When it comes to new technology, few concepts seem to get us quite as excited as the Internet of Things. The idea is simple: expanding internet connectivity to everyday items, from thermostats to fridges, thereby allowing them to communicate with our phones, computers and other devices. And it’s quickly taken off.
Over the past decade the Internet of Things (or IoT as it is more commonly known) has moved from vision to reality. Head to any department store and you’ll spot everything from home fitness systems that sync your entire exercise routine to security devices which issue smartphone updates. Soon appliances will also be able to work in tandem with smart meters. It is anticipated that, before long, appliances will be able to use smart meter data to time their electricity usage for when supply from renewables is at its highest.
But what about the social applications of IoT? One area that’s garnered particular attention from developers and policymakers is how it might help meet the needs of an ageing population, from helping the elderly live independently for longer to improving the provision of residential care.
It’s not hard to see why the idea has caught on. Recent projections show that in 50 years’ time, there are likely to be an additional 8.6 million people aged 65 or over living in the UK, adding significantly to the existing pressure on health spending, social care and pensions. The issue has fast become one of the thorniest in British politics — and it’s a problem shared across many other developed economies.
No one is arguing that IoT can solve all these problems, but it could alleviate them. When you look at IoT devices already available, it’s not hard to imagine how they might be of benefit to senior citizens. Take basic functionalities like automation and voice-enabled interfaces, both of which give older people more control over their environment, while also taking care of repetitive tasks. IoT-enabled heating systems, for example, can be switched on or off with simple voice commands, alleviating the need to get out of bed at night to change the temperature. The system will also monitor changes in the weather and adjust its settings accordingly. Meanwhile, smart doorbells can learn to recognise regular visitors and let them in accordingly, as well as providing relatives with data on who is visiting.
And what is the role of smart meters in this? A report from the UCL Energy Institute highlighted a number of smart meter characteristics that could prove particularly beneficial to supporting the health applications of IoT. These include their near-ubiquity (by 2020), low cost, versatility and provision of historical data. Meanwhile, researchers at Liverpool John Moores University and Mersey Care NHS Trust are currently carrying out a trial on how smart meters can help people affected by dementia, reducing their need to go into care homes.
Smart technologies, including smart meters, are also playing a role in maintaining the health and wellbeing of the elderly. With the consent of the user, smart meters can help relatives spot changes in behaviour that may be cause for concern. Homes can be fitted with motion sensors, which monitor activity and issue alerts to relatives if no movement is detected.
Meanwhile, wearable technologies can track health. Care staff could receive composite updates on blood pressure, body temperature and respiratory rate, while specialist devices have been developed to track conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and hypertension. These kinds of technologies have already been trialled in care homes, both in the UK and elsewhere. The aim is to give residents more independence and control, while also giving support staff a betater picture of their health and wellbeing.
The EU is keenly aware of the potential benefits that IoT could bring to the care system — both in improving the quality of care and reducing its costs — and has recently announced its intention to invest €500 million in IoT research.
But getting it right won’t be easy. If older people are to make use of IoT, then the technology — and the devices that control it — must be easy for them to use. This means simple menus and interfaces, but also ensuring buttons and displays aren’t difficult for arthritic fingers or ageing eyes. Devices will need to be thoroughly tested by elderly users, rather than tweaked from existing prototypes. Another priority will be to ensure that all data used by IoT devices is secure and it will be incumbent on manufacturers to show that their devices are suitable to be used in the social care sector. For example, smart meters are fully encrypted and do not store any personal data. The technology itself was developed with the help of the National Security centre, part of GCHQ and designed with security at its heart.
But perhaps the biggest barrier to incorporating the IoT into social care remains an emotional one. For many of us the thought of using robotics and automation within social care feels alien and dehumanising. We worry that giving internet devices control over our relatives’ lives and homes could be a step too far.
Tech advocates argue that rather than depersonalising the system, automation can actually increase the level of face-to-face care provided. The theory being that, as automation takes care of more routine tasks, like checking blood pressure or dispensing medication, carers can use their time to attend to residents personally and meet their individual needs.
They point out that where these technologies have been tried — such as an extensive pilot programme run by Wigan council — they’ve been met with good feedback by residents, families and carers themselves. The same is true of similar trials run within standard patient care, such as an NHS England pilot programme to help dementia patients stay more easily in their own homes.
