As urban populations continue to grow at an unstable speed in inefficient contexts, smart cities are being looked up to as the saviour of next generation infrastructure – but what do they actually entail?
“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”
Hitting the 'off' button on your solar-charged alarm clock after cursing your ability to 'snooze' for the third time this week, you walk over to take your morning shower in recycled waste water - heated throughout the night with a reserve store of clean energy - before heading downstairs to program the house for the day and reverse your minimalist, electrically-charged car out of its docking bay. You toaster knows you've left, so off it goes, along with your foe-turned-friend alarm clock. The dull hum of stand-by electronics winds itself down throughout the house just in time for you to hear as the magnetic deadlock on your door clicks shut. The smile on your face, accrued from another carbon-saving day, arrives at work just in time to see you walk into your double-platinum, LEED-certified office building, surrounded by a depth of luscious flora, of course.
But this isn't some utopian crossover of Minority Report meets Spielberg's A.I. - this is real-world, next generation smart thinking - and it's on its way to a city near you in the not-so-distant future. With the nation's, indeed the world's, population growing at an infective and worrying rate, the large majority of the world's population has resided in cities since 2007, forcing an overloading amount of reliance to out-of-date power grids that were designed back in the 'good old days', sat alongside energy-hungry buildings and infrastructure.
Fortunately, with a rise in population levels has come a rise in technological advances, in turn provoking a deepening of creativity and environmental awareness. The theoretical smart cities of 10 years ago were nothing more than talk of using smart meters in homes and businesses to measure efficiency. Today, with the accumulation of electronic data, smartphones - and of course the omniscient internet inextricably linked to everything we do - smart grid and city rationale has evolved to encompass the hope for a complete change of social scaffold and lifestyle choices.
Indeed, Michael Carlson, Executive Vice President of GridPoint and former CIO for Xcel Energy (the brains behind Boulder, Colorado's $100 million SmartGridCity), certainly has his finger on the pulse when it comes to understanding the shift in smart grid innovation. "The meter is a secondary component of today's smart grid," explains Carlson. "If we'll allow ourselves to look into the future, I think we should be questioning whether a meter is part of the puzzle at all. That's not to say that you don't have to measure your electric consumption in some way, shape or form. But do you need a meter to do it?
"A meter is an archaic device that at the end of the day only serves to measure. It can't control. It can provide information, albeit not by itself. We need to ask ourselves, are there other, more efficient, effective and less expensive ways to accomplish those tasks?" And with that one question, Carlson manages to exemplify the attitudes of smart grid movers and shakers nationwide - pushing the envelope of technological creativity certainly seems to be the name of the game here, just as it was when formulating the world's first completely 'smart city'.
According to SmartGridCity, there are four main components to the success of Boulder's pioneer grid. First up, the smart grid infrastructure "creates the 'backbone' of the entire smart system. Xcel Energy has layered digital capabilities across the grid, including two-way, high-speed communications. This has added new automation capabilities and, because the utility can now sense and predict grid conditions, it can proactively monitor the grid's health and detect outages before they occur."
Secondly, smart meters actually remain an essential link in hooking up homes to the smart grid within the city, collecting household electricity data in 15-minute increments to allow consumers unparalleled visibility into their energy usage. They also act as sensors that help the utility gauge what's happening on the system at any given time. When outages do occur, smart meters allow the relevant powers that be to pinpoint specific problems and get them fixed faster.
Third on the success charts is a unique website spun into the system called MyAccount, which provides 'customers' with detailed information about their energy usage so they can have more choice about how and when they use electricity. When coupled with a smart meter, MyAccount generates an in-depth snapshot of a house's energy use, identifying times when consumption is highest and even which systems in a home contribute to the bulk of its electricity bill.
