Navigant Research Blog

Smart Dust Has Yet to Settle, but the Hype Flourishes

— September 7, 2017

Smart dust … it sounds like a magical substance sprinkled on dumber things. Which is kind of true. The concept has been making the hype-cycle rounds late this summer and setting off some industry buzz among megatrend watchers during an otherwise lackluster news and information cycle.

But smart dust is not all that new a concept. Not long ago, it might have been known by the more mundane and geeky term micro-electromechanical systems, or MEMS, which is common in the computer chip world. Lump it together with the much hyped artificial intelligence (AI) notion and presto, smart dust gets new life.

Motes Not Dust Mites

So, what is smart dust? It is a swarm of tiny electronic sensors, some evidently smaller than a red blood cell, designed to float in the air and do various things. These tiny devices, known as motes, are self-powered. The idea is to unleash hundreds or thousands of them, have them interconnect wirelessly, and then perform a task or set of tasks. Think of releasing a batch over a farm for testing soil chemistry or pesticide levels.

Smart Dust for Energy Management

This smart dust could also be used in homes or commercial settings to reduce energy use. That was one of the use cases imagined by Kris Pister, a professor at the University of California Berkeley and smart dust pioneer. He has been tinkering with smart dust since at least 2001, when California was in the midst of an energy crisis. Back then, he worked on the technology with colleagues at Berkeley’s Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) in an effort to find new ways to conserve energy. The idea never quite took off as imagined.

The idea for dust networks goes back further to when the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and RAND Corporation worked on the idea in the early 1990s. One can imagine the use of smart dust over a battlefield, feeding field commanders with relevant data in real-time to get the upper hand on an enemy. The idea can even be traced to novelist Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy; dust in the books is a mysterious cosmic particle that is a central plot device.

A Cloud of Potential

Needless to say, smart dust motes have not made much of an impact outside the labs. Nonetheless, given the potential and the many swirling technologies of AI (e.g., deep learning, machine learning, smart robots, and the rest), smart dust’s future could be quite amazing, though that remains on the horizon. For now, one can keep the idea of smart dust on the radar while focusing on the more practical emerging technology trend affecting the grid and other industries, namely the Internet of Things, a topic extensively covered by Navigant Research.

 

Political Posturing Won’t Stop Climate Action

— June 12, 2017

The debate over climate change wages on in Washington, DC, but the businesses that lead the national economy are taking action today. Even without regulatory mandates, corporations are making significant investments in energy efficiency, clean energy, and other sustainability initiatives to combat climate change. Uncertainty is bad for business, and climate change forces corporate risk analysis and planning. The upside is that smart investments can help combat climate change and deliver bottom-line benefits.

The Evidence: Action at the Top

Fortune  500 companies have been making commitments on climate for decades at this point. Nearly 50% of these industry majors have committed to greenhouse gas emissions reductions. More specifically, the effort of RE100 has recruited over 95 companies pledging to rely on 100% renewable energy. Pressure from shareholders and customers has driven investment in renewables and emissions reductions requirements across the supply chain.

When the top of the Fortune 100 list fail to lead, there is significant backlash. At the end of May, for example, Exxon Mobil faced major shareholder push back on the company’s failure to address climate risk assessment. According to The Washington Post, 63% of shareholders voted in favor of the oil giant assessing and disclosing the climate risk against long-term financial performance. This motion by Exxon’s shareholders echoes efforts with many other major fossil fuel-based companies in the last year, according to the advocacy group Ceres.

The Benefits: Loyal Customers, Happy Shareholders

Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, has faced its share of controversy around corporate social responsibility. However, when it comes to climate change and sustainability, some of the company’s major recent efforts are showcasing it as a leader. In 2016, the company set science-based targets for 18% greenhouse gas emissions reductions by 2025 from 2015 levels. This is a notable effort, bringing commitments inside the fence as opposed to the extensive pressure the company has historically put on its suppliers.

Walmart is demonstrating the business benefits of leadership on climate change and sustainability. As Joby Carlson, director of Energy and Operations Sustainability, explained in Energy Manager Today, “We try not to do anything that doesn’t have a good financial return. Sustainability has to hit the balance among the economics, the environmental, and the social side. Energy efficiency has been our bread and butter. We are a low-cost retailer so we are sensitive about the cost of operations. Optimizing and reducing our energy demand has translated into millions and millions [in savings].”

Corporate America is leading the charge and moving forward with combating climate change, and in the process, redefining sustainability as a metric of business success. As companies focus their efforts inside their operations, there is more opportunity to leverage technology that delivers emissions reductions while also delivering cost savings and other broad business benefits, including loyal customers and committed investors.

 

Results In for San Francisco’s Parking Experiment

— October 1, 2014

Navigant Research’s Smart Parking Systems report examines technologies and policies that have the potential to reduce both congestion and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in cities.  San Francisco has been one of the cities at the forefront of parking innovation with its SFpark project.  The city’s assessment of the project, recently released, has significant lessons for cities considering similar solutions.

