COP21: Traveling at the Speed of Pollution

#IoT for Good, Thought Leaders

Part Two of our COP21 Series.  Read Part One here.

Carbon Dioxide

On December 7th, the Global Carbon Project released its yearly Global Carbon Budget report.  In 2014, we (the world) set a record: we emitted 35.9 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

I wanted to understand this number, but both ‘billions’ and ‘tonnes’ are hard for me to grasp physically.  I found that the average car produces about 2.4 kilos of CO2 per litre of petrol (or 20 pounds of CO2 per gallon of gasoline).

That made me wonder why the CO2 output weighs more than the gasoline itself; a gallon of gas is about 8 pounds and a litre of gas is about 0.76 kilos (factoring in the density of the liquid).  During the combustion process, each carbon atom in the gasoline combines with two oxygen atoms from the atmosphere – obviously making an atom of CO2.  And, as CO2 has an atomic weight of 44, it is 3.7 times heaver than carbon with an atomic weight of 12.

Still, to reach 35.9 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions (or 359 trillion kilos or 791.5 trillion pounds), you’d have to burn a lot of gasoline.  If the average car gets 14 kilometres per litre, then you’d need to travel 2.094 trillion kilometres.  If you did this in one year so as to equal humanity’s 2014 CO2 emissions, you’d need to average 66.41 million kilometres a second.  And the speed of light is not even 0.3 kilometres per second.  Thus, if the Speed of Light takes 8 minutes and 20 seconds to reach Earth from the sun, a car travelling at the Speed of Pollution would take only 2.3 seconds.  If one car emitted our global CO2 pollution, it could travel to Pluto and back just under 250,000 times.

The Definition of Energy

Why have I focused so much on emissions numbers?  Because today – Week 2 of COP21 – we’re talking about energy – specifically the Energy Sector.  The Energy Sector is the number one anthropogenic cause of global warming, rising sea level, severe weather increases, desertification, ocean acidification, and the potential extinction of over one million species of animals.

To fix the problem, we need to figure out where it’s coming from.  Using the Climate Analysis Indicators Tool (CAIT) to divide up Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions by sector, you can see that Waste, Industrial Processes, Agriculture, International Transport, and Land-Use Change and Forestry (LUCF) when combined do not reach half the emissions output of the Energy.

Graph 1

Source: US Environmental Protection Agency – 2014

Author’s Note: ‘Carbon Dioxide Equivalents’ include Nitrous Oxide, Methane, and other gasses.  The amounts are then converted into the equivalent emissions of Carbon Dioxide for further comparisons.

Of course, graphs can be misleading.  In this case, it isn’t purposefully so, but one does have to question what constitutes ‘Energy’?  Energy typically includes oil extraction, refining, and transport companies.  It includes gas extraction and manufacturing companies.  It includes the electrical power, coal, and nuclear power industries.  Finally, it includes the distribution and sale of all these things.  Oftentimes, however, transport is separated out into its own sector.

Graph 2

Sources: Graph – US EPA / Data – Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – 2014

Using the sectors as chosen by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we can see that Energy – which I am defining as Industry, Electricity and Heat Production, and Other Energy – still accounts for 56% of GHG emissions (which include the other gases included in Carbon Dioxide Equivalents) – and would count for 70% if Transportation were included.

As Energy is the biggest contributor to carbon emissions and negative climate change we need to throw everything we have at the problem.  So what is there to throw?  Enter: Internet of Things

Demand Response and The Smart Grid

The Smart Grid is being hailed as one of the most promising answers to ameliorating our carbon addiction.  One can’t help but think a little bit of The Matrix when you hear the name, but it’s actually a pretty simple concept.  It’s a new-fangled, automated version of a Demand-Response program.

Demand-Response programs have been around for a while.  As Rita Tatum writes, “For years, savvy facility managers signed up when their local electric utilities offered demand response programs, which compensate customers who reduce electric use in response to requests from the utility during periods of high demand. Demand response programs allow utilities to meet high power demand spikes without building or buying alternative sources for that power.”  The US Federal Energy Regulator Commission’s definition adds specificity, stating that Demand-Response provides “changes in electric use by demand-side resources from their normal consumption patterns in response to changes in the price of electricity, or to incentive payments designed to induce lower electricity use at times of high wholesale market prices or when system reliability is jeopardized.”

Following that, there are usually one of two pricing plans: some utilities charge their customers less and some reimburse them at the end of each month for wattage saved.

In comes the Automated Demand-Response – which gets it’s own acronym: ADR.  ADR systems allow customer’s control systems to interact directly with the utility company.  Unfortunately, most ADR systems don’t provide interoperativity.  Just like flying to England and not being able to use a hair dryer because the electrical outlets are differently shaped, a building set up along the lines of one electricity company’s ADR system will probably not work if connected to another electric company.

