More than a decade ago, the revolution of the mobile phone arrived hand-in-hand with a revolution in batteries. It was technological innovation in power, size, and storage capacity that made batteries small and powerful enough to make mobile devices practical and pervasive. The ever-shrinking battery also made possible IoT devices like drones and webcams.
As we experience through our own daily use, even the latest devices need to recharge their batteries quite often. Although these batteries do not take up much electricity, they nevertheless need to be near a power source. In areas where the sun shines reliably, some IoT devices that do not require too much power to operate are 100% autonomous. However, most devices require a direct source of electricity to be re-charged. When these IoT devices are in remote locations, like a research sensor or a webcam in a rain forest, technicians need to change out their batteries regularly.
A Global Information Infrastructure that Needs an Energy Counterpart
The Internet of Things Global Standard Initiative defines IoT as “A global infrastructure for the information society, enabling advanced services by interconnecting (physical and virtual) things based on existing and evolving interoperable information and communication technologies.” To work, this global infrastructure of information requires a similar global infrastructure of energy. This is especially true for off-grid devices that take the Internet to places where traditionally connected devices, such as personal computers and servers, are not present.
The energy needs to power this global infrastructure arise from two sources. The first one is to ensure that the actual devices can be charged at the remote locations in which they operate. The second requirement for additional energy is the resulting explosion in information processing that IoT brings, which requires more (a lot more) and bigger data centers. In a recent post on data centers, we highlighted, “Data centers have mushroomed from virtually nothing 10 years ago to consuming about 3 percent of the global electricity supply and accounting for about 2 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. That gives it the same carbon footprint as the airline industry.”
Making Power Away from the Grid
In that same article, we wrote, “Energy is going through an astounding period of innovation in areas that range from efficiency to new sources of power.” The ideal answer to the new energy challenges posed by IoT is a clean energy solution that can reliably operate off the grid to reach the same remote places where always-connected devices now operate.
One of the traditional ways to measure the “remoteness” of a place is whether it is connected to an electricity grid. By this measure, one billion people around the world live in remote places where fire, in its many different forms, still provides for light and heat. In some of these places, an old and dirty diesel engine may be the only source of electricity in town to power a phone link to the outside world, a water pump, or lighting for a rural clinic. Yet, smart devices of all types are making their way into these remote places, bringing with them much needed technology for health, aid, nutrition, and education.
Hydrogen 2.0 technology is a new energy innovation that can power IoT devices, wherever they are located. In places where traditional electricity cannot go because they are too far from the grid, Hydrogen 2.0 could be used to produce clean hydrogen fuel from nearly any water source, which can then be converted into electric power on-site, 24/7. The by-product of this hydrogen production (clean water) could help remote communities without access to clean drinking water raise their standard of living by becoming healthier in addition to being connected to the Internet.
Similarly, technologies like Hydrogen 2.0 can enable companies to open new data centers in places where the grid does not go. They can simply add it to their growing mix of renewables, like wind and solar, to supply their energy-hungry servers with clean electricity.
Remote will Need to Be Redefined
Can we continue to call the South Pole, where hundreds of live webcams are accessed by thousands of people daily, a remote place? What about a village in Africa where kids can now access online college courses taught by professors in Boston?
The slow but steady arrival of connectivity, powered by clean energy, to all corners of our planet may force us to redefine our definition of what “remote” means. As the popular song goes, “It’s a small world, after all.”
As the Hydrogen 2.0 ecosystem gains momentum, we’ll be sharing our views and insights on the new Hydrogen 2.0 Economy. We also update our blog every week with insightful and current knowledge in this growing energy field.