Digital Pollution and the Greening of the IoT Environment

May 12

To coincide with Earth Day, IoT Marketing produced a webinar focused on sustainability and efficiency called “Going Green with IoT.” While the term “green” has become a marketing buzzword, the team at Industry Insights Webinars brought together a solid panel of technology experts to flex their industry knowledge and take a deep dive into what it means to bring sustainability to the digital domain. Even more than monitoring and mitigating the GHG output of multiple industries, green IoT and green computing practices can help reduce the carbon footprint of IoT itself on the environment.

WHAT IS DIGITAL POLLUTION

As if the world didn’t have enough challenges, there is an interesting conundrum brewing from the proliferation of electronics and smart devices.

Digital transformation has brought many positives to the fight against pollution and environmental destruction. Connectivity and the internet have reduced dependence on paper (saved trees), enabled remote work (saved gas), and helped families and businesses stay in touch (saved jet fuel). But, instead of solving our emissions problems with digital technology, it seems we have only traded one problem for another.

Perhaps it’s best to start with the bigger picture and think about each of our modern conveniences that requires infrastructure. Cars need highways, gas needs pipelines, access to clean water requires aqueducts and water treatment facilities, and besides off-grid living, access to electricity requires electrical grids. Additionally, most people don’t have to raise sheep to make a sweater or grow apples to make apple sauce due to an unimaginably large and complex system of producers, manufacturers, and supply chains that took center stage during the global disruptions of 2020.

The internet and the subsequently connected IoT devices, which have become increasingly integral to all the preceding conveniences and more, are entirely dependent on information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure.

WHY DIGITAL POLLUTION IS A PROBLEM

ICT infrastructure has remained below the pollution radar for so long because many of the services it enables are intangible. While things like Wi-Fi, cloud storage, and emails saturate everyday life, they are less tangible than a physically overflowing mailbox, a garage full of stuff, or telephone wires lining the highway. But ICT infrastructure is hidden in plain sight, and it contributes as much pollution as any other industry.

Smart Phones

Perhaps the worst offender, manufacturing makes up 80 percent of their emissions impact, including mining for rare earth minerals. Billions of people have at least one smartphone, and thanks to industry business models, none seem to last longer than two years.

Data Centers

Just because most individuals don’t have to kick out money for a server doesn’t negate that millions of these facilities are running 24/7 worldwide, providing everyone constant access to thousands of pictures of their dog, their lunch, or themselves. And that’s just personal use for billions of people, let alone industrial and enterprise data storage needs.

Cellular Networks

While tower structures often disguised as pine or palm trees have become familiar, they too are drawing power 24/7 along with other pieces of support equipment that we don’t see.

While the preceding list is just the tip of the ICT iceberg, it is worth pointing out the lynchpin between all those services is the need for electricity. And as much as we like to think electricity comes from thin air, it is produced from the burning of fossil fuels and the running of nuclear power plants. Renewables, unfortunately, are only available for a small portion of those who have access.

The dream of renewable energy is a good one, but the technology is young, and the need for power rises exponentially each year. To keep up, we would first have to match current needs with renewable sources, add proportionate energy storage, and expand each year to accommodate rapidly developing nations chasing the westernized lifestyle that leads the world in global power consumption.

INTRODUCTION TO GREEN IT PRACTICES

As our reliance on smart technology and its related services grows, so does our need for energy to manufacture and power these devices. Early in the conversation, the panelists started with foundational aspects around green computing, green networks, and their importance for sustainable IoT deployments.

Ramesh Elaiyavalli, CTO of SourceLogix, had plenty to say on green networking. “On the one hand, we have expanding requirements for more connectivity, better bandwidth, and lower latency, but there’s also a lot of innovation happening with networking on the edge, which is minimizing the amount of data packets that need to be exchanged between the device and the controller.” Given that data transmission is 70% of power consumption for IoT devices, designing networks that reduce energy use and power requirements for network equipment is ultimately, a good thing.

On the topic of green computing, Bill Pugh of Smart Connections Consulting talked about the strain on the grid from big data. “Grid resiliency is a huge deal, and we have to be smart about how we’re processing data, what devices are being put out on the edge, and what their consumption is on the grid overall. You think that it’s small, but the volume and magnitude of devices that are out there create a significant impact from an energy efficiency and environmental perspective.”

The moderator, Tiffani Neilson, wrapped up the importance of these aspects with a salient point around the deployment of IoT solutions. “When you look at reducing power consumption, you have to take into account the more sensing capabilities a device has, the more power it’s going to take to get the data, so it’s not necessarily about more data. It’s about the right data at the right time.”

Deployments around use cases for leaks, chemical detection, or other hazardous conditions will likely be programmed to transmit data on a more consistent basis. But for business cases around simple activity patterns that let operations and maintenance crews know when something is on or off, open or closed, data transmission can be reduced to once or twice a day.

