Solving basic challenges associated with distributed energy systems by adding sensors that make it possible to manage hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of pieces of equipment can drive the most value and the fastest return on investment.
Consider electrical meters in homes and businesses, and the shift from sending out a “meter reader” to connecting those meters on a secure, private network, and the massive cost savings associated with moving to intelligent, centralized management. Not only do energy providers save money by reducing the number of people required for manual labor, but they also create derivative solutions, for example, providing their customers’ data so their customers can learn how to conserve energy and do their part to contribute to less waste and a better planet.
Given the nature of electrical energy, it has been more straightforward to add connectivity to various grids, but when it comes to the use of gas cylinders, the challenge has been more difficult.
The residential sector uses natural gas to heat buildings and water, to cook, and to dry clothes.
About half of the homes in the United States use natural gas for space heating and water heating. In 2020, the residential sector accounted for about 15% of total U.S. natural gas consumption, and natural gas was the source of about 23% of the U.S. residential sector’s total energy consumption.
While natural gas is distributed through pipelines (and referred to as “piped natural gas” or PNG), in many areas in the U.S. and around the world, there is no access to PNG, so homes and businesses must use LPG – liquefied petroleum gas – otherwise known as propane or butane (bottled gas).
LPG and natural gas are different gases with a different distribution, as well as different energy content, density, gas to air mix for combustion, and working pressure.
One way to drive value is to add monitoring and managing to LPG cylinders through sensors embedded into the cylinders, which generate data regarding the “empty vs. full” status of each cylinder.
Historically, it has been cumbersome for customers to replace an empty gas cylinder and difficult for the provider to optimize their supply chain. By adding sensors and the related software cloud solutions, providers can predict when cylinders need to be replaced, which dramatically improves the efficiencies within their own supply chain.
There are technical issues to overcome, including bundling in cost-effective cellular connectivity.
Devices must run on batteries for up to ten years in the field, for example, using LoRaWAN, and engineering work must be completed to add a mechanical action, innovating an entirely new digital application.
Security solutions that work on constrained chipsets are required, and security generally must be embedded into the entire solution, at the edge, and in the cloud.
This connected approach can support complex distribution channels as the entire supply chain shifts when companies who used to “sell canisters” become “connected service providers” – more competitive, more aware, and more customer-focused.
The secret to success is in thinking through the entire system, from the edge devices to the connectivity, to local edge processing and edge-to-cloud data analytics.
Huge value can be created, but only if what gas cylinder companies connect is visible, manageable, and predictable, and only if there is an IoT solution that can scale from the first implementation to mass implementation.