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IoT and Sustainability: how technology is helping the environment

internet of things

Imagine staring at the art on your wall, appreciating it not just for its beauty but also because it is cleaning the air by removing carbon dioxide and converting it to oxygen.

This artwork, by Artveoli, is an innovation of the Internet of Things (IoT), the array of physical objects with sensors and technologies that work via the internet. These objects can help sustainability, with value from the IoT’s ability to not only collect data in real time, but connect devices to respond to particular problems. Estimates report IoT’s future global value at $14 trillion by 2030. Further, because the IoT is part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and digital transformation along with Artificial Intelligence, the convergence of enabling technologies spells faster gains for sustainability.

The “IoT Guidelines for Sustainability,” by the World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates the IoT may help achieve top sustainability goals in the next 10 years. These goals, as identified by the United Nations, cover 75% of IoT projects and include climate change, cleaner and more efficient water use, industry energy efficiencies, and increased digitization. Of all IoT projects currently in existence, the WEF estimates 84% either are addressing, or can address, these goals. 

Help combat climate change

The UN projects global average temperatures may rise by 2 degrees Celsius by 2050, which will deeply impact ecosystems. One technology that may help climate change is sustainable transportation. For example, smart cars that are connected are expected to grow from 33 million to 77 million in the next five years alone, according to Business Insider Intelligence. Either semi-autonomous or autonomous vehicles are projected to reach 14 million in the same period.

Transport companies are employing the IoT on a larger level. For example, a trucking company may use IoT to monitor its fleet by location, fuel consumption, and work toward more efficiencies with better route planning and maintenance scheduling.

Climate change may also be reduced because many IoT devices use less energy or use it more efficiently. For example, combining 5G capabilities with low power wireless technologies reduce energy use.

Better water use

Improving water efficiency is critical. The biggest industry user is agriculture, which accounts for 70% of fresh water used globally, according to UNESCO. The IoT helps improve farmers’ productivity by reducing water use. For example, in Colombia sensors are being deployed in a new water irrigation project. There they are collecting information with sensors, feeding it into a communications network and analyzing it to make better decisions about water use.  In Waco, Texas, the city started employing smart utility meters, with leak sensors and smart water communication modules for better usage.

Industry efficiencies with energy

Energy efficiency is improving with so-called “smart energy.” The information networks and sensors making up smart energy can reduce the kilowatt costs and make way for more clean energy such as wind and solar. Projections estimate smart energy may save more than 1.3 trillion megawatts in the next 10 years. Smart energy includes connecting solar panels and using micro-grids, thus reducing impact on larger grids. Smart, wi-fi enabled thermostats enable anyone to monitor and reduce their home energy use.

On a large scale, smart energy enables wind farms and smarter cities, supporting commercial buildings energy use. For example, Enlighted offers services optimizing energy use including seeing where employees are using spaces. Their real-time data collection includes managing space, HVAC, lighting and safety. Another application is from Wexus, which tracks utility data and alerts users to issues, such as equipment needing repair.

Digitize operations

For digitizing operations, IoT is known as industry IoT (IIoT). Beyond information technology, IIOT includes engineering technology (ET), supply chain and operational technology (OT). These technologies are expected to change business offerings, with expanded services increasingly supporting products. For example, a manufacturing company may originally offer warranties, field service and replacement parts. With IIoT, the company can move to a customer relationship model with more aftermarket services, offering remote monitoring and diagnostics, predictive maintenance and enhanced services such as optimized performance.

Another example of agriculture benefiting from IoT is with drones. Drones are now doing many tasks, such as spraying crops, capturing crop health including their chlorophyl levels, mapping fields and of course photographing.

All of this information gained by the IoT may be monitored and reviewed with data analytics. For the trucking company example, employees can review traffic patterns to see where and when their trucks got delayed. Industries benefit from not just examining historical data, but future data. In agriculture, farmers can predict crop and market conditions, thereby improving their profits and yields.

IoT and sustainability: how will it all work?

With more IoT adoption, users will gain awareness and people will accept the technologies more. The awareness and acceptance will help increase companies supporting efforts and grow governmental adoption. For example, in California, cities can use controlled city street lighting with a program from Greenvity.  This program hooks into its Powerline Communications Technology, which also enables building automation and smart LED lighting.  The Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York is using IoT by installing security cameras, chargers and USB ports.

Currently 75% of projects are small to medium in scale. To achieve bigger projects, experts encourage more partnerships, including public-private partnerships. Kansas City employed a public-private partnership to support better internet connectivity. They asked Sprint to build their network, and Sprint asked Cisco for hardware. Then 11 other partners, including startups, got involved for a successful venture. Now with its Emerging Technology Initiative, the city offers free public wi-fi downtown, digital community kiosks, and optimized traffic flow.

Conclusion

The possibilities for the IoT and sustainability are vast. As sustainability is already one of the top three factors considered by institutional investors, the trend growing related projects will likely grow. IoT will remain a great enabler for more and more environmentally responsible digital transformation.

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