Smart Cities – Does Smart mean Sustainable?

Alice Cowman
CEBC Program Manager
Clean Energy Business Council (CEBC)

Smart Cities’ is definitely the new buzz concept around town, especially in light of Dubai’s successful 2020 EXPO bid. Smart as a word itself is interesting. It is politically neutral unlike the left-leaning connotations of ‘green’ and appeals to a broad audience. Who doesn’t want to be smart? It’s a marketer’s dream! For urban spaces, it is the new standard to be measured by.

However, when you ask different companies what smart means, they will come up with an array of different answers. What is smart really? Is it all about IT and the collection of information? From Clean Energy Business Council’s perspective, we are most concerned with whether smart growth is sustainable growth? In June 2013, the Heinrich Boll Foundation released a book entitled Smart Growth: The Green Revolution, the basic premise of which is that smart growth can only be green growth. Transformation of our energy production systems and more efficiency energy usage and consumption are key to this smart growth. 1 We of course vehemently agree but what are the smart solutions that the clean energy industry has available?

Smart Grid

The smart grid concept has been around a lot longer than the smart city phrase. The end game is to make generation, transmission and distribution more efficient, more reliable and more sustainable. There are a number of aspects to this. The most basic is making the existing grid more efficient. In many cases, grid systems have been around for decades and efficiency can be improved through upgrading of equipment and loss prevention.

However, it is information technology that is getting everyone really excited about the future potential in this area.

The ability to collect information along the grid from the big power stations, through the substations and down to the consumer level and using that information to provide energy in a more efficient and economical manner is the future. Once this information is collected and analyzed, it allows utilities to know their system intimately down to the individual consumer. Power supply can be matched more exactly to power demand and existing power plants can be used more effectively. In particular, when it comes to intermittent renewable energy sources, the supply can be modeled and incorporated into overall energy planning in a way that ensures that these renewable sources are maximized.

Smart Meters are part of this grid revolution. They are two-way information devices that allow real time recording of information at the household level. This can communicate information to the utility but also to the consumer. Smart meters alone will not create a more sustainable usage of energy but if the consumer is educated to read and use that information to alter behavior, you can start to move towards cleaner use of power. Demand response where customers are incentivized to lower their demand for electricity during peak demand hours is an important example of this. Additionally, smart meters will allow consumers to generated their own power and measure the supply that they feed back into the grid. This becomes important when distributed renewable energy becomes part of the mix as discussed below.

Commercially, no one company has all the answers for smart grids. This is really interesting as in this very competitive environment; companies have to partner with each other to maximize their potential to find the best solutions for utilities. In a recent report by Navigant research, the top 10 vendors of smart city solutions are listed. IBM, CISCO and Schneider topped the board. 2 However, each of these companies needs to work with each other and some globally have already formed partnership agreements. For example, CISCO can collect the information but IBM needs to analyze it and Schneider needs to practically provide the equipment to deliver the solutions to the utilities. This brave new world may involve people working together in a way that have not had to in the past.

On the negative side, this incorporation of the grid into one internet system has also raised concerns about security. In the past, an attack on one area of the grid could be isolated but if everything becomes interconnected, the whole system is vulnerable to attack in a way that has concerned governments at the highest level. Also, privacy is increasingly a concern for individuals. All this information about consumer behavior is very valuable both for good and bad. Protection of this is vital for consumer security.

Smart Grid is a complicated, fascinating concept and if rolled out in the right manner will allow reliable economical and most importantly, sustainable supply of electricity in the future

Sustainable Energy of the Future

New ways of thinking about sustainable energy have emerged over the last number of years and these have to be part of any smart city future. People have talked about Solar Revolutions with the dramatic fall in PV prices. However, equally as dramatic, is a move away from centralized power to distributed energy solutions. In the US, one rooftop solar system is being installed every four minutes. 3 Dubai has firmly included rooftop solar as part of its smart city offering. 4 However, this will change how the gird operates and manages power. It will move power away from the centralized power station model to give more power to the consumer. Valuation of this power is becoming a big issue in the states as utilities have already invested heavily in centralized grid systems and decentralized power may mean that the money they spent on these systems will not be recovered from consumers as they move

towards self-generation. 5 However, like the telecom companies before them when mobile phones took over from landlines, they will have to adjust to this new form of sustainable generation or go bust. Waste to Energy is another fascinating concept that is gaining momentum within the UAE. Collecting waste and generating power from it seems like a win-win for all. However, this again, can be regarded as a distributed energy source and, as with rooftop solar, needs to be incorporated by the utilities into grid management planning.

Finally, it is important to end with a note on energy efficiency especially within the GCC, which have some of the highest per capita consumption rates in the world. Successful energy efficiency programs in the states are projected to reduce demand by up to 19%. 6 Within the GCC, they are well aware that energy efficiency is necessary both economically (to avoid buying increasingly expensive natural gas) and environmentally. Dubai has stated that they want

to reduce demand by 30% by 2030 which is hugely ambitious in light of other countries experiences in this area. 7 Better water efficiency will also help them meet this target as 10% of primary energy demand in the UAE is used to produce water through desalination.

In conclusion, smart cities can mean sustainable cities from a clean energy perspective but it will require a lot of work and planning. The UAE has a long way to go to make their cities both smart and sustainable but the EXPO is a great chance to make huge strides towards this in a city that consistently surprises the world with its ability to get things done

  6. See Vaidyanathan et al, Overcoming Market Barriers and Using Market Forces to Advance Energy Efficiency, March 18th 2013. See‐report/e136
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