Priyantha Wijayatunga, Director, South Asia Energy Division, Asian Development Bank (ADB)
The power industry has not changed the basic structure for over a century now. Power plants feed a central transmission network connected to distribution networks delivering electricity to scattered loads in a large geographical area usually an entire country. This arrangement with adequate redundancy embedded in the system has been providing a reliable supply of electricity to the consumers for over a century.
In the context of the power sector, a thing, in the Internet of Things (IoT), can be an electricity meter, other electrical and electronic devices at home and industrial/commercial installations, power generation plants including renewable energy based systems, storage devices, energy management systems, electric vehicles, and any other devices which can communicate with data networks.
IoT, if properly embraced, can change this picture in power systems completely. The main responsibility of the electricity utilities is to balance supply electricity of electricity with the demand connected to it. This needs to be done in such a way that the supply is reliable, cost effective, and efficient. IoT connectivity can play a major role in improving efficiency in operating an existing power system. It will also support in taking planning decisions involving technologies which otherwise would not have been considered as options in such decisions. For example, most of the renewable energy based power generation systems are intermittent and not easy to operate with conventional generation plants which are less operationally flexible. Therefore, renewable energy absorption in traditional power systems needed to be limited. However, the IoT would now allow, along with appropriate technologies such as storage devices to incorporate high level of renewable energy in a power system.
IoT, if properly embraced, can change the picture in power systems completely
Another example is IoT enables the flexibility in demand which can respond to the needs in a power system to balance generation and demand. Various energy consuming devices can change its power demand as a group to adjust to the generation availability requirement. At a time when the most expensive generation plants are needed to satisfy the demand, the consumers can be rewarded for reduction in demand in real time through IoT to avoid expensive generation. Such an exercise provides an additional option to minimize the cost of supply.
With these changes in power system operation, the role of centralized utilities needs to change. These utilities need to adjust to an environment where power generation becomes geographically distributed as much as the demand is. Sometimes, demand may become a generator or vice versa like in the case of an electric vehicle or a battery storage. Also this means the utilities now will have to deal with a large number of producer cum consumers or “prosumers”. These will provide opportunities to completely disrupt the traditional way of operating the power system. Most importantly these developments in IoT will empower the consumer and provide them a choice.
The following example shows how IoT can change the lives of the millions who do not have access to modern forms of energy. Asian Development Bank (ADB) supported a company which installs solar photovoltaic (PV) systems in rural households for their basic electricity needs. There payments are received through mobile phone reloading (or prepaid cards) and the solar PV system is switched on and off depending on the availability of funds in the reload. Once the solar PV system has been fully paid for it is unlocked to provide electricity to the house free of charge. This business model coupled with IoT provides basic electricity requirements to these poor and remote households and they can pay for these services as they earn.
ADB is currently preparing a 100MW wind power project in a geographical area with very good wind resources but located closer to a bird migration path. This project will incorporate devices to detect the movement of birds at a distance and to communicate with the turbines to switch them on and off depending on the movement of birds to avoid any bird collisions.
These are just some of the examples relating to areas where developing countries such as those assisted by ADB can leapfrog in power sector development with IoT. Electrification is considered to be one of the greatest engineering achievements in the 20th century. Yet we still have 420 million people without access to electricity in Asia and the Pacific alone. IoT in the power sector can be one of the most disruptive technology applications in the 21st century which can provide a major paradigm shift in power sector development both in terms of providing access to electricity and producing it cleaner.