Finally, SmartGridCity cites "in-home smart devices" as the icing on their metaphorical cake to implementation. "Wireless systems, thermostats and smart plugs connect your home to the smart grid. This taps you into the smart grid network and allows your home's systems and electrical outlets to 'talk' to the MyAccount website. You can then monitor your consumption and adjust your energy usage according to your personal needs and preferences". Pretty simple when you think of it like that, but the reality of the situation is anything but.
For starters, any first generation smart grid will need to be placed on top of an existing power grid. After all, the idea behind smart grid induction is more to do with actuating a change in consumer behaviour by providing the necessary technology to do so - not merely dumping an excessive amount of decade-redundant tools on top of Edison's 1880 grid in the hope that someone might use them; the sentiment of which was epitomized by former Sony chairman, Nobuyuki Idei, who said in a recent smart thinking tweet: "Copying 20th century cities in Dubai and Shanghai is crazy. We need...a city OS".
And so it is, with the motivation and expertise of an ex-Microsoft guru and a start-up wizard, that the city operating system Idei talks of is finally becoming a reality - through a potentially global project known as Living PlanIT. The ambition? To build a prototype smart, green city in Portugal that can then be rolled out worldwide while dragging the construction industry into the 21st century. Perhaps surprisingly, it's the latter part of this ambition that holds the most difficulty, as Steve Lewis, the former Microsoft veteran turned CEO of Living PlanIT, explains.
"It's a bit of a bloodbath really. They're [the construction industry] using techniques older than God. All of the technology is being used on the design end. No one can look into the future and ask 'if I put better glass into this building, what does that do for energy efficiency down the road?' You have developers building to do a quick flip, and eventually the building becomes too inefficient and so expensive to fix that they have to knock it down. There's no process and no lifecycle management."
In fact, there's so little incentive to integrate and become more productive that a recent Harvard Business School case study revealed that while non-farming industries have made productivity gains averaging 80 percent since the 1960s, the construction industry has actually regressed, becoming 20 percent less productive in the same time period. Where buildings "accounted for nearly 40 percent of the total energy consumption in the US, including 70 percent of the country's electricity and 38 percent of carbon emissions," construction materials accounted for a phenomenal 60 percent of solid, non-industrial waste. "Most of it ends up in landfills," Lewis says. "They either broke it or over-ordered it."
According to Lewis, the solution is simple. First, streamline the process by applying the same lean manufacturing techniques and supply chain integration that's been commonplace in the automotive industry for years. "How do you get the aesthetics and variability right while at the same time keeping consistent quality?" he asks. Well, according to Living PlanIT, the idea would be to realign construction firms to look more like the computer industry's original design manufacturers (ODMs), building modular, plug-and-play components ordered from a catalogue and slotted into a city's Urban Operating System, both of which would be owned by Living PlanIT.
The second tier of the plan would involve creating an "ecosystem" of partners to fill in the blanks in Living PlanIT's plan to code cities like software - in which buildings, sensors and traffic apps alike are connected through the cloud. All the company will own is the Urban OS (the glue in its urban fabric) and the process, from drafting blueprints to "decommissioning" an obsolete building like you would a junk server. Full build-out of the Portuguese project is projected for 2015, by which time PlanIT valley should have a population of around 150,000 - with almost everyone working in and as R&D for the project.
"They don't want a campus, they want a city," explains Lewis. "They need to send their kids to school; they need to be entertained. You end up with a brilliant R&D platform - you live in it, you improve it, you market it. If [a customer] says, 'I want a medical clinic,' we already have one. We backed into building PlanIT valley based on customer demands." Of course, it goes without saying that Lewis and his team at Living PlanIT are using Portugal as a prototype for the instant cities PlanIT hopes to sell in developing countries such as India and China, which need new ones by the hundreds - built faster, greener and smarter than any city that's come before. But before that happens, further projects are planned in the US and Europe to iron out any potential creases.
