IoT: energy saver or power drain? - Embedded.com

IoT: energy saver or power drain?

While there are many people who question the media hype about the Internet of Things (IoT), what it is and how how significant it will be, most industry insiders agree that this nebulous “thing” has become a reality with potential for enormous growth.

Even the lay public has some appreciation for this, having witnessed the growth in Internet connectivity through the evolution in personal computing from laptops, through smartphones, tablets and smart TVs to wearable devices. Certainly Business Insider believes this market will be huge – its 2014 report cites a forecast increase in the number of Internet connections from 1.9 billion devices today to 9 billion by 2018. 

 

So what’s driving this growth? Well key to its description, the Internet of Things is about the connectivity of ‘Things’, not people. This means it is all about how data from remote sensors and the ever-increasing number of intelligent devices in our world today can be acquired and used to provide autonomous control in a smarter, more efficient way.

Arguably some of the applications embraced by the IoT have been around for some time e.g. factory automation with machine-to-machine (M2M) networks that not only ensure a smooth manufacturing flow but also provide back-office data on production rates to facilitate more effective supply chain management.

Other IoT applications include smart metering for electricity, gas and water and even waste management systems, all of which have an environmental agenda. Building management is another example often quoted where sensors monitoring temperature, humidity, ambient light and occupancy can be used to control heating, lighting, air-conditioning, and the operation of doors and windows, etc. While this may make the workplace more comfortable and secure the overriding motivation in installing such systems is to deliver energy savings and hence cost savings.  

But opinion seems divided over whether the IoT will deliver improved energy efficiency overall. Taken individually there are applications where there is an undeniable energy saving benefit. However there is the fear that collectively the growth in connected ‘Things’ that all consume power could negate many of the efficiency gains, especially devices that unnecessarily waste power as a consequence of their own inefficiencies.

Championing the former viewpoint is the publication FutureStructure with its belief that the Internet of Things will thrive on energy efficiency. It highlights the advantages of smart thermostats such as the nest product from Google or a similar device from German company tadoo that, by being connected to the Internet, allow users to manage their domestic heating requirements via their smartphones.

Whether this of itself saves energy is a mute point but certainly there are benefits of comfort and convenience in being able to override more conventional timer controls to ensure heating is only turned on when needed. Certainly the intelligence provided by smart metering, with the ability to have key appliances respond to varying energy tariffs and avoid peak demand periods, does have significant energy saving potential. Spreading the load by avoiding peak periods also has the wider environmental benefit of allowing power plants to operate more efficiently and, just as significantly, reducing the need to build more generating capacity.  

On the flip side, a Forbes article highlights an IEA (International Energy Agency) report claiming $80 billion in power is wasted by connected ‘Things’. This picks up on what’s colloquially known as “vampire power”, an expression referring to lost power when electronic devices are notionally switched off or put into standby mode.

Historically this phantom load was associated with appliances like televisions but this IEA report identifies network-connected equipment like set-top boxes, gaming consoles, modems and the like, which it says have been overlooked and yet apparently are consuming about 400 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity in standby mode alone. The issue is not so much that these devices consume power in standby mode; rather it is how much they consume because the designs are not as efficient as they might be.

 Hence the debate is no longer about whether ‘Things’ contribute to greater or less energy consumption but rather how we move the protagonists from the two corners to the center of the ring by making sure all ‘Things’ are more efficient in their use of power.

This is where everyone has a role to play – for example, the Peripheral Component Interface (PCI) is a connection technology that’s been used in PCs for decades. As explained in a ComputerWorld article, it has now evolved through the development of PCI Express (aka PCIe) to version 4.0, which has a strategy for markets that demand lower power consumption.

Power savings in PCs and servers clearly help the IoT cause, since data centers and cloud computing are an integral part of the IoT infrastructure, but PCIe 4.0 targets mobile devices like smartphones and tablets and is expected to be critical in the many other embedded components that will form the Internet of Things.

And, in considering the $80bn power wasted by ‘Things’, we should not overlook the IoT infrastructure, where significant power is needed to support the additional server and storage capacity needed to process this new IoT data. The recent Ericsson Mobility Report highlights a dramatic increase in IP traffic, forecast to reach 7.7 zettabytes annually by 2017, a rise of 1 zettabyte per year since 2012.

 

Whether it is in data centers, modems, routers or other communications devices, the power supplies that power our Internet ‘Things’ need to be as efficient as possible. This is where CUI has focused attention with its Novum advanced power modules for distributed power applications in this next-generation of networking equipment.

These products include digital point-of-load (POL) modules and intermediate bus dc-dc converters, which all push the envelope in efficiency, power density and intelligent power management. Away from the server space but equally relevant to IoT, CUI has already developed power adaptors to meet the new US Department of Energy Level VI efficiency standard that come into effect in February 2016. CUI’s mantra is all about moving from ‘just’ power conversion to ‘perfect’ power conversion.

Mark Adams , senior vice president, CUI Inc. has over 20 years of industry experience and has been with CUI since 2009. He has been instrumental in the reorganization of the company's sales structure and CUI's movement into advanced power products. Mark attended Central Washington University. http://www.cui.com/This article as also been published on the EDN Network.

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