Smart devices and the fight against climate change

Smart devices play a role in the transition from dirty to clean energy, according to an important new climate report released this week. People need tools that help them better understand where their energy comes from, see how much they consume, and help build a more resilient electrical grid.

“Digital technologies can contribute” to the fight to stop climate change, says the report released yesterday by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). That contribution could include smart devices that make homes more energy efficient or rooftop solar panels that work together like “virtual power plants.” Those technologies have the power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transform the power grid.

To avoid climate change so intense that people and ecosystems would struggle to adapt, the report says, people must reduce their pollution from global warming by half this decade. Hundreds of leading climate scientists who authored the report are calling for those emissions to be achieved by 2025 and then virtually disappearing by 2050. Achieving those goals means major changes to the way we power our homes and appliances. Not only do we need to replace fossil fuels with clean energy, but we also need to use less energy in the first place.

That’s where smart devices can come into play. In the future, if they connect to a smarter grid — one powered by clean energy — they can work with the grid to reduce both energy and pollution.

A clean net will most likely have to be smart. A smart grid can be in constant conversation with smart devices in the house, such as thermostats. In this way, your house does not waste energy on, for example, heating or cooling empty rooms. It can also schedule the charging of, say, an EV or other devices to times of the day when renewable energy is most abundant.

That’s a particularly useful feature for balancing the supply and demand of wind and solar energy, which ebb and flow with the weather. Those smarts can even make the grid more reliable, because too much energy demand and too little supply can lead to blackouts. Consumers should have to be on board first for this of course. But if many households on the same network could work together, these small changes at home could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make the network more resilient to climate change.

Being better prepared in the event of a power outage is crucial, as climate-related disasters such as forest fires and storms put more strain on the grids. If your EV already communicates regularly with the grid, utility companies can contact you to see if its battery can send power back to the grid for another customer in need.

In fact, fleets of EVs can work together to become a virtual power plant. The energy their batteries store together can be a resource that the power grid uses in times of disaster. The same can be done with solar panels and batteries scattered across neighborhoods, but still in virtual conversation with each other and utilities. In addition, these virtual power plants could potentially replace dirty gas-fired “peaker” plants that have traditionally stepped in to provide excess power when needed.

While those are exciting possibilities, there are caveats noted in the new climate report. “Digital technology will only support decarbonisation if properly managed,” the report authors write. E-waste is a growing problem and many countries still don’t have policies to prevent old appliances from being used heaps of toxic waste† Devices also need to be designed to last longer to reduce both e-waste and the greenhouse gas pollution associated with shipping and manufacturing new goods.

Smart homes and appliances won’t just save the planet, of course, but with careful planning, they can play their part.


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