It would be difficult to understate how important 5G is going to be. From the average citizen to the biggest company, our lives and economies won't be the same after we figure out how to implement this technology intelligently and fairly, within countries and eventually around the world.
The rollout of 5G will disrupt all kinds of human enterprises — including the energy industry. Let's take a look at how.
Why 5G for the Energy Sector?
First: How important is 5G, actually?
It means the difference between 8 Mbps download speeds on LTE versus 100 Mbps download speeds on 5G. Of course, if somebody promises you "true 5G" today, they probably can't guarantee speeds like these until some of the details are hammered out by standards bodies. The rollout has been slow and surprisingly geopolitically fraught, but none of this diminishes any of 5G's potential.
Every developed country in the world is eyeing 5G infrastructure development as a kind of latter-day space race. When it comes to energy, most of the spending is happening in three major categories:
- Smart metering
- Smart homes
- Smart grids
5G facilitates each of these technology families in important ways, but they all add up to the same thing: a more resilient, less wasteful and more affordable energy market.
In addition to the much higher speeds, the other benefits of 5G are versatility and ease-of-use. Whether 5G connectivity is ultimately delivered via cell towers, satellites or both, it means more-or-less ubiquitous, blazing-fast connectivity all over the globe, often without the hassle of setting up Wi-Fi.
The energy market has already developed a warm and productive relationship with the Internet of Things- and the addition of 5G into the mix will only improve the usability and usefulness of the IoT as it makes our homes and grids more intelligent and energy-efficient.
5G Powers the Energy IoT
Energy-consuming devices all have unique power requirements, but until our technology gets a little smarter and easier to connect, it could be difficult to pinpoint areas of industrial waste. 5G takes energy metering to its logical next steps by allowing an advanced degree of data-gathering and energy forecasting across individual facilities as well as complex supply chains. Any insight into enterprise-level power usage is a good thing because it can help spread out spikes in demand as well as pinpoint opportunities to invest in more capable infrastructure.
What we collectively refer to as the smart grid is really the entire series of factories, residences and other structures that draw power from, or sell power back to, regional power generation companies. The more factories and homes we retrofit with smarter electronics, equipment, and metering tools, the better our grids will become at avoiding or recovering from unexpected downtime. It's easier to understand with an example:
In the midsized town of Chattanooga, Tennessee, an investment in smarter electricity distribution delivered a big return. The city reportedly saved $1.4 million in the aftermath of just one severe storm thanks to the ability to manage resources more effectively and reduce the duration of power outages and lost productivity. In the same report, you can read about the cities of Barcelona and San Diego, which are experimenting with connected street lamps to save power and tamp down on light pollution when they're not needed. Retrofits like these could save an estimated $1 billion per year in the U.S. alone.
All these opportunities become only more robust and useful when they're delivered via 5G infrastructure instead of existing connectivity technologies.
5G for Wind Farms and Renewable Energy
In the energy sector and elsewhere, 5G connectivity will help blur some of the lines between the mechanical and the digital. Nowhere is this more useful than in the deployment of wind farms, where imposing heights and large-scale engineering require proactive maintenance and diligent maintenance to achieve uninterrupted performance during productive periods.
With 5G, wind-based utility companies can cut down on the number of personnel put in harm's way to inspect and maintain turbines and instead double-down on other types of talent, like electricians and specialists in other advanced infrastructure. Sensors and networking devices included in the critical components can alert personnel when conditions are exceeding tolerances, a part requires replacement or there's anything else amiss that might interfere with the equipment reaching peak performance. One such project exploring and popularizing this concept is called VirtuWind.
Even for incumbent sources of energy, such as oil and gas, McKinsey found numerous advantages to bringing artificial intelligence and real-time data-gathering to the problem of making pipelines more resilient to seismic activity. Not surprisingly, a ubiquitous and resilient connectivity technology like 5G would be a boon in an industry that must construct and police many miles of pipeline across vulnerable countryside.
Wind- and solar-generated power are arguably the future of energy. Nevertheless, some 5.7 million American households still rely on oil as their primary source of heating fuel, a significant portion of which are located in northern and northeastern climates. Solar panels aren't incompatible with these climates, but they do come with some added challenges that more efficient solar panels and communication standards will help address.
On more overcast days, intelligent tuning algorithms can help solar generation equipment installed on solar farms, commercial rooftops and the roofs of family homes receive power from the grid and sell power back. They can ultimately distribute resources during times of relative scarcity in a way that balances the load and provides reliable services for everybody up and down the line.
Clearly, the energy sector is already an early beneficiary of 5G connectivity. Even among many other exciting industrial applications, the promise of smart electric grids, smarter homes, and smart utility metering stands to deliver tremendous benefits to average consumers, energy distributors and even the environment.