Building a smart city is more than wishful thinking. That’s the first, and arguably the most important takeaway from Wednesday morning’s discussion on “The Smart City Project: Infrastructure, Industry and Citizens.” One of our guests, Harriet Tregoning, the Director of the Washington DC Office of Planning, said right up front that although no one has yet achieved a smart city or even defined a standardized list of capabilities one would have, a smart city is definitely more than a concept.
That should be a good sign for Tregoning, who has a responsibility to the public to make the city livable and innovative. “My city competes not with my suburbs in the Washington region. My competition is Seoul, London, San Francisco and Boston,” Tregoning said. “The way cities compete is to attract talent and investment in the human resource or the infrastructure and physical aspect of the city. In order to do that, many of these smart city moves are signifiers of a place that is willing to innovate and a place that is willing to offer a lot of choice and amenities to people.”
The second point however is that building a smart city is more than just making street lamps brighter. It has a far reaching effect in transportation, waste management, energy and more. “Use the assets of the place much more efficiently, much more intensely, and in doing so, provide citizens and customers more choices, lower cost and a broader set of positive outcomes, whether those are greenhouse gas related, beautification related or adaptation related,” Tregoning added. “In general, it’s about sending a dollar and getting four or five dollars worth of solutions.”
If Tregoning’s statement shows anything, it’s that a smart city isn’t just some utopia; it’s a broad collection of projects that touch all industries, both in the investments required and the opportunities that can come from it. And yet “The Smart City Project” is actually just the first in our long series of topics on the Smart Grid. This too may sound like just utility territory, but the gigantic infrastructure that is Smart Grid is the backbone to the smart city end goal.
In our Smart Grid series, we’ve started at the top, i.e. the vision that can be achieved. Each of our Viewpoints after demonstrates the work and strategy that must be put into making it all possible. But to prove that all of these bits and pieces matter to the end goal, and thus to everyone involved, we thought it best to preview those conversations by showing how our smart city discussion touched on them first.
Managing Transition to Smart Grid
Implementing a smart grid poses some obvious hurdles for utilities. There’s the massive influx of big data, the drastic updates to the infrastructure, the new security issues involved and the cost of doing it all.
But what Idaho Power CIO and VP Dennis Gribble pointed out is that Smart Grid doesn’t end at the home. It can help consumers make better decisions about their power, but it can also impact the way in which utilities operate as the existing grid, one originally put in place by Thomas Edison no less, is updated. Thus, it’s both reasonable and easiest to think proactively about how a smart grid concept could act as the communication superhighway for a smart city.
“If this is going to be the superhighway to build the infrastructure for the smart city environment, it certainly has the infrastructure and capability built into it, but the point is it’s going to be a tremendous cost, and how can we make sure this is a secure environment,” Gribble said. “Having that susceptible to a cyber attack poses all sorts of concerns for a community to be involved with. I do see the grid is a smart, good platform, but it will take awareness and consensus building around the cost and security.”
Making Renewable Energy a Lasting Priority
Utilities have realized that going green is no longer just a politically fashionable option but a necessity to stay both competitive and sustainable. But as green technologies are still in their infancy, there’s fear that utilities may bet on the wrong horse, and those investments won’t be seen in the future.
The trick then is to look for creative options, and our smart city discussion illuminated one example in which Washington DC killed two birds with one stone by fixing an aging sewer infrastructure with green solutions. Updated rooftops, streets and driveways all became environmentally friendly ways to fix a rampant sewer problem in the city. Bonus: D.C. looked more beautiful in the process.
Noting that all of these ideas to make a green-friendly smart city are fairly new, “The chance to leap to the front of the pack is there for almost everybody,” said Tregoning. “A lot of our cities are older, so we have a lot of aging infrastructure, and the absolute necessity of having to replace that infrastructure opens up some new opportunities for how we might fund.”
The Smart Grid Big Data Challenge
The most pressing concern facing the implementation of Smart Grid is the sheer amount of data that will go along with it. The logistical issues alone in finding ways to store and process all the data is a daunting task, so it makes sense to think proactively.
However, the benefit that goes along with a change is greater than the challenge. Smart Grid makes it such that meters no longer have to be read manually, and the two-way communication of information is now enabled between the consumer and utility.
“Individual customers could become generators of electricity. We have redundancy and some ability for generation to be less centralized, more distributed. I could become not just a buyer of electricity at my house but a seller of electricity,” Tregoning explained. That added collaboration even has immediate benefits for the utility.
“We had a lot of people running around in trucks, reading meters and trying to get this all in place,” Gribble said. “The ability to get people off the road has environmental benefits, cost savings for customers and gives us advantages in managing that grid going forward.”
Utility Resilience and Security
If energy, waste management and transportation is all going to be tied to the Smart Grid, the fear that everything could be in danger due to an outage or cyber-attack is a major concern. Keeping the lights on has always been number one in the eyes of the utility, but Smart Grid poses some complications.
One such concern is that this is now a national security issue. Gary Foster, the CTO of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, explained that although cyber security itself should not be a block to progress, he spent years working to ensure that multiple agencies were connected and protected within a network.
“Each of these agencies is connected to the federal government through a different agency. We work together quite frequently, but we’re each governed very differently, and the rules are not consistent,” Foster said. “Sometimes the trickle-down regulations make it difficult to leverage the smart grid in the way we should.”
For more on smart cities, listen to our live conversation “The Smart City Project: Infrastructure, Industry and Citizens,” and mark your calendar for each of our Viewpoints, airing every other Monday starting March 25.