IoT’s role in the energy transition 

The intermittent nature of renewables creates complications for the industry, but the Internet of Things offers security through forecasting and predictive maintenance. By Eve Thomas.

The Internet of Things connects sensors and actuators to balance energy supply and demand. Credit: metamorworks / Shutterstock

According to a recent study by ABB, 44% of organisations say environmental targets are “very important” for electrical systems management; however, only 20% consider sustainability targets to be a driver of interest for the implementation of the industrial internet of things (IIOT).

Yet the Internet of Things (IoT) offers potential solutions to several pain points in the developing renewables sector, as the world looks to shift away from traditional and polluting power sources. The intermittent nature of many renewable sources, alongside fluctuating demand and remotely managed assets, leaves grids vulnerable to outages; digital solutions could be the answer.

How IOT works in the power sector

GlobalData, Power Technology’s parent company, defines IOT as “an umbrella term used to describe the use of connected sensors and actuators to control and monitor the environment, the things that move within it, and the people that act within it.” 

In the power sector, these connected devices offer predictive maintenance and accurate measurements to better manage energy distribution and offer security. GlobalData analyst Amalia Maiden explained: “IoT can create a tech ecosystem that addresses many challenges within the sector, such as balancing supply with demand, workplace safety, integrating renewable energy into the grid, and fluctuating energy prices.” 

Sensors are the most common example of IoT devices in power. When combined with predictive machine learning models and AI analysis, sensors can monitor and anticipate energy production, offering distributional efficiency across the grid.  

Ed Ross, Technical Director at gridIMP, explained: “IoT devices can help to monitor and control energy demands and energy storage in batteries. Monitoring is especially important to gain insights into site demand and generation profiles, needed for real-time control and forecasting.” 

IOT’s contribution to energy security

Forecasting is important for a developing renewables sector, as it offers a resilient grid that can adapt to demand. Currently, renewable energy is secured by fossil fuel supply; however, as regulation continues to drive decarbonisation across all sectors, the renewables industry must find solutions to its energy security problem.  

Existing IoT devices are already providing some solutions. Patrick Fenner, co-founder and head of engineering at DefProc Engineering, explained: “Greater efficiency will have the biggest impact. Optimising visibility over an entire network and having more control over what’s going on means you can place the right resources in the right place at the right time. This will result in reduced waste, reduced costs and increased efficiency.” 

IoT will also offer security outside of renewables. Geopolitical disruption can interrupt supplies, as was evident in 2022 following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which saw Russia cut oil exports to Europe in response to sanctions. This constricted the global supply and made evident the need for integration of intermittent energy sources.  

A recent report by GlobalData noted the inextricable relationship between climate change and oil supplies: “an ongoing global energy transition is resulting in greater dependence on renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, that are intermittent by nature. All of this has resulted in energy security becoming a serious concern for nations and energy companies alike. Providing an adequate and reliable energy stream has become a competitive criterion for energy companies.” 

Using IOT to streamline the energy transition

Speaking to Power Technology, Sherif El-Meshad, Global Digital Lead from ABB Electrification, explained how IoT and digitalisation can improve efficiency: “Automation has already established itself as a significant contributor to production efficiency and environmental compliance… While the research shows a strong commitment to meeting sustainability targets, in order to realize these ambitions, organizations must accelerate their digital transformation efforts. This will help monitor and optimize resource consumption and reduce carbon emissions through the use of smart technology.” 

Connected to the cloud, IoT devices are used by transmission system operators and hardware manufacturers. When incorporated with new digital twin technology, these devices – sensors in particular – enable companies to build current and regularly-updating models of a physical assets for monitoring.  

These models enable the optimization of asset performance through periodic or continuous equipment monitoring. Monitoring performance through connected IoT devices reduces the risk of service interruptions by flagging anomalies earlier; the increased security enables the energy transition by safeguarding national grids from potential disruption.  

This is particularly important as providers struggle to modernise with inadequate or aging assets. Ross explained: “We see IoT most commonly deployed where traditional SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) technology is lacking, especially in developing markets like South Africa or historic buildings in the UK. gridIMP, for example, is working with South African partners to deploy IoT monitoring and control to help consumers and the grid cope with load-shedding (rolling planned blackouts to cope with insufficient generation).” 

Leaders and laggards

GlobalData’s report warned that “as the trend towards decarbonization grows stronger, all companies will need to digitalize to reduce emissions and break into cleaner energy markets. As renewable energy sources become increasingly popular, the need for a resilient grid that can respond to peaks and troughs in generation grows. Generation companies need to be able to predict which assets to use.” 

It noted Duke Energy, EDF, EnelEngie, E.ON, Ørsted, NextEra Energy as leaders in the implementation of IoT, investing in digitalisation.  

Engie in particular has invested in the IoT theme; it’s CRIGEN Lab is working to use digital twinning and IoT technologies in its hydrogen prototypes. Its digital twin uses PTC’s IoT platform, to run simulations of the hydrogen industrial furnace. Connected to an IIoT platform, the digital twin provides data for analysis, to enable Engie to work towards optimal energy and environmental performance.  

Ørsted has also made notable steps in IoT, having partnered with Vodaphone to digitally connect its offshore wind farm in Scotland through 4G. A partnership with Microsoft means that Ørsted now uses cloud technology to store the farm’s data, which is analysed for predictive maintenance.   

In a Q2 2023 tech sentiment poll, GlobalData found that 48% of poll respondents believe that IoT is already tangibly disrupting their industry; however 19% said that it never would. Fenner suggested that companies who are not investing, are at risk of falling behind:  

“For businesses, power is their fourth largest expense yet most businesses do not have dedicated staff to manage their energy consumption. As the economic and environmental costs of energy increase, the organisations that have people and systems in place to monitor their power, waste and renewables will be at a competitive advantage.”