The digital revolution might not transform our social care sector overnight, but there seems little doubt that it has begun — and smart meters are a big part of it.
Last year, 59,911 new electric vehicles (EVs) were registered in the UK, giving EVs a 2.6 per cent share of the market. While it may not sound like much, this is more than a 400 per cent increase — up from just 0.59 per cent in 2014 — and shows the increased appetite for more eco-friendly transport. The rate of increase is expected to grow, with experts predicting that electric cars will be as cheap as fossil-fuelled cars by 2025. The government is also doing its bit, pushing to bring forward plans to ban the sale of all new petrol and diesel vehicles from 2040 to 2032.
Notwithstanding this progress in the UK in decarbonising our transport, other countries are doing even better than we are. In Norway, for example, almost half of new cars sold are electric.
Great news for the planet, right? Maybe. The problem is electric cars are no good if all we do is shift the carbon footprint from the internal combustion engine to the power station. So along with switching to electric vehicles, we need to make our energy system not just green, but more efficient and reliable: electric vehicles require a lot of power. The National Grid has estimated that by 2040, peak demand could increase by 8 per cent due to the rise in EVs. We could build new wind farms — but we’d have to hope that the wind is blowing when we need it.
With the combination of intermittent renewable generation and increased electricity demand, what can be done to keep us on the path of decarbonising our transport? We need to make the grid, our homes and the wider energy system smarter.
Traditionally, power grids are not particularly sophisticated. The power station generates energy, and the powerlines take this energy to our homes where it is either used or lost during the process of generation to supply owing to the low level of battery storage in the current system.
This waste is further exacerbated by the uneven way in which we collectively consume energy: consumption fluctuates throughout the day, and is at its lowest overnight and highest during the evenings. However, when demand surges it can sometimes exceed the supply from renewable sources, and — without the battery storage we need to save renewable energy when it’s not needed — networks are often still dependent on fossil fuels to meet our needs. This makes it harder for Britain to decarbonise its energy generation. If we stick with the current system, the increase in demand from electric cars will make the problem even worse and increase our reliance on unsustainable, energy sources.
Imagine if in the future we all arrive home from work and plug in our electric cars to charge up during the evening. Given how much power electric cars require, this would add an additional strain on the grid at the worst possible time of day, i.e. when demand is highest. Unless we get smarter about our energy usage, this extra demand will most likely have to be met by burning fossil fuels.
Now, imagine if instead of your car charging as soon as you plug it in, you could schedule the charge to take place overnight — the time of lowest demand. Don’t worry if you do need your car in the evening: you would still be able to charge it up at this time, but the default would be during the night.
This wouldn’t just benefit the planet — it could benefit your bank balance too. Households with smart meters that sign up to smart time-of-use tariffs, which charge differently depending on the time of day, could benefit even further as they will be rewarded through cheaper bills for taking pressure off the grid and using energy during off-peak hours.
And this sort of intelligence works even better when you pull all your energy usage together: our cars could help us reduce our carbon footprint even when they’re not actually being driven.
Imagine your EV has a range of 200 miles. You’ve driven to work and back during the day — that’s only 60 miles. You get home for the evening, switch on your lights, heating and TV. You load the dishwasher and fire up the washing machine. These all require power. But what if, rather than drawing from the grid at peak demand times, you take the energy you need from your car battery — saving money and relieving pressure on the grid.
The average home uses roughly 10kWh (kilowatt hours) of electricity every day. An entry-level electric car has a battery capable of storing about 55kWh. So your car could be storing more than enough energy to power both itself and your home appliances.
These efficiency gains can be multiplied further through a smart energy system which — drawing on the data gathered by smart meters — can understand our energy usage in near real time. Smart meters installed in households will enable the use of so-called dynamic tariffs, which price energy in real time in order to match demand with supply, meaning that owners can set their electric vehicles to charge at the cheapest time. This will help households use renewable, low-carbon electricity rather than that generated by fossil fuels, ensuring that we’re reducing the carbon output of our energy networks.
The government is clear that electric vehicles must become an essential part of decarbonising our transport and meeting the country’s climate change objectives. But to realise the benefits we need to bring our energy system into the 21st century. It is technology such as smart meters that will help Britain progress towards a digitised, flexible system more responsive to the changing demands on electricity usage. If we can get that right, a greener future awaits.