How the IoT Sensors and Analytics Drive Sustainability

IoTThe Internet of Things (IoT) and analytics provide the infrastructure and processes to monitor, measure, and manage resources. Wikipedia lists sustainability as endurance for systems and processes.  The US EPA defines sustainability as “to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations”.  Among the resources most deserving of sustainability are air, water, and energy.  The IoT and analytics can unleash innovation and provide the foundation to drive sustainability by enabling improved methods to measure and optimize resource usage.

By focusing on water and energy, this article examines how IoT sensors and analytics can provide the tools to measure, manage, and verify progress in sustainability.  The framework is to develop a perspective on the water and energy issues through visual analysis and review how sensors can be used to measure and manage sustainability.

The USGS estimates there is 233 million cubic miles of water in the world of which 96.5% is salt water. Of the 3.5% (approximately 10 billion cubic miles) of the available fresh water, two-thirds is frozen artic ice with the remaining one-third in ground water, lakes, rivers, and streams.

Figure 1 Global Water Sources and UsesFigure 1 Global Water Sources and Uses
Source:  USGS, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Org.

When it comes to water usage, over 70% goes to agriculture and irrigation.  The following figure 1 Global Water Composition and Usage employs visuals to provide perspective showing 1% of global water is fresh while agriculture consumes 70% of water in the US and over 90% globally.

Visual analysis helps to provide perspective and context by prioritizing activities contributing to water consumption. By identifying behaviors that consume the most water, attention can then be directed towards ways to reduce water usage in agriculture.

To better understand water consumption in agriculture, let’s drill down into USDA data (on water usage.  The amount of water used by state is measured in millions of gallons per day (MGPD) with the top five listed by size as California, Idaho, Colorado, Nebraska, and Texas.  From the visual we find that surface irrigation and sprinkler systems represent the majority of irrigation systems.  With California as the largest consumer of water, it is not surprising to see steps such as micro-irrigation used to reduce water usage.

Figure 2 Water Usage by Farming Irrigation ActivityFigure 2 Water Usage by Farming Irrigation Activity
Source:  USDA

With 70% of the water in the US going to agriculture, the IoT and analytics can play a crucial role in preserving resources, increasing efficiencies and optimizing yield.  By analyzing water usage across the supply chain better tools can be developed to minimize usage and waste.  Traditional surface irrigation systems are still the leading form of irrigation despite it being less efficient.

Some interesting research is being conducted by Columbia University School of Engineering.  In an article written by Paul Hond in Columbia Magazine titled Liquid Assets, takes a deep look into the uses of water across the supply chain and new engineering and innovative approaches that are being developed by environmental engineer Kartick Chandran at Columbia.  The emphasis being how to minimize waste and reuse water through less energy intensive processes such as the removal of carbon and nitrogen from used water. As it turns out, nitrogen is important element in crop fertilizers, so maybe there’s a use for water with elevated nitrogen levels including crop irrigation.

IoT sensors have been applied to soil moisture monitoring to determine whether crops actually require watering.  While living in Santa Clara, CA I wondered why the apartment complex sprinkler system was watering the lawn, despite the drought, while it was raining.  Irrigation systems that can measure water flow and soil moisture levels could substantially reduce wasted water.  The ability to pull sensor data and control connected devices provides quantifiable value to the user.

Urban centers have seen a rise in indoor agriculture or vertical farms.  Back in March 2015 the RBH Group announced to retrofit a 69,000 square foot converted steel factory Newark, NJ into a vertical farm.  The group consisting of Goldman Sachs, Prudential and AeroFarms, will develop indoor growing systems using LED lights, managed watering and grow food 24/7 year round.  The other economic advantage Newark has is rent at $5 a square foot and is less than 10 miles from Manhattan compares to similar space in Brooklyn at $20 and higher.

Vertical farms can benefit from the use of sensors and analytics to optimize yield.  The premise is that by accurately measuring inputs and outputs through sensors and analytics, a better understanding of process dynamics is achieved and therefore, you’re better able to control systems to improve outcome.

