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Paving the way for lower energy consumption in smart cities

(Image credit: Image Credit: Jamesteohart / Shutterstock)

We live in an increasingly urban world where more than half of the population reside in cities. Globally, urbanisation is advancing at a rapid pace: today, more than 4 billion people live in urban areas, and this number is about to reach 6.7 billion by 2050, which is 68 per cent of the expected population in total.

When compared to rural areas, urban living is usually associated with the higher quality of education, healthcare, and social services, and more opportunities for cultural and political participation. At the same time, urbanisation imposes sustained challenges to socio-economic development and environmental protection. This is particularly relevant to regions where the pace of urbanisation is the fastest such as Africa and Asia.

Urban growth results in high energy consumption

Now that urbanisation has become a trend, cities require continuous energy supply for industrial and commercial activities, transportation, infrastructure, water distribution, and food production. Cities consume from 70 per cent to 80 per cent of global primary energy and emit between 50 per cent and 70 per cent of the total greenhouse gases. Electricity and heat production are the major sources of greenhouse gas, followed by agriculture, industry, transportation, and other sectors.

If no steps are taken to improve the situation, the use of energy in cities will more than triple by 2050, which will leave a massive ecological footprint on our planet.

Smart cities offer smart energy solutions

Reducing energy consumption is a high-priority challenge. The solution might lie in the adoption of energy‑efficient technologies offered by internet of things development, namely by smart cities. A smart city is the one employing IoT sensors and other technologies used to collect valuable data from various aspects of urban infrastructure: roads, bridges, rails, communications, water, power, major buildings, and many more. Processed with predictive analytics and data science, the collected data may empower both service providers and citizens to make more thoughtful decisions.

Smart cities offer a number of solutions aimed at optimising the use of energy resources. Here are some of them.

Smart grid

A smart grid is a way of integrating digital technology into the traditional electrical grid. This allows for two‑way communication between consumers and power suppliers. Thus, consumers are able keep track of how much electricity they use via a dedicated application. In their turn, energy companies can communicate with clients to inform them about optimal time to run their electronic devices, for example, when there is enough power in the grid or when the price for energy is at its lowest.

Smart grids are equipped with sensors that gather and transmit data about energy supply and use it to improve efficiency, minimise environmental impact, and reduce overall costs. In other words, they contribute to more effective appliance management and control.

A brief overview of smart grid’s benefits:

  • Reliability. The smart grid technology reduces the amount and duration of electricity outages due to enhanced network monitoring. Moreover, a typical smart grid automatically reroutes power, which means faster electricity restoration after outages. This is especially relevant in case of a natural disaster, when access to light, heat, and communication is at risk.
  • Cost saving. Smart grids reduce the costs associated with production and distribution of electricity for energy providers, in addition to reduced power outages. From the consumers’ perspective, it provides an opportunity and motivation to optimise electricity consumption and cut down on bills.
  • Environmental health. Being weather-dependent and hardly predictable, renewable energy sources pose a threat to traditional electricity grids. Smart grids facilitate the integration of renewable power sources that don’t emit greenhouse gases, such as wind or solar energy.

Advanced metering infrastructure

Though advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), or smart metering, is closely associated with smart grids, these are not interchangeable terms. Smart grid is a broad concept of energy delivery improvement, informed consumption, and environmental impact reduction, while smart AMI is a narrower concept implying home automation devices that provide near-real-time data on energy usage to both energy providers and energy consumers. AMI contributes to the end users’ awareness of their energy consumption and let them manage it better.

Furthermore, smart metering allows utility companies to deliver the amount of energy equal to the demand in a particular region. Thus, such systems can provide considerable operational, customer service, and financial benefits. This encourages countries to start deploying smart meters nationwide: in the United Kingdom, the government announced its intention to implement AMI in all homes across the country in 2020.

Efficient public lighting

Efficient public lighting is yet another area that reveals opportunities for energy consumption reduction in smart cities. In particular, a possible solution is the adoption of LED-based street lights enhanced with smart controls and motion sensors that perform switching on and off automatically when necessary.

Intelligent street lights are connected to central control systems via different communication networks to allow data import to the management server. This makes street lights monitoring and regulating possible, including such processes as:

  • Light level change, for instance, increasing the lighting where accidents occur or when weather conditions are poor.
  • Remote monitoring, aimed at detecting problems with LEDs and raising a service alert.
  • More accurate electricity consumption measurement for every street light, so that cities only pay for the power they actually use.

The benefits of the smart lighting infrastructure might go beyond improved illumination and energy saving. Different sensor types are already being integrated into connected street lighting to control air quality, noise, temperature, humidity and radiation for enhanced environmental monitoring purposes.

The challenges of smart energy adoption

With the potential of the smart city technology to resolve energy consumption issues, there is a question inevitably arising: why hasn’t it already been widely adopted? There are three main stumbling blocks to smart energy solution deployment: security issues, lack of policies, and consumer awareness.

  • Security issues

As with any IoT technology, security is a major concern. Smart grid hacking may cause electricity outages and cost millions to individuals and businesses. Data collected from smart meters can be a subject of cyberattacks as well, disclosing sensitive information on consumers’ energy usage patterns and lifestyle, which violates their right to privacy.

  • Lack of policies

Without the right policy and standardisation put in place, it is impossible to ensure interoperability and safety of energy-efficient systems. The key to these is the adoption of uniform standards and requirements for smart energy solutions and operations.

  • Consumer awareness

Lack of consumer awareness creates myths. For instance, many believe that smart meters in homes can cause health problems associated with electromagnetic radiation fields. While there is no confirmation of this, the movement against rolling out smart meters is gaining ground in some countries. Consumer awareness programs may help inform people about the benefits and impacts of the connected energy technology.

To sum it up

IoT smart city initiatives toward lower energy consumption include smart grids, smart metering, and connected public lighting, and that’s not it. They are paving the way for lower energy costs, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and improved urban livelihoods as a whole. The energy sector has already begun implementing sensors and networks to interconnect objects. Still, new forms of urban energy keep challenging traditional utility business models, calling for well-thought-out measures to be taken.

Sandra Khvoynitskaya, IoT Technology Observer, Itransition

Sandra Khvoynitskaya is IoT Technology Observer at Itransition, Denver-based software development company.