In-depth

How the cloud can empower citizens to make energy decisions

From microgrids to cost savings, cloud underpins new ways of generating and consuming energy

When the internet allows us to see granular data on our spending, monitor home security from afar and even track the movements of our pets, it's absolutely logical that we should want more control over something that's steadily costing more each year our energy consumption.

Cloud is the key that unlocks this control, not just for individuals but for businesses, city administrations, energy grids and producers. It even opens up the potential for entirely new ways of generating and distributing energy, through microgrids.

The smarts start on the grid

Ian Hughes, senior analyst for Internet of Things at 451 Research, tells IT Pro: "Smart [energy] grids have a richer degree of measurement and granularity of control over traditional grids. Cloud provides a highly scaled centralised point of control. Data from an instrumented system such as a grid can be processed by AI systems, including machine learning, to help discover patterns that work across the entire system -- and the more granular level of control available allows for more efficient use of the grid both in preemptive maintenance and in the running of that grid."

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In addition to managing vast quantities of data and reporting in fine detail, cloud allows for multiple entry points into a grid. When talking about energy production, this means the way is open for microgeneration and microgrids. Typically relying on renewable sources such as photovoltaics and wind capture, microgrid energy sources are by their nature erratic and unreliable. But when energy can be stored and shared, interesting things can happen.

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For example, the Marcus Garvey Village microgrid in Brooklyn New York went live last summer. As part of a wider refurbishment of a social housing complex of 625 apartments, solar panels and a fuel cell were installed along with the largest battery storage in New York City. The microgrid control system ensures integration with the wider grid, which helps keep energy costs down for residents.

Cloud power

Systems like this need cloud. Take the example of the demand side cloud service and energy platform developed by Manchester-based Upside Energy, which has just received 5.5 million of investment including backing from the Government's technology accelerator Innovate UK.

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Upside Energy has developed a flexible and scalable cloud service that enables tens of thousands of households and business sites to participate in schemes for 'demand response', where grid operators and energy suppliers pay people to shift their electricity usage from peak to off-peak times. With this incentive, citizens can opt for cheaper energy if they are prepared to, say, put the washing machine on overnight.

Save energy, save money

Analyst firm Juniper Research said this year that the development of smart grids linked to smart cities will result in citizens saving $14 billion (10 billion) per annum in energy bills by 2022. Steffen Sorrell, principal analyst at Juniper Research, tells Cloud Pro: "On the face of it, the smart grid is a conundrum for utilities who have historically benefitted from selling more, rather than less energy. Given the inevitable development of the smart grid, this means that new business models will have to be developed, in turn offering increased flexibility for consumers."

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Cloud is vital to this direction of travel. As Sorrell points out: "Feed-in tariffs for consumers selling excess solar energy from their panels back to the grid represent an early form of a distributed energy marketplace that, in future, could allow consumers to sell excess energy on a peer-to-peer basis."

Similar implementations of smarter, more efficient energy use that rely on cloud are also found in the burgeoning smart home management market. Thermostatic radiator valves from companies like Netatmo and Nest provide granular control of individual radiators or 'zones', accessed remotely through cloud services. Clear, graphics-based reporting make it easy for householders to understand and control the nuances of their particular set up, even when they're not at home.

It's about time

If there is a unifying factor in the role cloud has across the energy sector it's the ability to provide real-time data. This is essential for an energy environment that balances supply and demand across grids, storage solutions and end user control.

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As George Nizharadze, data and commercial optimisation lead at Cambridge-based startup Origami Energy puts it: "Cloud technologies enable access to real-time information about energy consumption and generation. This means we can make better decisions about energy  whether to use an appliance to do a particular job (if, for instance, it's a cheaper usage period), or turning off appliances at peak time, or to generate electricity at a particular time of day."

From the citizen ensuring they use energy in the right place, at the right time, and pay the right price, through to national (and international) grids composed of quite literally thousands of microgrids, the cloud is the unifying technology. If you are looking for a sector where cloud changes absolutely everything, it's energy -- and its benefits percolate right through to the empowered citizen.

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