Cities – The Living Laboratories for Smart Grid Infrastructure

It seems like most of the discussion about changes that Smart Grid technologies will introduce focus on changes to utilities and to consumers.  Let’s not forget cities and towns.  It’s becoming very apparent that many technologies that improve the electrical grid can also improve other networks – whether these are water, gas, or even transportation.  Just like regulatory commissions work hard to stay abreast of industry advances and breakthrough technologies to understand their impacts on ratepayers, so too must city planners and political leaders race to understand how new technologies can address existing problems as well as how to enable introduction of new solutions. 

For instance, electric vehicles (EVs) can help communities meet carbon emission reduction goals by replacing internal combustion engine vehicles.  However, the community infrastructure must accommodate charging stations to encourage citizen adoption of EVs.  The ChargePoint America Program is a great example of an initiative to construct 4600 charging stations for home and public use in nine regions – Austin, TX; Detroit, MI; Los Angeles, CA; New York, NY; Orlando, FL; Sacramento, CA; San Jose/San Francisco corridor, CA; Redmond, WA; and Washington, DC.

Coulomb Technologies is using a $15M grant from the Department of Energy and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA – or the Stimulus Act).  They are working with city planners to identify the best locations for public charging stations, which can’t be an easy job since there’s just not a lot of information out there to tell us what will be the most popular and convenient charging destinations.  One important aspect of the ChargePoint America project is to collect data about vehicle use and charging patterns, with analysis supplied by Purdue University and the Idaho National Lab.   This information will be eagerly consumed by managers of other population centers to assist them in determining their local policies and plans to encourage EV adoption and charging station placements in their communities.   

But not all the action is occurring in what we think of as the typical Smart Grid – the electrical infrastructure.  I recently attended an IBM SmartCamp held in Silicon Valley, which is one in a series of  program locations set up to identify entrepreneurs in 17 vertical application areas. 

SmartCamps provide access to global thought leaders and business advisors, and exposure to angel and venture capital investors.   There are some interesting applications of sensors to alleviate the serious parking issues that many cities face.  One of the competition winners, Streetline, stated that 30% of traffic congestion in cities is attributed to searching for parking spaces. The use of sensors that can communicate with cars and/or their GPS devices can decrease the time taken to locate parking slots.  This solution delivers multiple benefits – drivers can more easily find parking, commercial establishments get happier customers, and, because the sensors can also communicate time lengths a car is parked in a spot, parking enforcement can allocate resources to focus on the streets with the most “time expired” cars, increasing their revenues.  Well, that last benefit is good news for cash-strapped cities and towns, but not so good for anyone camping out too long in a timed parking spot. 

City planners will be challenged to take the risks of new technologies and find the funds to commit to pilots that involve Smart Grid infrastructure.  Not every pilot is going to be as successful as hoped – as the Smart Grid City project in Boulder has shown.  But as Thomas Edison noted about his research, every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.   As taxpayers, ratepayers, and citizens, we need to support intelligently planned Smart Grid  and Smart Infrastructure pilots that aim to improve our lives and our environment.  

 

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