Building Information and Energy Technologies into Cities

At the Atlantic magazine “Future of the City” forum, a speech by Julius Genachowski, Chairman, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and two panels covered how information and energy technologies can be incorporated into cities to facilitate economic growth and enable more sustainable consumption.

Julius Genachowski, Chairman, Federal Communications Commission (FCC)

Genachowski said the new U.S. broadband plan is “revolutionary” and an example of “great strategic planning.” The plan calls for incentivizing investment in broadband infrastructure, the deployment of municipal broadband networks, and expansion of broadband-based applications in the areas of health, education, energy, government, as well as more than one hundred other actions. A new broadband plan is critical to the future of cities. Cities spur innovation by enabling clusters of creative people to connect. Enhanced urban broadband infrastructure is then key to ensuring high-levels of connectivity.

Extending high-speed networks across the country will create economic growth. “Broadband is indispensable to the digital age. As electricity fueled the growth of appliances, broadband will lead to the growth of new applications and industries.” While the U.S. has already benefitted economically from broadband, Genachowski pointed to studies showing that the U.S. is losing its relative position — the U.S. is now ranked 15th or 19th (depending on the indicators) in broadband access. Also, the U.S. is now 6th place in broadband “innovation competitiveness” and 40th in the rate of of change in innovation capacity. “This means staying still on broadband is really falling behind.”

While 65 percent of the country now uses broadband, less than 50 percent of minorities do. “This is primarily an urban issue.” Genachowski added that the costs of digital exclusion are rising given you must have computer access to apply for jobs, network, and tap services.

Smart City Applications

Blair Levin, The Aspen Institute, Robert Atkinson, The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, Sascha Meinrath, The New America Foundation, and Jim Cicconi, AT&T, explored current and potential smart city applications.

One panelist said we need to create a “broadband ecosystem” to enable the growth of more advanced applications. Through ubiquitous broadband access, cities can then become “smart” and restructure how they function. For instance, Japan is now adding instruments to their roads so traffic congestion can be monitored in real time. Bridges now have “smart sensors” embedded in them to monitor traffic and structural health. San Francisco has launched an innovative smart parking meter system which enables residents to use their cell phones to find and reserve available parking spaces. This will also help cut down car-driven CO2 emissions because some 30 percent of urban driving is associated with finding a parking spot. Additional applications would enable cell phone users to monitor urban air quality in real time.

Smart city technologies will enable faster dual-way sharing of information between “central government data sources” and residents. Residents can send data in and receive data from the government. “Emerging handheld devices, machine-to-machine systems and interconnected devices” will help facilitate these interactions.

Some of the challenges to creating the smart city were also explored. A recent survey of residents of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. showed that 100 percent could access to broadband, but many couldn’t afford the service, which means urban broadband penetration is not likely to be ubiquitous time soon. One panelist said: “This is really about computer literacy. People get broadband only if they have a computer.” Another potential obstacle relates to capacity: new smart city and smart grid applications may be bandwidth hogs so it’s unclear whether the capacity providers are developing will be enough. Lastly, there are policy and regulatory obstacles: the U.S. doesn’t have a government subsidy program like Sweden, which has invested some $32 billion to bring broadband to all citizens. In the U.S., private sector firms are expected to fund infrastructure roll-out and meet universal access requirements (but receive a range of incentives).

Cities and the Smart Grid

Mark Brownstein, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Paul Camuti, Siemens Corporation, Jim Connaughton, Constellation Energy, and F. Michael Valocchi, IBM discussed emerging smart grid energy technologies and their potential impact on cities.

