“Network Zero” Devices for an Energy Efficient World

19 Mar 2019

The growing trend towards network-connected technologies such as the “Internet of Things” is rapidly transforming the world in which we live, creating new services and benefits that can permeate all areas of society.  While electrical devices that are network-connected have the potential to improve the way we manage energy, they also consume additional energy in order to remain connected 24/7 – called “network standby”.

It was estimated by the International Energy Agency (IEA) that the annual energy consumption of network-connected devices was over 600 TWh in 2014, which was greater than Canada’s total annual electricity consumption.  Recognising the challenge of growing energy consumption by these devices, the G20 Energy Efficiency Action Plan stimulated the creation of the Network Devices Task Group (NDTG) and its collaborative industry platform, the Connected Devices Alliance (CDA), with a primary goal of maximising network-enabled energy savings and minimising network standby .

To help fulfil the latter goal, the IEA’s Technology Collaboration Programme on Energy Efficient End-Use Equipment (4E) initiated the concept of “Network Zero” devices - devices which use zero energy for connectivity. To discuss the potential for “Network Zero” devices, 4E and the Swedish Energy Agency hosted a workshop in November 2018.  The workshop was attended by more than 50 experts from industry, government and academia.  Several presenters highlighted the opportunity to introduce drivers for technology innovation in coming years. Participants discussed a range of barriers to achieving “Network Zero” along with potential long-term solutions.  This article captures the main insights from the workshop 

How to achieve “Network Zero”?

The workshop examined the potential to achieve the goal of “Network Zero” devices from two perspectives: firstly, including device-level energy harvesting technologies and promoting energy storage to realise energy self-supply; secondly, accelerating highly efficient communications technologies to reduce the energy demand of devices. Energy harvesting technologies that can convert ambient energy into electricity, such as photovoltaic, thermoelectric, vibration harvesting, etc., are evolving rapidly available power outputs increasing. In the meantime, the energy used for device communications functions is decreasing, with much technological advancement occurring. 

Current status and key barriers to the way forward

Today, for some product categories, for example self-powered sensors, “Network Zero” is technically feasible. However, for some equipment there remains a gap between the power available from energy harvesting and the power required for communications.  This gap is dependent on many factors including the type of device, the availability of suitable energy harvesting sources, the communications technology used and requirements for data throughput and latency.  The size of this gap is specific to each device category - some products will be more easily able to deploy energy harvesting technologies than others.

The workshop discovered that there are several barriers to closing this gap. Firstly, balancing costs, benefits and commercial drivers.  Secondly, maintaining resource efficiency with regards to the additional use of materials, and thirdly, consumer awareness of the issues.  Finally, there is currently a disconnect between conventional device manufacturers and energy harvesting technology providers.

As a next step, 4E will develop a scoping paper that further examines the barriers and solutions to “Network Zero” as well as prioritising product categories that are suited to “Network Zero”.

The presentations from the workshop are available here.

Explore the latest activities of the G20 NDTG/CDA here.