First Utility Imagines: Smart Energy in a Smart Future

Over the next few decades it’s likely that we’ll see some big changes in the way our cities look and function.

As pollution continues to rise in places like London, local governments are considering a ban on diesel engines and may look to encourage the use of electric vehicles instead. Other factors, like more affordable and effective battery technology and renewables will play a vital role in the changing cityscape too.

What’s more, as even more things from motorways to buildings are expected to become ‘smart’, the lines between the energy grid and the internet could become increasingly blurred.

So how might these advances affect our daily lives? We asked noted futurist Glen Hiemstra for his view. He’s provided us with a picture of a bold and futuristic new world. And although none of this is guaranteed, we think it’s likely that most of these concepts will exist in some form or other.

We also think that a key point for policy makers and the energy industry will be ensuring that a low-carbon, smart future not only makes energy clean but that it’s an affordable reality for everyone.

Glen Hiemstra,

Glen Hiemstra

How Will These Advances Affect Our Daily Lives?

Imagine waking up in your apartment or home in the city. It is ten or fifteen years from now. Your smart thermostat has of course set the home temperature according to your habits and desires, the tea kettle is heating water and, if it has not remembered, you will remind it by speaking to it.

Your electric car has returned to its parking and charging spot after an evening of working independently as a self-driving taxi. Customers could hail it with an app and payments were handled automatically and now quite securely using what was called “blockchain” technology back in 2018, but now is simply known as the network.

Your car needed a charge boost at about 11:30 PM, and to get one it parked next to a city street light pole that also had a robotic charging port available. The quick charge added another hour of available service for your car, after which it made its way home for the rest of the evening.

First Utility Imagines: Smart Energy in a Smart Future

Your house began the day not just adjusting its thermostat to bring the temperature up to your desired setting. It also queried the electrical network for any available excess power in the neighborhood, left over in the homes that had battery systems installed to store power from their solar or wind collectors and were re-selling the energy at a good price.

This morning your home could get about ten percent of its power from neighbors, thirty percent from your home solar array, with the rest obtained from the local utility with whom you have a deal to buy electricity from their renewable generation sources.

A few years ago you paid a premium for that kind of power from the utility, but in the past few years as renewable sources became cheaper than conventional sources, you get a discount.

Nest thermostatYour thermostat will scout the neighbourhood for excess power, which you can buy at a good price.
Solar Panel30% of your energy comes from your solar panels, and you can sell it if you have some leftover.
Wind powerYour own wind collector will also generate energy and is much cheaper than conventional sources.

The Workplace of the Future

When it's time to go to work – and yes, you are one of the people who still goes to an office most days to join with teams on creative work – you begin your work day in your autonomous car, which stops once on the way to pick up a friend for a shared ride.

You use the windscreen of the car in its internal screen setting to carry on a quick teleconference with some colleagues a couple of time-zones back in time, then take care of most of your messages on your tablet. As you do all of this, the car is navigating the smart streets – the pavement in places is made of glass which act as solar cells – a solar roadway – while in other places the pavement is more standard blacktop or concrete.

But all have sensors built in that, along with the ubiquitous cameras in the city, are keeping track of traffic flow, changing the flow via stop-light management and re-routing traffic as needed. The in-road sensors are also constantly monitoring the roadway quality and predicting the need for preventive maintenance using artificial intelligence systems.

First Utility Imagines: Smart Energy in a Smart Future

When you arrive at your commercial office building, since you are going to be leaving again early today, your car drops you at the door and then parks in the limited size parking lot, which can pack cars within inches of each other as all the cars park themselves robotically. Both plug-in and magnetic inductive electric charging are available depending on the technology of the vehicle.

Your commercial building is about seven years old and was one of the first in your smart city to be built according to the “Living Buildings Challenge” criteria. This means your building generates as much energy as it uses, stores and recycles water, uses ground heat and cooling, maximizes passive light and energy, and in every way goes meets the concept of “Net Zero” as a building. Networked together, these smart and efficient buildings are moving our city toward a future where the city itself generates most of what it needs and wastes little.

Self Driving carsYour self driving car will plug itself into magnetic or plug-in charging ports while you work.
RecyclingYour office building stores and recycles water, cleaning and filtering as you go, and is completely self-sustainable.
Heating and CoolingThe office’s heating and cooling system is in the floor, keeping the place at optimum room temperature throughout the day.

This vision of city life just a decade or two from now is not exaggerated. It will be surprising, really, if most of this vision is not reality in many cities by that time. And it will be important that such ideas become standard practice, as the demands on cities will be greater than ever.