By capturing data from CO2 (carbon dioxide) sensors, temperature, humidity, light levels including spectrum readings, as well as other IoT devices including energy and water usage, algorithms can be obtained to produce the best yield given a host of measured inputs.  Specific light wavelengths and color combinations have been found to improve certain plant growth.  Sensors and analytics serve to preserve resources and optimize yield.

In addition, the whole process of farm to supermarket can be better monitored to reduce waste and spoilage.  Supermarkets tend to lose 10% of fruits and vegetables to spoilage.  IoT sensors can provide monitoring and alerts on energy and environmental conditions from farm to store to minimize waste and spoilage.

While water conservation is crucial for sustainability in agriculture, energy consumption is also a key component of sustainability.  The burning of hydrocarbon fuels to generate energy is directly tied to air quality and therefore, reducing energy consumption also helps to improve air quality.  The use of IoT sensors and analytics play an essential role to measure and monitor energy usage.

Demand control lighting and heating/cooling systems with feedback loops built around sensors can dramatically lower energy consumption.  Sometimes just by measuring energy usage can help focus attention on factors that contribute most to energy savings.

Should we focus on electricity or oil reduction to achieve carbon offset and efficiency improvement?    The answer maybe related to fuels used to generate electric power, which is highly dependent upon coal at the moment.  Coal has a higher carbon composition than methane, but the power plant conversion to gas is slow.

The following Figure 3 Energy Consumption:  Electricity and Oil illustrates the trend in consumption of electricity versus oil.  The energy consumption trend suggests an upward use of electricity per worker in comparison to the downward slope in the use of oil per worker.  Vehicle fuel efficiency has improved while eclectic usage in buildings has not received much attention.

Figure 3 Energy Consumption:  Electricity and OilFigure 3 Energy Consumption:  Electricity and Oil
Source:  US DOE, EIA

Just as sensors enable asset owners to monitor, measure and manage resources, the IoT and analytics can help to improve efficiency and reduce waste.  In essence, IoT sensors can monitor and measure where, what, and when energy is being consumed.  By knowing what activities contribute to the highest use, corrective action can be taken to reduce the energy footprint.

Sensors and analytics enable the measurement of activities that impact production and processes that in turn, can drive sustainable economic improvement. The use of wireless IoT sensors can be easily deployed to monitor and measure energy usage through out a building.  Granularity of detail and timely reporting into processes and activities enable better management and control thereby serving as a better platform for sustainability.

F4Figure 3 Energy Consumption:  Electricity and Oil

A good strategy would be to measure and benchmark performance against similar facilities and industries to establish goals and objectives.  Perhaps incorporate energy and environmental measuring into a balanced scorecard capturing performance around business functions (marketing, sales, production, ..) and sustainability goals.

The IoT and analytics enable monitoring and control but also the ability to identify trends, anomalous usage patterns, threshold alerts, and best practices to optimize results and improve sustainability.  Data reporting and analytics can also provide substantial value in reducing costs and protecting assets.  IoT data capture and analytics enable better performance in managing sustainability.

Authored by:
Michael S. Davies, CFA

Mike is the Chief Strategy Office for Arkados, an Integrated Software and Technology Solutions Provider for Internet of Things (IoT) Applications and Analytics for intelligent devices. Mike is developing strategies and analytics to create value for energy and resource conservation through context aware connected devices, data analysis, visual analytics and renewable energy solutions.

Mike began his career selling software into vertical markets leading to marketing strategy consulting engagements. After business school he advanced to Wall Street as a financial analyst providing research and analysis on technology including semiconductors, data and wireless communication companies. Mr. Davies has provided business strategy and technology consulting to Apple, IBM, the Port Authority of NY & NJ, and NJ Dept. of Transportation. Analytics is a common thread throughout his career and his book Analytics 2 Insight on Amazon is featured in Data Science Association bookstore. Mike has been featured on CNBC, CNN, and Bloomberg with citations in the Wall Street Journal and Investor’s Business Daily. Mike graduated from Columbia University with BA in Economics and a MBA from University of California, Los Angeles.

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