Paul Camuti, Siemens Corporation, defined the smart grid as overlaying information technology on top of energy infrastructure in order to enable greater transparency. “The smart grid helps us see how energy is used.” Smart grid technology cover everything from the turbines to the end consumer. Michael Valocchi at IBM added that the smart grid is an “information platform” that should ideally enable flexibility, reliability, and comfort in energy usage. “The new platform should enable consumer choice.” Mark Brownstein, EDF, said the smart grid was a low-carbon technology that requires a price on carbon to be commercialized and rolled-out across the country. Constellation Energy’s Jim Connaughton argued that the “node in the wall” remained the key regulatory obstacle to a widespread smart grid, saying the primary remaining issues relate to policy and regulation. “The technology has already been proven.”

The U.S. is currently leading in smart grid technology development even though planned roll-outs in California and Maryland have been stymied, Camuti said. The U.S. regulatory system for energy is a “soup” of 50 different regulatory approaches, but this actually “enables experimentation. It’s better than just having one energy regulator.” The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), regional bodies, and state public service commissions were also described as playing key roles in facilitating or inhibiting the roll-out of the smart grid. Valocchi said this messy soup is still holding back the U.S. because no central policy has been able to emerge out of all the competing players. “Denmark is already doing a smart grid. Australia just changed their whole process in 2-3 months, enabling smart grid development. China has disaggregated the process.”

In addition to solving the regulatory puzzle and creating a clear national smart grid policy, panelists all pointed to end consumer acceptance as key to expanding the smart grid. The sell to consumers, argued Brownstein, is that the smart grid’s inherent energy efficiency will reduce the need to build more power plants. He said this is hard to put this into a political sound bite, but “it’s about saving billions nationally and avoiding the creation of new infrastructure.” Connaughton was more optimistic and said consumers will buy-in once they realize it’s about choice. The energy sector needs to be able to price home energy usage options in the same way prices shipping options. “It’s needs to be that easy.”

Camuti added that “people are concerned about getting too much information. They don’t want to get an energy bill that looks like their cell phone bill. They also don’t understand the concept of the smart grid — smart grid benefits need to be really clear.” Valocchi agreed, adding that “we’ve been using terms like dynamic pricing that no one understands. We need to use language consumers understand.”  Indeed, one major threat to future consumer acceptance is the AARP’s recent decision to oppose the smart grid because of fears of increased prices and bill complexity once the system gets rolled-out.

The smart grid, while moving forward, can still fail if the U.S. doesn’t put a price on carbon, FERC fails to create wholesale market rules that facilitate the growth of the smart grid, and if public service commissions are “reactive, instead of directive” on smart grid roll-out, said Brownstein. In addition, Camuti argued there were real potential security issues. With energy infrastructure IT-enabled, the U.S. energy system could effectively be hacked by cyber-terrorists. To preserve security, smart grid operators would need to focus on the integrity of the grids themselves and security of personal household data. On the flip side, Connaughton thought the new smart grid technologies would also make the system more resilient with higher response times. “With the new technology, we’ll know before a homeowner does if their power is out.”

At its core, the smart grid would also reduce CO2 emissions from electricity production, which currently accounts for 40 percent of total emissions. “The current system really is the problem.” A new smart grid would also avoid creating new coal power plants — it would enable us to “turn over capital stock.” Over time, renewable energy sources could then replace coal plants. Most importantly, a smart grid is needed if you are going to ramp up renewable energy production because wind and solar energy production is “variable.” Only a smart grid can handle that variability and still provide enough electricity to power those electric vehicles ready replace old gas-guzzlers. Valocchi said this is already happening, just not in the U.S.

Energy utilities providing electricity to cities will need to create local smart grid action plans that can enable the roll-out of smart meters and electric car charging stations in homes, businesses, and public infrastructure, including streets.

This is part two in a three-part series. Read part one, “The Future of the City,” and part three, “The Effect of Place on Energy Use and Climate Change.”

Image credit: Shell blog

One thought on “Building Information and Energy Technologies into Cities

  1. Zlata Ivanova 06/29/2010 / 8:43 am

    The word ecosystem implies a biological community. I think we need to be careful not to undermine it’s meaning and importance with phrases like “broadband ecosystem” etc.

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