City Life is Changing

The global population continues to flock to cities. By 2050 about 70% of the world population will live in cities, which in real terms means in very large metroplexes usually of many millions of people. In fact, in Europe and North America nearly 80% of the people live in cities already. A the same time these cities face three key issues – keeping citizens safe, providing sufficient infrastructure and developing the resilience needed for climate change and wild weather. Developing an approach to smart energy will be critical to addressing all of these issues simultaneously.

There are several trends or enablers that are moving us from traditional city infrastructure toward what can be called a smart city and city officials everywhere are paying close attention to what it takes to make their cities intelligent. For example, in the UK the latest index of smart cities was just released, listing Bristol first, then London, Manchester, and Birmingham in order. The index is compiled by Navigant Consulting under the sponsorship of Huawei, a global IT company that has a particular focus on supporting the movement toward smarter cities. Cities in North America, in Asia and elsewhere compete with and learn from each other on how to use the latest IT, energy, and infrastructure to transition to more efficient, resilient and intelligent operations. Many organizations support this work, among the best known the Smart Cities Council.

A smart city is one in which infrastructure has been optimized, and made intelligent and integrated, through the use of information systems, artificial intelligence and the Internet of things. A city using smart energy has set a goal to be as close to a net energy generator as possible, to integrate the energy systems in use for maximum efficiency, minimal cost, and minimal carbon output, and to best position the city to respond in a resilient way to climate and other challenges.

The Trends That Are Pushing Cities Into Sustainable Living

In addition to the continuing migration of people all over the world to cities, other trends that are driving a move toward smarter cities employing smarter energy include the following:

Systems Intelligence is an enabler: each year computing intelligence continues to be enhanced in such a way that instruments get smarter – think light bulbs, thermostats, appliances, meters, automobiles – while they become more connected. Walk into any store that sells energy related technology for the home and you will be struck by how much of it now is enabled to connect wirelessly to the Internet, to the rest of the home systems, and to energy vendors if desired. Everything is being enabled to speak to everything else. At the city-wide level and then national and global, this is all part of the building what I like to call the largest engineering project in history, the Internet of Things. Originally the World Wide Web was built largely so that people could connect to information sources and to each other. Now we are in the process of enabling the built world, the human world, and if you consider Internet connected crops on many farms, the natural world into one integrated information network. Keeping in mind all the attendant privacy issues that must be dealt with, the goal is a system that is efficient, that can learn, and that can adapt to changing conditions in order to save energy, time, and money.

Environmental and Economic Imperatives are drivers: While a subject of political debate in some parts of the world, it is generally recognized, for example in the Paris Accords, that global warming means that cities everywhere must make an increasing effort to reduce their carbon and other greenhouse emissions. Those working toward smart city infrastructure believe that smart cities using smart energy will be the key to decarbonizing the economy. The Living Building Challenge takes this the logical next step, with a concept to redesign our buildings and homes. The Bullitt Foundation headquarters building in Seattle, Washington in the U.S. is one of the first examples, touted as the greenest commercial building in the world. It is a fun building to visit in person, or to explore at their extensive website, including now a real-time dashboard keeping track of their energy usage, water usage, and so on. The building produces more electricity than it uses, but does this by producing and “storing” excess solar energy in the summer accomplished by sending it to the local utility, then using that “stored” energy by receiving energy from the utility during the rainy Seattle winter.

Speaking of solar energy, sunshine based electrification is one more powerful driver, and enabler, of the shift to smart energy in a smart city. The sun bathes the earth with 23,000 Terawatt years of solar energy each year, while right now humanity uses about 16 Terawatts a year, only a small percentage of which is currently produced via solar technology. But it is becoming widely known that the cost of producing solar energy is falling rapidly, some 200 percent in the past thirty years with a steeper decline in recent years. The problem with solar power as a long term solution to cleaner energy has always been, in addition to its cost, the fact that the sun does not shine at night, obviously. But now battery storage costs are plummeting, 24 percent in just the past year, enabling a company like Tesla Power to install massive battery systems in Hawaii, Australia, and recently in Puerto Rico as part of their hurricane recovery effort. The next several decades will witness a gradual shift from traditional sources of electricity to solar, wind, and other sources that emit no greenhouse gases as they are used. When combined with the shift to electric cars now gathering speed, the story with which we began this blog, featuring the role of electricity including an assumed electric (and self-driving) car seems quite probable.

Ultimately the smart city of the near future will take advantage of a variety of opportunities:

  • Energy efficiency
  • Low carbon energy sources
  • Living buildings
  • Electrified transportation
  • Sustainable businesses
  • Resource systems integration using the Internet of Things
  • Forward looking planning, a redesign of our cities

Smart cities that are developing smart energy systems incorporating all of these opportunities will achieve a competitive advantage in the world economy, and will provide a more secure and desirable place for people to live.

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