ICT’s Role in Sustainability, the Case of Smart Grids: Potential and Challenges

By Mathilde Bonneau | 11 January 2013

To quote this document: Mathilde Bonneau, “ICT’s Role in Sustainability, the Case of Smart Grids: Potential and Challenges”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Friday 11 January 2013, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/1614, displayed on 02 June 2023

Sustainability – policy-making’s new buzzword. Definitions vary but by and large the consensus defines it as sense of the capacity to support, maintain and endure. Applied to environmental preservation and policy-making, sustainable development conveys the idea of efficient resource management so as to meet human needs while preserving resources and the environment for future generations.

This idea is certainly present in the European Commission’s Europe 2020 Strategy, which aims to promote “sustainable growth towards a resource-efficient, low-carbon and competitive economy”. Some of the strategy’s flagship goals are “making efficient, sustainable use of resources”, “developing new green technologies” and “introducing efficient smart electricity grids”.

Information & Communication Technologies (ICT) play a key role in the realisation of these objectives. ICT is a term used to stress the integration of telecommunications (such as telephone lines and wireless signals) and computers, as well as the necessary software, hardware, storage or audio-visual systems, thereby enabling users to store, access, transmit and manipulate information. ICT is increasingly acting as a key enabling technology – as a tool for knowledge acquisition and awareness, early evaluation, communication or automated management. There is an increasing variety of areas in which ICT can have a significant impact – from healthcare, to agriculture or development for instance. In terms of environmental sustainability, the European Commission’s objective is to put ICT to contribution to the development of a more sustainable Europe by focusing on Energy Efficiency, Water Management and Climate Change Adaptation.

With regards to energy efficiency, another buzzword often conjured is that of smart – smart meters, smart grids, smart cities. But what is so smart about them and what role does ICT have? What are the key challenges to be overcome for the effective roll-out of efficient smart metering, and what role can the EU have?  

A Smart World – what are smart grids and what is the EU doing?

Imagine a world in which your flat, your house or your office building no longer are merely bricks and cement but a smart building operating within an dynamic energy smart grid, producing, storing and managing its own electricity to share with other buildings in its network. The building’s intelligent systems would communicate with the energy providers to control cooling, heating, lighting and hot water systems to optimise the overall management of resources at a local level. Smart grids are smart because they don’t only transport electricity but also information, which enables a more efficient management of the grid and the integration of renewable energies.

Through the use of ICT-based management systems, the new generation of smart meters will enable the sale of energy produced by buildings to other buildings within the same smart grid. Such energy balancing between buildings will not only ease the management of demand peaks, but also ensure a more stable energy supply. Eventually, networks of neighbourhood smart grids will connect amongst each other in vast and complex networks, creating the smart city. And such a smart vision does not only concern energy efficiency – one might also imagine ICT-based management systems to regulate traffic lights, traffic flow and public transport routes through an entire city so as to minimise traffic and maximise emission reductions.

That’s the vision, and such a world is not as far off in the future as one might think – by mid-2013, member-states are expected to report to the Commission on whether smart meters make sense economically and if it is found to be cost-effective, at least 80% of consumers will be required to be equipped with intelligent metering systems by 2020. Who will bear the costs for their installation, management and maintenance is still unknown however.

The EU has set some ambitious targets to reduce carbon emissions by 20% by 2020. Considering that between 40% of the energy we generate is used to heat buildings and provide power (accounting for about 30% of carbon emissions), energy efficient buildings are key to meeting that objective. To that end, the Commission has produced several reports and Recommendations urging member-states to actively pursue the deployment of ICT to improve energy efficiency: in 2012, for instance, the Commission published a Recommendation on preparations for the roll-out of smart metering systems. The 2013 Commission work programme identifies the deployment of smart grids as an important factor in making energy supplies “more secure, sustainable and competitive” and the 7th Framework Programme is financing a number of projects to support the development and deployment of energy efficient solutions for buildings. The EU’s action in this field also has an international dimension – cooperation in the ICT sector, and more specifically on smart grids and smart cities, forms an integral part of its strategic partnership with Brazil.

