Heres an interesting thought to mull over: Are utilities pre-wired to tackle a smart city build-out better than other industries? That very thought tied together the two opening keynote speakers at Energy Centrals spring Smart Cities Conference in Charlotte this week.
Sasha Weintraub, senior vice president of market solutions for Duke Energy examined the expected role of the utility in the future smart city by starting with where his company is right now.
Duke Energy, the largest utility in the U.S. and the host utility for the Smart Cities Conference, serves 7.3 million meters and 20-25 million people behind those meters currently.
Weintraub pointed out that cities, like utilities themselves, have been getting smarter over history and while the electric utility grid of the future will see tremendous change, Duke believes utilities are up to the task of designing a grid that is ready and able to utilize those coming tech advances.
Why does a city need to be smart? he asked the audience. What does that mean? Well, 54% of the worlds population currently live in a cities, and that is expected to grow to 66% percent by 2050.
Weintraub added that the urban populace means cities have a massive influence on GDP in a global economy that continues to grow. The key is helping that growing city push forward not just in citizens but also in smarts.
If a city doesnt grow smart, it doesnt grow at all, Weintraub said. How you do this in a smart way really impacts the future of the city.
Dukes in the process of helping Charlotte and the other cities the utility covers grow smarter by becoming the best utility partner they can.
Weintraub admitted they are still figuring that all out, but he does have a list of smart components that factor into a smart citya list that utilities already have experience in and can help with. First and foremost, of course, is energy itself. Additionally, theres the utility history of helping make buildings more efficient and greener. We cant forget a lifetimesometimes many lifetimesof smoothing out and shoring up infrastructure, as well as looking at mobility and how that pushes into infrastructure (as with charging stations). Utilities are also able to help with technology to make it all work together and promotion for a smarter lifestyle with those citys citizens.
A smart city uses technology to enhance performance and wellbeing, reduce costs and reduce resource consumption through connectivity, sustainability and engagement, he told the Smart Cities audience. Where all those items interconnect is a smart city, and Charlotte is an example.
And, taking a page from some international utilities, Weintraub piled on lighting, metering, renewables, demand response, smart heating and EV charging trends that hes seeing that we should copy as we move forward with more smart cities.
For a utility to be the best partner in a smart city, Weintraub suggested digging deep for those tech skills and infrastructure smarts internally and then moving outward to develop a shared vision with the community and vendors.
Craig Boice, president of Boice Dunham Group echoed Weintraubs shared vision and those internal skills of utilities that can be applied to the future smart city in his follow-up keynote presentation.
The habit of thinking systematically about cities is a utility habit of thought, and we need those in 21st century smart cities, Boice told the Smart Cities Conference audience.
He added, The way utilities think about thingsand the way youve naturally learned to think in this industryis perfectly adapted to raising smart cities.
How so? According to Boice, it all starts with the importance of diversity in a city, which he (and other experts) see as vital to a citys life. The work utilities do every single day (with items like load diversity and grid applications) grant utility insiders experience in that diversity concept.
Additionally, utilities already possess the skill set of pushing out a small problem to its more general issue and tracking down how these things relatesay, perhaps, why my house lights flicker being stepped back to a pad-mounted transformer along the line. Tracking those issues like Columbo with data, analytics and a lot of system knowledge is of great value to a smart city, where, inevitably, there will be similar issues to sniff out.
Boice added that utilities understand how to keep the entire system working while replacing individual elements or adding in new processesanother valuable tool for building a future urban environment from the one currently in place.
And, finally, utilities understand and can manage innovation within the limitations of a system, which can help as well in the planning.
Utilities are often dismissed, Boice admitted. But utilities can be stewards of change. And both he and Weintraub have a list of reasons to prove just thatthat the way to build a better smart city in the future may just be to start with the skill sets found right now in your local utility.
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