Why?  One, because ADR systems are somewhat new and were developed separately (like Tesla and Edison individually harnessing electricity).  Two, because it’s profitable.  Could Apple’s iPhones use a standardised USB plug?  Yes.  Would they sell as many cables?  Not nearly.  But the Internet of Things brings with it hope!

The final step toward a Smart Grid is what is called an OpenADR system.  OpenADR was initially an initiative of the US government that aimed to research and promote ‘Open’ ADR systems.  ‘Open’, in this case, refers to the ability (or choice) of different ADR systems to share their data and processes.  The sharing promotes interoperability, with homes, factories, stadiums, and even cities becoming akin to plug-and-play devices.  If it helps, the word ‘open’ is used similarly in the phrase Open API.  And API stands for Application Programming Interface and it’s basically how computer programs talk to each other  If the API is open, it is transparent and readily available to interact.

The OpenADR Alliance was finally founded out of a group of interested parties and tasks itself with promoting what is now termed a Smart Grid.  Something called a Smart Meter has been invented and, like earlier ADR systems, it records electricity usage and transmits data back to the electricity company so that the company can both monitor and alter electricity production and dispensation.  The difference between a Smart Meter and earlier ADR systems is that a Smart Meter allows two-way communication.  With the introduction of Smart Meters into peoples homes and offices, proponents of an open ADR system hope that we will be able to achieve true communication between buildings on a ‘grid.’  And this two-way communication between a house and a provider that, in turn, ‘spider-webs’ out into a town or city or country, is a Smart Grid.

Real, Sustainable Solutions

This isn’t the future.  According to the International Energy Agency, if existing technologies were implemented globally, we’d already avoid 6.5 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions.  And that report was released in 2012.

The meeting in Paris is the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  The most famous document to come out of the meetings was the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which aimed to limit certain countries to specific emissions percentages.  It was arguably a failure, but the meeting this year – called COP21 – is expected to produce a new protocol that is, with hope, more binding.

To quote Tom Kerber of Park Associates, “The value proposition for traditional energy management is based primarily on the return on investment in the form of energy savings. Selling products and services has been challenging; consumers are not naturally in the market for energy-saving devices. Given that consumer interest in stand-alone energy management products and services is low, the utility channel struggles to develop messaging and a strong selling process to bring these products and services into the mainstream.”

In my opinion, this is the perfect argument as to why governments should be spearheading the move toward smarter technologies.  Individuals don’t know enough to care and energy companies don’t want to change their extremely profitable business models.  Unfortunately, governments don’t have a great track record with innovations except when it comes to weapons and the space race.

It isn’t just important for the most powerful governments right now either.  If you traveled in the 80s or 90s to ‘Third World Countries’, you’d find a huge lack of landline phones.  But if you traveled now, you’d see an abundance of cellphones.  In the same way, according to Barbara Grady, “the growth of electricity could skip the building of big power plants with centrally controlled grids, and instead evolve from smaller, distributed renewable electricity generators linked and managed by Internet-based software. Those systems most likely would include storage technologies allowing solar and wind power to provide the load even at night or when the air is still.”

And like I mentioned earlier – this isn’t the future.  Costa Rica did it.  For 75 days, then entire country of Costa Rica was powered by renewable energies.  Specifically, the energy sector did not use fossil fuels, but they were still used by the transportation industries.  Still, it’s the perfect combination of government spearheading, industrial acceptance and innovation, and individual desire.

80% of Costa Ricans have heard of climate change and 98% of those believe in it.  And, according to the same UN report, Costa Ricans are willing to buy environmentally friendly products and to pay more to acquire them.

An ironic – if one can say that – issues is that if we don’t transition fast enough, then global warming will cause waterpower to become less efficient and less possible.  The slower we transition to renewable energy resources, the fewer renewable energy resources we’ll have to transition to.

But it can be done.  It has been done.  Additionally, the US state of Hawaii has passed legislation to have the whole state run on renewable energy energy by 2045.  And Sweden aims to have its whole country on renewable energies with the capital, Stockholm, being emissions-free by 2050.

With current technology, energy can be harnessed from water, wind, the sun, and the warmth of the earth (geothermal energy).  And with Smart Grids and Smart Battery Systems, energy can be stored and transferred between customers with negligible loss.

With what we have now, we could stop our little Speed of Pollution from ever making it to Earth, not to mention Proxima Centauri (or the 28 roundtrips it can do with our current energy emissions).

Like Costa Rica, like Iceland, like Lesotho, we can do this.

This is not the future – this is now.

Part Two of our COP21 Series.  Read Part One here.