Not Smart Enough – the challenge posed by the ICT sector’s use of energy

ICT’s contribution to energy efficiency is somewhat diminished when considering that the ICT industry produces more than 830 million tons of CO2 annually, which is about 2% of the global CO2 emissions – the same proportion as produced by the aviation industry. What’s more, projections suggest that the ICT sector’s emissions are expected to double by 2020. A report by the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) nonetheless notes that ICT’s contribution as an enabler for energy savings in other  sectors like transport, industry and buildings has the potential to reduce carbon emissions by 15% by 2020. It is however a double-edged sword and concerns about the sustainability of the ICT sector itself are increasingly being heard. ICT companies have begun taking voluntary steps to reduce their carbon footprint and cut their energy bills, but the question policy-makers are now facing is whether it will be enough or whether specific legislation should be adopted for the industry – in the same way the aviation industry is regulated.

The ICT sector’s carbon footprint has been under watch for some time already. In 2001, the Commission launched an EU certification system – the Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS) – which grants the companies that sign up a “green certification” attesting that companies are making efforts to improve their environmental performance. The Ecodesign Directive on 2005 is another initiative aimed at incorporating energy efficiency within the design of products such as computers, hair dryers or other electronics. In the Commission’s priority list for this directive are computer servers and data storage equipment. Indeed, with Cloud Computing becoming more popular and widespread, the energy consumption of data centres is also raising concerns.



Or too Smart – security and privacy concerns

Another (less obvious) drawback of these smart systems for managing energy consumption is the risk they pose to the data that is collected, stored and managed by automated systems – both in terms of security and privacy. The US National Institute of Standards in Technology (NIST) identified in 2010 two main concerns about smart meters - (1) privacy concerns that smart meters will reveal people’s activities in the home by measuring their electricity usage over time, and (2) fears that inadequate cyber-security measures, not only in the transmissions phase, but also in the storage phase, will expose the data to misuse and abuse. The fact, for instance, that an entire smart grid – at neighbourhood, city or country level – could be remotely accessed raises fears that an unauthorised third-party could hack into the system and disconnect it, which could have disastrous consequences. The EU’s cyber-security agency, ENISA, has investigated security issues posed by smart grids and issued recommendations to assist providers to improve their cyber-security and resilience. The Commission also ran an Open Consultation on cyber-security in 2012 in view of proposing legislative measures in the future.

Privacy and security concerns surrounding smart technology arise from their essential functions – recording real-time data on electricity usage, transmitting this data to the smart grid, and receiving communications from the smart grid. To be useful for energy efficiency purposes, the data collected must be highly detailed and may be transmitted to electricity providers – and possible to other third-parties outside of the smart grid – thereby subjecting the data to potential interception or theft as it is transmitted over communication networks and is stored in a number of physical locations. Moreover, as the Commission stated in its March 2012 press release about its Recommendation on the roll-out of smart metering, “the effective use of smart metering systems requires the processing of personal data”. In its response to the Commission’s proposal, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) stated in June 2012 that smart metering “will also enable massive collection of personal data which can track what members of a household do within the privacy of their own homes, whether they are away on holiday or at work, if someone uses a specific medical device or a baby-monitor, how they like to spend their free time and so on”. Although these patterns can be useful to analyse energy use to preserve energy, especially if aggregated with data from other sources, the potential for data mining is significant. These profiles can be used for other purposes, such as marketing, price-discrimination or advertising.

The risk also exist that malicious individuals accessing such personal data will use the knowledge of one’s holidays to rob homes – the aggregation of so many people’s data in one central database increases the potential for mass-scale criminality. Therein lies the connection between privacy and security. The Commission has recognised the need to protect both privacy and security of transmissions. The proposal for a Data Protection Regulation, currently undergoing legislative scrutiny, imposes security obligations such as requiring state-of-the-art technology or informing in the event of personal data breaches for instance.

A Smarter Future

The use of ICT in smart metering, but also in other sectors such as healthcare, manufacturing or transport systems, demonstrates huge potential for more effective and efficient processes. The collection, analysis and storage of energy use data can bring about huge savings and consumer control, thereby increasing resource management. There are a number of problems that still need to be faced by the industry and by EU policy-makers and regulators – from improving the ICT sector’s own sustainability to improving security and privacy safeguards – but there is little doubt that the use of ICT in a number of sectors will increase in the future.


To go further

On the internet

  • MEP Marc Tarabella. Parliamentary Question to the European Parliament on Green ICTs. 20 November 2012.