July 1, 2018

The History of Energy and How IoT Fits In

Energy and Utilities is a sector where IoT plays a huge role, both for consumers and providers. IoT helps us use and distribute resources fairly and smartly, whilealso helping us become more cost conscious. In this blog post, I want to share energy milestones with you, putting the way we consume energy today in perspective. Looking back at the major changes we have already experienced can hopefully give us some understanding of where we and our future businesses are heading.

Today most of us take free, abundant energy in easy-to-use packaging for granted. The “Energy Genie” is at our fingertips, appearing at the flick of a switch or a push on the gas-pedal. Even a couple of generations ago these things were still astounding – and before that they would have been considered magical.

Wind and muscles – the main energy sources until only 300 years ago

For most of humanity’s existence – and even today for many people- the main available energy sources have been fire and human muscle. A few thousand years ago as someone first set sail on a boat, wind power appeared, and a bit later – some hundred generations or so ago – someone harnessed a horse on the Central Asian steppes. But until very recently fire, wind and muscle were really the only available energy sources.
It wasn’t until about three hundred years ago that people like Thomas Newcomen and James Watt managed to build the first steam engines, the Grand Old Lady of mechanical energy inventions whose initial purpose was to drive water-pumps for the exploitation of mines.

Once energy could be deployed away from a primary source (a watermill, coal-mine, forest etc.) the question of transport to the point of use became an urgent task to solve. Smaller, more efficient steam engines enabled steam trains (first departure in Wales on 21 February 1804) and ships (S/S Charlotte Dundas in 1802) who could transport coal – and later people and goods – cheaply and across long distances.

Voilà: The 1st Industrial Revolution!

150 years ago, or so, after decades of work by different people, Nikolaus Otto, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach made key advances with the internal combustion engine. This effectively added fluid fossil oil, petrol, and gas to the energy mix, the basic technology used for almost all road and sea transport to date and a tremendous economic global growth. It also brought pollution and carbon dioxide emissions, which lead to damaging global climate change.

Another kind of magic 150 years ago

About the same time another kind of magic – the practical use of electromagnetism – came onto the scene, largely thanks to the brilliance of pioneering scientists such as James Clerk Maxwell, Allessandro Volta, Nikola Tesla, Michael Faraday, and Carl Friedrich Gauss.
Now, I suppose electromagnetism and the principles behind the electric engine/generator could be considered easily understood too… just get you head around Maxwell’s equations (published in 1861-62):

Piece of cake (right? ?) and the theoretical foundation for the even more dramatic 2nd Industrial Revolution, transforming society into the one we live in today.

Some milestones worth mentioning here:

  • The first usable electric generators and motors were designed in the mid 19th century in an increasingly competitive industrial environment. Most of the fundamental elements in the electricity distribution grid were already in place by the 1890s, designed by scientists and inventors like Thomas Alva Edison (General Electric), Jonas Wenström (ASEA/ABB), George Westinghouse, Werner von Siemens and Guglielmo Marconi – , also creating some of today’s industrial giants.
  • The first commercial electric power networks were deployed locally mainly for lighting and by the world’s first energy utilities,. Large-scale electricity production and transmission followed rapidly, and it took only a generation to ‘light up’ most households in early adopter markets, such as Western Europe and North America. Legislation and regulation followed as electrical energy became a basic, ubiquitous service.
  • The first electric light bulbs were commercially deployed in 1880
  • The first commercial electric car made in London in 1884 (by Thomas Parker)
  • The first mass-market electrical home appliances started shipping in the early 20th century: Laundry washing machines by 1904, electric stove patented 1905, and the first electrical refrigerator in 1927. The most transformative was perhaps the washing machine, which liberated (mostly) women from the back-breaking and labor-intensive manual laundering of clothes, often done in cold, dirty water.

(Parallel, but interlinked, is the history of telecommunications. The first telephone call was made by Alexander Graham Bell to his assistant Thomas Watson on March 10, 1876. Less than 25 years later there were over three million phones in the US alone. The first transatlantic call was made in 1927 with radio as a physical bearer. And the first phone call using cellular technology was made in 1973 at Motorola.)

And so on…– transforming the world into today’s multi-networked society: The Internet, along with a whole lot of other telecommunication networks, power grids, gas pipelines, road networks, water and sanitation… the list is endless and they’re all managed by various public and private utilities.

The next Energy Revolution

Until just a few years ago energy systems were (and still mostly are) hierarchical, with large central power plants and transmission systems providing electricity to end-users in a top-down way. This is changing, though, and today the energy sector faces challenges and new technologies, leading to what most agree will be large and disruptive changes, like those we have seen in the telecoms and IT sectors in the last decades.

Here are some examples, usually driving each other in yet another set of (hopefully) virtuous cycles :

  • Global warming & a strong need to move away from fossil fuels
  • Massive economic and population growth multiplying the need for energy in all forms
  • Large-scale deployment of renewable, energy sources, often intermittent.
  • Cost-down of renewables. A year or two ago we reached the point where new “utility-scale” solar electricity is cheaper, per kWh, than fossil-generated energy, in large parts of the world.
  • Large-scale use of electricity (and fuel-cell) powered vehicles and transportation systems on the near horizon, driven by radical improvements in battery technology. (The electric motor has been near its theoretical perfection since 1900 or so)
  • Local production and storage of electric energy, forming part of a new grid topology

And, last but not least:

Internet of Things, providing the power grid with communications quality and a granularity never seen before, making it possible to distribute intelligence and processing power, sensors, and control systems in completely new ways.
So, where will this take us ?

If you would like to learn more about how IoT can help your business, please get in touch.

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