Selling gems and stones would have been the most obvious career choice for Harit Soni, considering his family had been in the business for years. But Soni did not want it easy – so he became part of India’s growing techie population instead.

A telecommunications engineer from Bengaluru and a Chevening Gurukul Fellow from the London School of Economics, Soni worked with the IT powerhouse Infosys and then moved to the international giant KPMG, where he helped various companies, most of which were in the energy business, improve their operations. It was during his interactions with these companies that he realised the number of challenges they faced due to losses in power distribution.

The problem was not intractable – by tapping into information technology, Soni felt, it could be solved. This led to the idea of energy management and smart grids and subsequently to the founding of Ecolibrium Energy. “Our main intent was to help the power sector become smarter with IT,” said Soni, who set up the company in Ahmedabad with his brother Chintan.

Ecolibrium Energy, with its 85 employees, was declared winner of the award for Powering Business at this year’s International Ashden Awards in mid-June.

According to the Ashden judging panel: “Ecolibrium Energy’s business intelligence technology demonstrates how the power of big data can make a significant difference when it comes to optimising energy use. With Ecolibrium Energy’s technology, which can be applied across many different operations, large businesses – including blue chip clients - can understand, control and massively reduce their energy costs.”

The Ashden Awards were established in 2001 by Sarah Butler-Sloss, a philanthropist who witnessed the impact of clean energy technologies in off-grid communities in Africa. The awards uncover the best in sustainable energy and showcase their potential to an influential audience at a high-profile ceremony. Winners receive £20,000 in prize money and a tailored package of support to help scale up their work.

India’s run at the Ashden Awards has been impressive, with clean energy start-ups and companies making their mark. Last year, Frontier Markets and Greenlight Planet won the Ashden – while Frontier Markets is helping provide high quality solar lamps in remote areas, Greenlight Planet has powered 5 million households worldwide with solar energy solutions.

Need for energy efficiency

At a time when climate change is an ever-present threat, there is a dire need to conserve energy and reduce carbon emissions. This won’t be easy for India. According to a report released by the Central Electricity Authority, the requirement for electrical energy is expected to grow by 37% in five years and the nation will need 1,566 billion units of energy in the financial year 2022. The International Energy Agency expects India will add nearly 600 million new electricity consumers by 2040.

Soni’s winning innovation, SmartSense, is pitching in by helping over 750 commercial and industrial consumers and utilities in South Asia save up to 15% of their energy and maintenance costs.

As Soni explained, industries and buildings are energy guzzlers and consume nearly 50% of the world’s energy. A fifth of this is, unfortunately, mismanaged or wasted. Soni’s SmartSense curbs the wastage by monitoring the energy consumption in an industry or building by “using Internet of Things, data analytics and machine learning algorithms to perform predictive maintenance on the equipment…”

This is how the technology works, according to Soni: “There are two main concepts involved. In order for energy or asset optimisation to happen, data about the current efficiency levels needs to be continuously monitored. SmartSense does data monitoring in a continuous and wireless manner… and stores the data on a cloud hosted by IT servers.”

For instance, tracking the constant power consumption by a large motor in a factory and in case of an issue such as bearing failure, the algorithms running on SmartSense send out an alert. This helps plug in wastages before they become large. It also saves the motor from further deterioration and failure. The same example can be applied to larger machines such as transformers, municipal pumps, making industrial and public infrastructure smarter. This in turn ensures that power is consumed efficiently.

Jürgen from Sandesneben, Germany - Flickr/ Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

Soni said big data analytics, or large amounts of real time data from machines, factories and buildings is constantly monitored on the server. This data is constantly analyzed using advanced algorithms, and then in case of any deviation in trends, an alert is sent out identifying the key issue.

In the years to come, he’s positive that big data for smarter industries is going to become more and more important. With industries becoming more automated, even equipment maintenance is going to be done in a data oriented manner – and big data and analytics are going to a play key role in this. “In the next four to five years, big data in industries and buildings is going to be a norm and not an exception.”

Currently, Ecolibrium Energy, with its 85 employees, is implementing SmartSense in more than 500 businesses in India. Some of the companies using big data and predictive energy analytics to improve efficiency are Ashok Leyland, Shell, Intas Pharma, Verizon and Bluestar.