WHO SHOULD DEPLOY GREEN IOT

The fundamental elements of IoT technology are communication, real-time monitoring, and big data. These aspects make IoT technology poised for such significant growth over the next decades due to its usability and far-reaching applications in multiple industries and verticals.

IoT technology is being applied everywhere, from smart homes to connected healthcare, smart factories, and of course, smart cities. When it came to deployments, the moderator turned the conversation to the application of Green IoT as a method of developing the smart environment sustainably.

Kerry Babb of Paradise Group for Sustainable Development was very insightful when it came to IoT in societal applications. “A lot of people ask, what is a smart city? My definition of a smart city is one that engages the community, moves it forward in a sustainable fashion, and uses available technologies as needed to maintain and correct the balance of local ecosystems.”

This strategy is also crucial when it comes to agricultural resources. Alexander Conrad of Conrad Agrar Consulting spoke on the hot topic of smart irrigation and the dwindling water resources available in the southwestern US to grow crops. He gave a unique example of a moisture sensor the size of a staple that clips onto the leaf of a tree to measure its chemical and physical composition. In this way, it can send a signal to an IoT platform that lets the farmers know how thirsty the tree is to properly adjust the irritation to supply no more and no less than the perfect amount of water needed for optimal growth.

For any IoT deployment, whether it is around agriculture, traffic monitoring, or even remote healthcare, gathering tons of data requires lots of computing power which necessitates a small army of always-on devices.

WAYS TO GREEN THE IOT ENVIRONMENT

When it comes to green design, this is the point where environmentally-conscious OEMs, hardware, and software developers can make a difference. When conceptualizing the idea for any new technology, it is imperative to begin with a green mindset. From initial design through manufacture, utilization, and disposal, before anything reaches the factory floor or even prototype stage, all components and devices need to be designed with efficiency and sustainability in mind.

“It really starts with the use case,” Bill Pugh commented. “What problem are you trying to solve? Part of what I’ve seen in the space is technologies looking for a problem to solve instead of identifying the problem or the actual use case that they are trying to go after. In many situations, you don’t need a device that is always on. But even in that instance, what is the materials science applied to the sensor being used? It is efficient, is it green? When does it need to wake up and send information?”

Unchecked growth in the ICT industry could seriously undermine any efforts to curb climate change. Thankfully, there are many studies, methods, and strategies to learn from that theorize and proffer the best ways to bring efficiency and sustainability to various aspects of ICT infrastructure.

HOPE FOR A GREENER, CLEANER FUTURE

After discussing the environmental issues and technical challenges to going green, the panel reviewed several technologies, including energy harvesting for overcoming emissions issues and the need to incorporate more eco-friendly processes and components into IoT deployments.

Beyond serving the IoT ecosystem, Alexander commented on the need for a shift in mindset. “IoT is a vehicle that can support tackling climate change, but it cannot solve it. To solve it requires a total shift in the mindset of the consumers, the people who work in farming, and the political buy-in to enable and catalyze those initiatives.”

When it comes to choosing a technology, Ramesh recommended using battle-hardened models and software instead of starting from scratch because of the steep learning curve. He gave examples of solutions like AWS IoT Greengrass, which is already highly optimized for efficient communication between edge devices and the cloud.

“Always start with the problem you’re trying to solve. If the device is not always on, that takes a very different architecture path compared to something that needs to be on all the time.”

Keeping these things in mind will help companies be eco-friendly and create cost-saving opportunities in power consumption through reduced data transmissions.

IoT is an effective tool for monitoring and mitigating the carbon footprint of individuals, companies, and government entities. This is why the event was bookended by the Green, Lean, Machine2Machine contest, which honored two categories of solution providers:

The Most Sustainable IoT Solution recognized businesses that have developed an IoT product or service geared towards achieving a greener, cleaner, and more sustainable future. Winners include Xylem Water Solutions, Ship Shape Urban Farms, and Webee.

The Most Efficient IoT Solution recognized businesses that have developed an IoT product or service that enables organizations to improve operational or energy efficiency. Winners include Blue Planet Energy, Atmosic, and Ragno Electronics.

During the “Going Green with IoT” event, the conversations had were essential to fulfill the promises of what technology aims to bring. The connected ecosystem must continue innovating towards sustainability if we want a future that brings an increased quality of life not to a few but for everyone around the world.

Jennifer Davis

About the author

As a highly-skilled technical writer, Jennifer brings practical knowledge and experience communicating solutions around green tech, aerospace, blockchain, LPWA, and Mobile IoT applications in a variety of industries and vertical markets. Prior to branching into technology, she gained over a decade of experience developing creative content for print and digital media.


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