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Could Big Data be the Solution to Clean Technology?

Since the Industrial Revolution, fossil fuels (primarily coal) have been the primary source of energy. The energy sector has done a relatively good job of fine-tuning processes like mining, raw materials transport, energy generation, and energy distribution with the data and analytical tools available. But today’s reality is that fossil fuel sources are limited, and a number of groups are concerned that using fossil fuels for power generation is affecting the climate.

Several alternative energy sources have been developed to inevitably replace dwindling supplies of fossil fuels, including wind power, solar power, water power, and nuclear power. However, each has its downfalls and could be improved considerably if only there were more information to make these energy sources more efficient, cheaper, safer, and more reliably available. Can big data be the solution to finding those necessary improvements?

The Problem With the Current Clean Energy Technologies

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There are a number of clean energy alternatives, but none are yet capable of replacing fossil fuels. Could more and better data help?

Currently, none of the clean technologies are capable of replacing fossil fuels. Solar power is not nearly efficient enough and way too expensive. It would take many, many acres of solar panels to power society. There simply isn’t room to put the panels, nor money to manufacture and install adequate solar power infrastructure. Wind turbines are relatively efficient, but are hazardous to bird life and generate an incredible amount of noise pollution. This is problematic for both wildlife and humans, and drives down property values significantly.

Hydroelectric, or water power, produces large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane gas. It disrupts wildlife habitats, and dams are expensive to build and maintain. A drought could literally shut down an entire power grid indefinitely. Nuclear power is loaded with political baggage from those with environmental concerns and fears of incidents like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, the latter of which is still an unfolding disaster. How can big data help?

Big Data That Could Revolutionize Clean Energy Technologies

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Big data could hold the answer to clean energy generation that is sustainable and beneficial to people, animals, and the environment.

Big data analysis is extraordinarily useful and powerful in terms of identifying ways to reduce waste and improve processes. There is a massive amount of data available today that can be used to predict energy needs, improve energy production methods, build more energy-efficient structures, and even curb consumer energy consumption. For example:

  • Big data could be used to develop more efficient and less expensive clean energy generation methods, such as improve the design of solar panels or reduce the environmental impact of wind or hydraulic energy.
  • Big data can help predict weather patterns that drive up or down the need for energy, so that energy companies were generating enough power during peak demand and less during slower demand times.
  • Better weather prediction data helps determine how best to utilize solar, wind, and water power sources.
  • Smart thermostats can curb demands on stressed energy grids.
  • Sensors on power lines can help energy companies identify areas with greater or lesser energy needs and help line workers manage power outages.
  • Big data can help energy companies develop better pricing structures according to the amount of consumption by particular customers, areas, types of buildings, etc.
  • Big data can identify consumers who need more encouragement or education regarding energy consumption.

Factors Inhibiting Big Data for Clean Energy Innovation

If big data has so much to offer clean energy, why isn’t it getting better? Energy companies have (though slowly) embraced Hadoop, which is improving methods and procedures for energy generation, efficiency, distribution, and use.

But although energy companies are analyzing their own data, the conditions across the industry are limited by the lack of willingness to share data. Several crowdsourcing initiatives have sprung up to promote sharing on clean energy, but most energy companies refrain from sharing. The energy industry is intensely competitive, and sharing information with one’s competitors just isn’t something energy executives are signing up to do.

Still, crowdsourcing initiatives carry on, and could one day provide the data and analytics necessary to improve clean energy sources to the point of replacing dirtier and dwindling fossil fuels.



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