To ensure that the US continues to entice these kinds of pilot projects, as well as exponentially evolve its own cities and utility attitudes, President Obama recently scribed off on a $787 billion stimulus bill for clean energy and renewed infrastructure. Off the back of this, one of the biggest wins for clean energy now comes in the form of grants for up to 30 percent of the cost of projects started in the next two years. As Oerlikon Solar CEO Jeanine Sargent explained in a release backing the move, the industry expects these grants to "loosen gridlock in the capital markets with funding for shovel-ready solar projects that have been on hold due to a lack of available financing."
The stimulus also includes $2 billion for transmission grid improvements, with the President himself addressing the need for a "nationwide transmission superhighway", declaring: "Today, the electricity we use is carried along a grid of lines and wires that dates back to Thomas Edison - a grid that can't support the demands of clean energy. This means we're using 19th and 20th century technologies to battle 21st century problems like climate change and energy security. It also means that places like North Dakota can produce a lot of wind energy, but can't deliver it to communities that want it, leading to a gap between how much clean energy we are using and how much we could be using. The investment we are making today will create a newer, smarter electric grid that will allow for the broader use of alternative energy."
Inherent with achieving this is the obvious need for smart grid thinking, which Obama has also allocated sufficient funds for - $4.4 billion to be exact. If things stick within budget, and the usually don't, the stimulus allocation should allow for the installation of various hardware and software to make the power grid an intelligent two-way digital network: the embryo of smart city beginnings. It is expected that these funds will become a blessing for all those in the world of smart grid and smart city intelligence, enabling more efficient management of future smart cities.
With everything seemingly moving off the horizon and towards a new era controlled by the elusive and indefinable smart grid, those in high places need to realize that changes need to be made on both sides of the fence: consumers need just as much incentive to want to change as utility companies do. Thankfully, the seemingly infallible Obama has even included that in the stimulus, expanding tax credits for more energy-efficient appliances and insulation improvements, to the tune of two billion dollars over the next 10 years. The stimulus also provides $300 million in matching funds for state rebates on energy efficient appliances and increases government spending on weatherization for low- and middle-income homes to five billion dollars, up from the previous $500 million per year, with public housing projects getting $250 million for energy-saving upgrades.
However, while the stimulus paints a rosy picture, many remain concerned about the speed that government can distribute the funds and how effectively the industry can spend them. On top of this lies the real crux of the argument for comprehending the true identity of a 'smart city': it means a lot more than just creating and developing a smart grid. As pivotal as that will be, the US-based National Resources Defense Council cites a host of other sustainable factors that smart city planners will need to take into consideration. Transportation, waste prevention, food security, air quality, green space, environmental justice and green buildings cannot be swept under the carpet if a truly smart city is to prevail.
Conflating this, Al Bartlett, an emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Boulder, has highlighted in his award-winning seminar, 'Arithmetic, Energy and Population', that "the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function". Essentially, Bartlett's belief that sustainable growth is, in fact, a "contradiction" and is based on the understanding that a relatively modest percentage growth in population can equate to huge escalations over short periods of time, does much to detail both the need for smart cities and the challenges faced in getting them to where they can begin to handle the exponential population growth problem the world is already witnessing, yet fails to grasp.
According to Bartlett, if the US receives a seven percent population growth every year, it's 'doubling time' - the time taken for the population to double - is 10 years. In other words, every 10 years, the population of the nation will be greater than the total sum of its previous years. And with that, there will come a time where cities will not only need to be smart, but so too will their people. After all, having the most efficient, innovative and green systems in the world are useless if they're crippled by the weight of a fatally over-populated city. As Bartlett openly admits, that's "The Greatest Challenge".
It's all good throwing around ideas of smart grids and cities, but unless it can sustain its difference with today's technologies, it's doing nothing new. According to the US Department of Energy's Modern Grid Initiative Report, a modern smart grid must:
Be able to heal itself
Motivate consumers to actively participate in operations of the grid
Provide higher quality power that will save money wasted from outages
Accommodate all generation and storage options
Enable electricity markets to flourish
Run more efficiently
Enable higher penetration of intermittent power generation source.