Written by Lieve Van Woensel with Brian Kelly
Today, more and more services and applications are functioning based on interconnected computers and robots interacting with the physical world. These are known as Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS). A recently-published study on the ‘Ethics of Cyber-Physical Systems’ for the Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) Panel examines seven key areas where Cyber-Physical Systems will have a significant impact. This blog post summarises the use of CPS in the area of energy and the impacts this may have.
What changes are we going to see in energy systems?
CPS in energy and critical infrastructures will result in major changes to the way we produce, consume and monitor energy. They will result in a much more dynamic energy grid, with the uptake and use of demand and supply management systems. With the grid becoming more dynamic, the uptake of renewable energy is made easier and more efficient through the use of smart meters, which provide for a real-time analysis of energy use. Along with smart meters, CPS will allow for the increased use of electricity storage to offset the intermittent nature of renewable energy. These developments, taken together, are referred to as the ‘internet of energy’. They will result in major shifts in our energy network, including the rise of ‘virtual power plants’ (VPP), entailing the need to examine the coming changes and their impacts on society.
How will the changes impact society?
The changes in the energy system resulting from CPS will have major impacts on our society. One such impact is that, overall, CPS acts as an enabler, giving individuals greater power and control over their energy usage. CPS will make it possible for energy users to be much more conscious of their consumption, allowing them to make real-time decisions to lower their energy use, thus helping to relieve the burden on the energy grid and decrease environmental impacts.
How will this affect privacy?
These changes are not without risks or concerns, however. One major concern arising from the increased use of CPS is that, as almost every activity undertaken in today’s society requires us to use energy, an individual’s privacy will be at much greater risk. One such example is that it has been shown that which movie someone is watching can be identified by analysing the power consumption pattern on the television. Will consumers have access to all their personal data or the ability to control who views them? Will business be able to sell the data for commercial purposes? What level of detail should be preserved in order to ensure privacy, while still allowing the data to be usable for scientific analysis? These concerns will need to be addressed as CPS continue to be implemented in the energy sector.
CPS will very likely be part of the critical infrastructure behind future energy systems and there are many expected benefits from the development of these technologies. However, there are still major concerns within these systems and ethical questions which cannot be ignored. The introduction and implementation of CPS in energy systems should lead to an overall benefit to society, and more efficient energy grids. However, this will require changes in legislation to account for the risks that the CPS pose in terms of liability, data collection and ownership.
For more information about CPS check out this STOA video.
This blog post was prepared using information from technical briefing papers written for the ‘Ethics of Cyber-Physical Systems’ study by Stamatis Karnouskos (SAP, Karslruhe, Germany) and Joost van Barneveld (Technopolis Group, The Netherlands).
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