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Friday, March 20, 2009

Second-order effects on mobile from environmental challenges

I've been following the interactions between the mobile industry and "green" issues for some time. Most of the manifestations have been what I'd call "first-order" - direct changes that impact how handsets and networks are designed and used.

Specifically, it has meant initiatives such as:

- Base stations and other network elements which use less power
- Solar and wind power, rather than diesel, for "off grid" sites
- Recyclable handsets (and better recycling processes)
- Standardisation of handset chargers, auto switch-off when fully charged etc

But I think that there are also some important "second-order" opportunities and challenges ahead. These are where environmental initiatives and trends elsewhere in society and industry have a knock-on effect on mobile.

For example, yesterday I attended a public lecture about energy consumption, given by Professor Michael Kelly, the Chief Scientific Adviser ro the UK Department of Communities and Local Government. He was mainly talking about energy use linked to buildings - principally for heating, cooling, lighting and electrical devices. Despite the focus on things like air travel, the fact is that it is ordinary homes and offices that generate a very large % of power consumption and CO2 emissions.

This reflects the importance that many are placing on things like home insulation.

And despite all the talk of constructing new "carbon neutral" homes, he made the astonishing prediction that 86% of today's buildings will still be in use by 2050. So consequently, a huge amount of retrofitting will need to occur - insulation, energy control technology and so forth.

OK, all very interesting & worthy - but what does this have to do with mobile?

Several things, in fact:

- I wonder whether there are issues (or any measurements) regarding the propagation of wireless into and within well-insulated buildings, vs. poorly-insulated ones? What effect is there from triple-glazed windows, perhaps with mirrored or reflective glass? Wall cavity insulation of different types? Does this change the landscape for femtos, WiFi and so forth?
- More specifically, the Professor suggested that in the UK, for various reasons (eg speed) it might be necessary to put some form of cladding on the outside of houses. This could be both a threat (RF propagation again) but also an opportunity. If every house in the UK will have to be "retrofitted" to come up to standard, what else could be done, simply and by the same workers, during the process? Could the cladding be designed to include external antennas or repeaters, for example? Or wireless sensors, perhaps?
- There are also various options around moves to monitor and control power use - for example with smart meters, or other systems that mean more flexible ways to control energy, heating, lighting, aircon and so forth. The obvious ones are things like remote meters - but what about using mobile technology more inventively? A government could use mobile to incentivise or modify behaviour, in conjunction with mobile operators and power companies. "If you cut you electricity consumption by 30% over the next 3 months, we'll give you a 50% discount on your phone bill" or perhaps (privacy advocates look away now...) "You've left your heating on at home, while you're out at work. Would you like to turn it off remotely?"

There will probably be various other secondary effects as well. Already, mobile accounts for around 1% of personal CO2 emissions (handset and network, capex and opex). Given targets of an 80% reduction in CO2 by 2050, there will be a broad set of impacts, both direct and indirect.

The direct issues are already getting a lot of play. I'd suggest that starting to think about indirect and second-order effects now is a wise move.


Anonymous said...

Unclear how some of your examples tie into mobile. That said, you may want to look at this program: https://www.hydroottawa.com/conservation/index.cfm?lang=e&template_id=414

Extract: "On the hottest weekday afternoons during the summer, when the use of air conditioners is greatest, Hydro Ottawa may remotely signal the thermostat to cycle your central air conditioning to reduce its electricity use for a brief period of time, typically up to four hours. Your fan will continue to run, so the change in temperature will hardly be noticeable, if at all, but the benefit to our community will be great. This will occur infrequently, typically on weekdays, not on weekends or holidays. Plus you will have the ability to opt out temporarily, upon request, twice a year if you need to. "

Paul said...

Hi Anonymous,

Your Canadian example is purely designed to stop power grid collapse during 35c+ periods, where folks tend to keep the A/C on while out at work, and potentially exceed the generating capacity.

What Dean is describing is that domestic energy efficiency targets may hamper FMC/FMS expansion, and also potentially postulated m2m remote meter reading on older properties that typically have internal meter equipment that may become partially RF shielded.