Smart devices and the fight against climate change

Smart devices have a role to play in the transition from dirty to clean energy, According to a new major climate report released this week. People need tools that help them better understand their energy source, know how much they are using, and co-create a more resilient energy grid.

The report released yesterday by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says “digital technologies can contribute” to the fight to halt climate change. This contribution could include smart devices that make homes more energy efficient or rooftop solar panels that work in tandem as “virtual power stations.” These technologies have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transform the electrical grid.

The report says that to avoid climate change so severe that humans and ecosystems will struggle to adapt, humans need to cut back on pollution from global warming in half this decade. Hundreds of prominent climate scientists who wrote the report have called for these emissions to peak before 2025 and then virtually disappear by 2050. Achieving these goals means Major changes in how we power our homes and appliances. Not only do we need to replace fossil fuels with clean energy, but we also have to use less energy in the first place.

This is where smart devices can play a role. If they connect to a smarter grid in the future – one powered by clean energy – they can work with the grid to cut both energy and pollution.

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

This is a particularly useful feature for balancing demand and supply for wind and solar energy, which ebb and flow with the weather. These smart people can make the grid more reliable because excess power demand and insufficient supply can lead to blackouts. Consumers will first need to be on board for this, of course. But if many households on the same network can work together, these small changes in the home can reduce greenhouse gas emissions while making the network more resilient to climate change.

Better preparedness in the event of a power outage is critical because climate-related disasters such as wildfires and storms put more strain on networks. If your electric vehicle is already in regular contact with the grid, utilities may reach out to ask if their battery can return power to the grid for another customer in need.

Even better, fleets of electric vehicles could band together to become a virtual power plant. Taken together, the energy their batteries store can be a resource the grid taps into in times of disaster. The same can be done with solar panels and batteries scattered throughout neighborhoods but still in a virtual conversation with each other and the facilities. Moreover, these hypothetical power plants can replace the “peak” dirty gas stations that have historically stepped in to provide redundant power when needed.

While these are exciting possibilities, there are caveats that the new climate report points out. “Digital technology supports decarbonization only if it is appropriately controlled,” the report’s authors wrote. E-waste is a growing problem, and many countries still lack policies to prevent old devices from becoming piles of toxic waste. The devices must also be designed to be longer lasting to reduce both e-waste and greenhouse gas pollution associated with shipping and manufacturing new goods.

It is clear that smart homes and appliances will not save the planet on their own, but with careful planning, they can play their part.