Intelligent efficiency: turning data and energy efficiency into valuable assets
In the past, it has been all too easy to think of energy efficiency as a chore, a marginal 'upgrade' to existing infrastructure or processes that may save a bit on utility bills in the long run - and a few tons of CO2 or gallons of water for the environment too, says Craig Anderson
A recent paper by sustainability and energy efficiency research group GreenTech Media astutely noted that: "All around us, embedded in every commercial building, manufacturing facility and corporate campus, is a vast, untapped energy resource: efficiency."
If we look at it this way, energy efficiency is a potential revenue stream of sorts - an underused asset that can be exploited to improve business performance and reduce unnecessary waste. You might put your coins in a pocket with a hole in it for a while, thinking it would be too expensive and time consuming to fix it, hoping not too much would fall out. But what if you were offered a repair that not only stopped the loss but actually added more coins to your pocket afterwards?
As long ago as 2012, the World Economic Forum came to the conclusion that data was a new class of economic asset, like currency or gold . For energy efficiency, data is the means to tap into the savings - it is the thread to sew up the hole through which waste is lost.
The internet age has brought data to everyone's doorstep, desktop and - via smartphones - pocket too. With internet banking any account holder can get an instant breakdown of what they spend their wages on each month; comparison sites let us save ten pence a year on our phone lines with a few clicks; online shops let us spend hundreds even faster.
Despite its name and purpose, energy efficiency was not traditionally very efficient. Replacing all the light bulbs or toilet flushes was a blanket approach that was certain to achieve some savings, but did not target its efforts or costs compared against the benefits.
This is where data is the key, and where the idea of intelligent efficiency shines: with an accurate picture of where the greatest inefficiencies are, or where the easiest 'wins' can be found, efficiency-improving measures can be accurately focused to achieve the greatest returns on investment. With the technology now available to easily gather data on anything, anywhere, it is possible to see exactly how to most efficiently implement efficiency measures.
What is needed, then, is to find the easiest way of gathering the necessary data to make intelligent efficiency a practical, affordable reality. In the past, a similar 'blanket' approach was often used with data gathering technology - a large off-the-shelf or badly-tailored system would be offered or specified that would get the job done, but required a disproportionate investment of time, effort and often disruption to normal business operations.
A large up-front cost with obvious inefficiencies built in, and the common prospect of extra expenses for 'customisation' to come, has proven a quick way to have many an efficiency project die on the drawing board. When a substantial proportion of that cost is for ancillary aspects such as wiring and installation, it is often even harder to justify.
Modern technology and innovative thinking have, however, led to the development of far more flexible propositions. Advances in battery technology allow stand-alone devices to run for months or years without requiring any sort of 'hard' installation, and wireless technologies now allow stable, remote data transfer via several communication pathways.
Network solutions can be efficiently scaled almost infinitely, from a single data source to thousands of monitoring streams. With UHF/VHF radio, GSM/GPRS, SMS, Wi-Fi, Ethernet and PSTN working in conjunction, a modular system can be perfectly tailored to suit any installation environment for the most efficient combination of initial and ongoing cost.
To put these principles into context: using the right equipment, tiny, battery powered sensors can be easily installed to monitor everything from electricity, gas and water meters to heat, humidity and CO2 levels in a single room. Using the right choice of telecommunication format, this data can be gathered instantly, wirelessly, and seamlessly, then viewed and analysed on a computer or smartphone screen anywhere in the world.
For example, a common set up uses UHF/VHF transmitters on local sensors within a building , which transmit their data at no ongoing cost to an on-site, centrally-located 'data concentrator'. This collects all the local information and sends it on as a condensed packet to a secure web server via landline for minimal data transfer costs. This not only saves on the ongoing expenditure, but also massively reduces the amount of wiring necessary to monitor potentially hundreds of points. Such a setup could also incorporate extra sensors using GPRS for outlying areas beyond the range of radio, seamlessly integrating their readings into the data stream.
Once safely on a secure web server, users and software packages can utilise historical data, calculated projections and correlated comparisons to see, immediately, where the biggest, fastest and most effective efficiency savings can be made. All this is possible without any great cost of setting up the data-gathering infrastructure, thanks to advanced wireless communications and modern battery technology.
This means that anyone, anywhere - from a single business premises to a national utility supplier - can gather and make use of the data they need, when, where and how it suits them. Flexibility, adaptability and modularity are the keys to the future of intelligent efficiency; they allow the principles to be put into practice in the most efficient way possible.
Craig Anderson is head of business development and sales at HWM-Water Ltd