SFpark was an extensive smart parking trial run by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) and largely funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which provided 80% ($19.8 million) of the program’s total cost of $24.8 million.  The project encompassed approximately 6,000 metered on-street parking spaces (about one-quarter of the city’s total supply) and 12,250 parking spaces in 14 city operated garages (75% of the spaces managed by SFMTA).  Around 11,700 parking sensors were deployed, along with 300 repeaters and gateways.  The key strategic initiatives in SFpark included:

  • Real-time parking availability information to make it easier to find a parking space
  • Demand-responsive pricing to create parking availability
  • Longer time limits at parking meters to make parking more convenient
  • Meters that make it easy to pay by credit card and other forms of payment
  • Garage facility upgrades to make garages more convenient

How It Worked in Practice

According to the SFpark Pilot Project Evaluation, the amount of time that the target parking occupancy (60% to 80%) was achieved increased by 31% in pilot areas, compared to a 6% increase in control areas.  In so-called high payment (HP) compliance pilot areas (where people tend to pay the meter most of the time), achievement of the 60% to 80% target occupancy rate nearly doubled.

The amount of time that blocks were too full to find parking decreased 16% in pilot areas, while increasing 51% in control areas.  In HP zones, there was a 45% decrease.

During the trial, SFpark decreased rates on half of all blocks and increased rates on the other half, with average meter rates falling 4% from $2.69 an hour to $2.58 an hour during the pilot.  At garages, the average hourly rate fell from $3.45 to $3.03.

Meters First

SFpark maintained consistent parking availability while increasing utilization of SFpark garages.  Utilization of these facilities grew by 11%, far exceeding non-SFpark garages.

There was also an estimated reduction in GHG emissions of 30%, from 7 metric tons per day to 4.9 tons per day in the pilot areas.  Vehicle miles driven also decreased by 30% (compared to a 6% decrease in the control areas), and traffic volumes fell 8%.

Demand-responsive pricing and new technologies helped improve parking management and optimize the use of parking space, but simple tools also work.  The most basic improvement was seen from the simple deployment and enforcement of parking meters.  “One of the clearest findings of this evaluation is that parking meters are extremely effective at managing parking demand,” the study found.  This is not so surprising.  Parking meters – like electricity and water meters – are a basic tool for making visible the cost of a shared resource.  New technologies – whether parking sensors or smart meters – enable more sophisticated and dynamic forms of metering and billing, but the basic principle of payment for use has to be accepted first.

SFpark benefited not only from federal funding, but also from the authority of SFMTA over most aspects of the city’s transportation system.  This allows SFMTA to consider parking as part of its broader mobility targets and revenue projections.  Such an approach is likely to be a critical element of getting the best not only from new parking systems, but also from other innovations in urban mobility.

 

Coal’s Long Goodbye

— April 13, 2013

Electricity generation from coal has plummeted from favor in the last few years.  A majority of Americans now favor stricter regulations on coal plants, even if it means higher energy prices.  In Europe public opinion has tilted away from coal even more sharply: a recent survey showed that 80% of Germans want to end coal-fired generation altogether.  The anti-coal movement has also gained steam, so to speak, in some unlikely places.

That doesn’t mean King Coal will be dethroned any time soon.  In confirmation hearings before the Senate, Gina McCarthy, President Obama’s nomination for the director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, struck a conciliatory tone when asked about the future of the U.S. coal industry.

“Coal has been and will continue to be a significant source of energy in the United States, and I take my job seriously when developing those standards to provide flexibility in the rules,” McCarthy told lawmakers.  “Flexibility,” in this context, means “exceptions to the forthcoming rules on carbon emissions from power plants.”

German environmental minister Peter Altmaier was more blunt last year, speaking of the black fuel’s future on the continent: Coal-fired plants will be needed “for decades to come” to ensure reliable supplies of power.

In fact, coal consumption is rising, both in the United States and in Europe, to say nothing of China.  The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects power generation from coal to increase by nearly 8% in 2013, bringing coal’s portion of total U.S. generation back to 40%, from 37.4% in 2012.  The cause, according to the EIA: “the increasing cost of natural gas relative to coal.”

(Source: Energy Information Administration)

High prices for natural gas are also driving a coal resurgence in Europe; carbon emissions in Germany, for example, increased by 2% in 2012, according to a feature in Nature, largely as a result of increased power generation from cheap coal.

Developments in Germany reflect the larger paradox facing nations attempting to move toward clean energy production: under the Energiewende, Germany’s national program to shift 35% of its power generation to clean sources by 2020, the country is investing €1.5 billion in renewable energy per year.  However, economic forces continue to push power production to fossil fuels.  Generation from solar photovoltaic installations actually decreased by 500 GWh in 2012, and Germany is currently building some 11 GW of coal-fired capacity (though a substantial portion of that will be so-called “clean coal,” replacing older plants with more efficient, lower-emissions technology).  Germany’s decision to shut down its nuclear power plants after the Fukushima nuclear accident is driving the country to coal for baseload power.

“One of Europe’s biggest energy providers, E.ON based in Düsseldorf, announced in January that it plans to close several gas-fired power stations across Europe that were operating at a loss,” Nature reported, “even though they are far less polluting than coal-fired plants.”

Eventually, coal will be phased out.  However, everyone anticipating a rapid changeover from the fuel that powered the Industrial Revolution has a long wait ahead.

 

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