Cities and Smart Grids: latest from US and China


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The internet, distributed renewable energy, electric
vehicles and energy management are ready to coalesce: the impact on cities and
our lives will be profound. The US-China
Green Energy Conference (sponsored by the US-China Green Energy Council) held Friday in the Silicon Valley took a deep bi-national dive
into what smart grids are and what they will mean for so-called smart cities,
their wired citizenry and the future of global carbon emissions.

Smart grid specifics are finally starting to emerge from
the marketing haze. They will rely heavily on smart buildings, and are a
critical solution in making renewable energy more scalable through more
efficient energy transmission systems. Cities
like Dubuque, Iowa are working with 1,000 residents to test smart grid
applications and have reportedly lowered their water use by 6% in early trials
with IBM
.

Elsewhere, China is testing a four-square kilometer smart
grid pilot area in its national urban eco showcase, Tianjin Eco-City. The smart
grid includes a 30kw PV solar microgrid on the roof of the Tianjin “Eco-City Business Hall,”
where residents will be able to charge their electric vehicles while they view
virtual reality demonstrations of how the smart grid works, including its
“self-healing” capabilities within the Eco-City’s network.

In terms of renewable energy, smart grids will be a killer
app. Right now, when the wind completely dies in larger areas of wind power
generation, such as the West Texas plains, the transmission system supplying
electricity to cities, including Austin and Dallas, suffers a “mad scramble,”
according to Liang Min, of the US Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). In fact, according
to Chuck Wells from OSISoft, such power hiccups are currently so disruptive, that 45% more fossil fuel is
needed to back up regional energy grids having large-scale wind and solar
generation versus regional grids that rely only on fossil fuels.

On the home or business side, people are responsible for
about 30% of a typical building’s energy system performance, said John Skinner,
Managing Director of Intel’s Open Energy initiative. The more reliable information people have,
the more likely they can make smart decisions about energy use, and the more
likely they can pay less for energy than they do with analog meters (the ones
with the wheels turning inside them).

Energy transactions will become more transparent through
next-generation smart grid transaction languages, such as TeMIX which was
presented to the US-China energy conference by Edward Cazalet, CEO of TeMIX. Cazalet’s presentation reminded me of how the internet
was optimized when TCP/ IP, the unifying data transfer protocols behind the web,
were created. The capability for energy systems to use a unified language
around energy use and transactions will be critical. This language will allow governments,
businesses and residents to better manage their energy consumption. Currently,
energy costs can  vary tremendously based
on factors including climate, usage and equipment, costing as much as five times or more during
peak hours. Few people outside of large businesses realize they can
cut energy costs dramatically by changing their behavior, which can be as
straightforward as running energy
guzzling appliances during off-peak hours.

None of this means that smart meters are a panacea. In
cities throughout California, smart meters have been rolled out clumsily by the
utility Pacific Gas and Electric
.
After four years of replacing residential and business analog meters with wireless smart
meters, a vocal and well-organized group
of citizens are objecting to the continuous signals they transmit. Others
object based on invasion of privacy or fear the new meters would overcharge
them. PG&E has finally gotten around to a public education program extolling
the benefits of smart meters, which they say are mandatory for their
customers. Besides the heavy handedness,
even with the new PR campaign, PG&E has not made the case for compelling
consumer benefits.

Consolidated Edison of New York City, on the other hand has managed their
smart meter pilot program more effectively. Con Ed ran an extensive public
education program and transparent opt-out option for those that did not want
smart meters (2% did not want them) on their home or business for their New
York City pilot program
. The
utility offered participants in its pilot program rebates of $25-50. Six rate
structures with hourly rate changes and a web-based consumer dashboard
explained and demonstrated different rates, according to EPRI’s Liang Min.

Many companies including Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, General
Electric and Google are eyeing the nascent smart grid for its potential not
just to make cities more eco-efficient, but for also for lucrative smart-grid
revenue streams as they penetrate the last major untapped digital pathway into our lives.

“We are cooperating with many high tech companies,” Kai Xie,
General Manager of the US Office of the China State Grid told the US-China Energy
Conference. “We have also developed some in-house products for our customers,
including a dashboard (with Intel) as part of a two-way communication combined
smart meter and consumer portal. “

Our information, communications, photographs, entertainment
and medical industries are all now increasingly digital, and soon our energy
will be digitized, too. Let’s hope the planet and our cities will benefit from a smooth and well thought out transformation.

Warren
Karlenzig is president of Common
Current
. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute,  and co-author of
a
forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and
management. 
 

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