Can AI help reduce Beijing’s smog?

Utility companies can use AI and IoT to embrace sustainability

By | 4 minute read | September 4, 2018

Could AI make wearing a mask just to go outside a thing of the past in polluted cities?

Environmental health experts have estimated that 16 percent of all premature deaths worldwide were linked to pollution in 2015. Air pollution caused the majority of those deaths (6.5 million people), and more than a third of those deaths occurred in China—which has sparked intense interest there to build a greener and safer future.

Given those staggering statistics, “Sustainability won’t be a choice,” said Brad Gammons, IBM Global Managing Director, Energy, Environment, and Utility industries. “Citizens will demand that companies, governments, and their neighbors act in a sustainable and environmentally responsible way as it impacts everyone.”

Breathing Beijing’s air, according to a study released last year by U.S.-based nonprofit Berkeley Earth, is comparable to smoking 30 cigarettes a day. Emissions from coal, vehicles, and dust from construction sites, intensified by three decades of breakneck growth, have led to significant human costs and a notorious smog that routinely blankets the city.

“When we are traveling around Beijing, my son becomes very excited if he sees a blue sky,” said Jinyan Shao, IBM Researcher. “Something so common for previous generations is currently a luxury in many cities.”

Beijing put new ambient air quality standards in place in 2012 to try to curb pollution. But measuring these standards, and potentially identifying and punishing transgressors, remains a challenge. And because air quality fluctuates so wildly, it’s difficult to give residents ample warning to protect themselves.

To drastically lower pollution levels, the Chinese government begin partnering with IBM in 2014 as part of the company’s Green Horizons initiative—which helps improve the relationship between the environment, energy and utilities companies, and governments, supporting cleaner air and increasing the use of renewable energy.

As part of this initiative, Beijing is using advanced technology like IoT and AI to predict, identify, and track sources of pollution. The numerous factors that contribute to air-pollution levels—traffic levels, weather, humidity, wind patterns—are ingested by connected sensors all over China’s capital. IoT technology can produce a lot of valuable data, but it needs to be analyzed.

That’s where AI comes in. AI finds insights and patterns in data where previously there was chaos to better predict pollution trends up to 10 days ahead. And AI learns, improving its accuracy over time. Using this technology helped IBM and Beijing generate high-resolution one-by-one-kilometer pollution forecasts 72 hours in advance, giving citizens and businesses more warning.

And as for reducing that dreaded dome of smog? The initiative is helping pinpoint and manage contributors to the problem (traffic and factory output), so Beijing can reach its goal of reducing smog-generating particulate matter in the capital by 25 percent by the end of next year. And it is well on its way. “Blue sky” days increased and pollutants fell by 35 percent from 2012 to 2017—a success that has led to the expansion of the initiative into other cities in China, India, and South Africa.

How utilities can optimize renewable energy

Alongside the focus on air quality management, Green Horizons supports the global shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy to help reduce CO2—the biggest cause of climate change. Energy and utilities companies can integrate more renewable energy into the grid by better understanding how much solar or wind power will be available—and when—through weather forecasting.

Solar farms can use sky-facing cameras to monitor cloud movement and calculate their potential impact on blocking solar radiation. Wind turbines are fitted with sensors 80 meters above the ground to monitor wind speed, moisture, and air pressure. This saves thousands of megawatts of energy that would otherwise be lost and is the key to creating an optimal balance between supply and demand in energy markets. China was able to add 10 percent more renewable energy into the national grid from 2014-2016.

Optimizing a company’s assets

Energy and utilities companies need to get the most out of their assets—fleets and buildings to power stations and transmission lines—in a variety of places. But they often struggle with old infrastructure, an aging workforce, skills gaps, and a lack of asset performance visibility.

Green Horizons helps companies become greener by monitoring and modernizing equipment and infrastructure, and even anticipating maintenance needs before there’s a failure or outage. “Efficiency and effectiveness in your operations does have an impact on sustainability,” said Gammons. “If you better predict and plan maintenance or inspection work, you can schedule crews and dispatch trucks for only the work you need.”

According to McKinsey, the management of all these assets can account for 20 to 30 percent of an energy company’s operating expenses. Becoming more efficient and reducing their carbon footprint across their assets will also meet rising customer expectations about sustainability.

“Sustainability is good business,” said Gammons. “It has a direct impact on improving operations and customer relationships.”