From the desk of the Director

10.07.2021 5 min read
The Origins of Energy Informatics

I recently had the opportunity to listen to a keynote speech on the above title at a PhD workshop held in conjunction with the First Energy Informatics.Academy Conference Asia (EI.A Asia 2021). Nothing can be more pleasing and satisfying than listening to the origin of something from the originator himself, and in the case of energy informatics, it is none other than Professor Richard T. Watson of University of Georgia. Simply authentic! In this edition of 'From the desk of the Director', I am taking the liberty to share with you summary of the speech. A lot of information was shared that I am not sure where to start. I hope that I can summarise it well and do justice to the readers who would like to get a quick summary on the origins of energy informatics.

It started with how the term Energy Informatics came about. Historically, it started as a subfield of information systems (IS) that concerns with the environment and sustainability i.e. green IS. The speaker was about to present the idea on green IS to a group of CIOs from major US companies in Philadelphia back in October 2008 when the oft-quoted energy informatics equation i.e. Energy + Information < Energy came to his mind. It resonated well with the CIOs and they understood their role in putting the Information into the equation. This consequently gave birth to the energy informatics framework comprising sensor networks, flow networks and sensitised objects that are interacting with and through the information system.

Energy Informatics

A flow network comprises a set of connected transport components that supports the movement of continuous matter like electricity and water, or discrete objects like cars and people. It is at the heart of many energy systems and exist in many forms such as roads, transmission grids and delivery trucks. Depending on the nature of a company or organisation, multiple (energy) flow network may exist. A sensor network is made up of a set of spatially distributed devices that reports the status of a physical item or environmental condition. It reports, for instance, temperature, location and speed of a mobile object. Technologies can support a sensor network includes barcode, RFID and ZigBee™. A sensitised object is a physical object with the capability to sense and report data about its use. As can be seen in the diagram below, sensitised objects are essential for managing demand. They provide information about the use of the object so that a consumer is better informed about the impact of the object on their finances and the environment. The information is relayed through the sensor network, which then provides the data that can be analysed to determine the optimum use of a flow network.

Two case studies were also shared during the presentation that demonstrated the potential of energy informatics; Telenor in the Europe and UPS in the US. In the case of Telenor, information on whether a staff is at their workplace or not is captured using sensors (sensitised objects) and warm/cold air is regulated based on that information. For UPS, two flow networks exist; one for tracking the trucks using automative bus and the other for tracking the parcels using delivery information acquisition device (DIAD). All in all, Telenor was able to reduce electricity usage dramatically from 300 kWh per square metre to 100 kWh per square metre and UPS managed to triple their bottom line, thanks to the Information element of the equation. There were also other companies who were already environmental and sustainability conscious such as Frito-Lay and Coca-Cola.

Energy Informatics

To help propel the move towards sustainability, the society needs transformation from non-sustainable to one that is sustainable and energy efficient. To do this, it is important to identify components of the society that can and can't (or difficult to) be changed so that actions can be strategised and planned accordingly. Political system and economy are not amenable to change, unless major revolutions are expected. Organisations such as companies, on the other hand, are the agents of change and are central in any society. Organisations are responsive to technology in pursuit of effectiveness and efficiency, and more importantly, organisations listen to people. Therefore, we have to see the people as a way to change the whole system. People in turn are influenced by many things around them. They react, take actions and make decisions based on the information that they get. Thus, imparting the right information through effective marketing is crucial to change their perception and in this case, we want to market sustainability. Additionally, it is also important to align sustainability and the market, for example, by factoring in the sustainability cost such as carbon taxes into the prices of goods.

Though acceptance of energy informatics as a discipline can be seen with the establishment of dedicated courses, research institutes, journals, professorships and communities, and with the increasing number of scholarly publications bearing the term, Watson admitted that it did not take off at the momentum that it should. The take-up is lower than expected. He even wrote his piece of opinion on this, attributing it to the lack of interest among the IS community and urged them to step up the effort. Interested readers can read about the major barriers identified and respective proposed solutions here.

However, ray of hope is underway. Recently, more and more IS journals are pushing to have more articles on sustainability. Organisations and companies are also more receptive to the idea than they were before. The shift in dominant logics towards environmental impact and sustainability partly contributes to this, if not mainly. Though we might be 'a decade late', late is still better than never :)

In conclusion, energy underlies every aspect of our life. It determines the cost of the products and services that we consume. A little increase in the electricity tariff for example will create a domino effect that flows into the prices of goods and services. The ways in which energy is generated and consumed determine the state of our future society. To quote Watson, "We create tomorrow by what we consume today and what we consume today is determined by information". Thus, the importance of energy informatics, i.e. putting information into the energy equation, cannot be overstated to drive us forward in creating a sustainable society.

"We create tomorrow by what we consume today and what we consume today is determined by information."

To the energy informatics fraternities, do continue with what we've started and let's together create more impactful research and bring more people on board with us along the way. In Malaysia, IICE is proud to become amongst the pioneers of energy informatics research and development. Soon, we will also be establishing a professorial chair, the Tan Sri Leo Moggie Distinguished Chair in Energy Informatics. An indication on how serious we are in this affair and as usual, we welcome everybody with common interests on board.

I hope that you find this summary insightful. Coming up next, summary on the Future of Energy Informatics, also from the same speaker. Till then, take care.

Yours truly,

Hazleen Aris

July 10th, 2021

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