Getting “Smart” About Energy

Why are urban areas embracing smart grid technology? It’s all about efficient power usage — and raising the I.Q. of smart cities.

Over the last few years, “smart cities” have begun emerging around the globe. Vienna, Paris, Toronto and Melbourne are only a few examples of cities that use digital and sensor technology to help manage traffic, monitor air pollution and even keep an eye on the ideal times to empty municipal garbage bins.

The latest intelligent wrinkle: Metro areas are using “smart grids” to manage energy generation and consumption. The core idea: scrutinize power demand in specific locations and make adjustments as needed. Often known as “load balancing,” the technique allows for a more efficient, modernized electrical grid that balances power storage and demand. That can mean fewer brownouts (restrictions on electrical power in specific areas) and better use of infrastructure.

Barcelona, for instance, now uses real-time data monitoring to detect energy overuse, which helps the city rapidly correct how power is distributed. Meanwhile, Tokyo is combining energy-consumption monitoring with solar- and wind-based power generation. The data that the system gathers helps determine when and how those alternative sources can best be used.

Private-public models

Cities aren’t the only ones creating these new models of power use. For instance, Panasonic has built the Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town on land it owns near Tokyo. Opened in early 2014, the town of 3,000 seeks to reduce average carbon dioxide emissions by 70 percent and generate 30 percent of its energy via renewables. Each home in the town is equipped with solar panels, a storage battery and a monitor that shows residents how much energy they are using. If they generate more solar energy than they can use, they “share” it by selling it to the power grid.

In another Japanese example, real estate development firm Mitsui Fudosan has installed a battery system that allows its smart city projects to share distributed energy sources such as solar power generators and batteries. This project is the first instance in Japan where privately operated, dispersed power sources and transmission lines are used to share power between districts.

Getting smarter

Smart grid strategies also can aid cities when “load shedding” is required. Load shedding occurs when demand exceeds supply. South African public utility Eskom has established a program called Power Alert, which warns residents via smartphone and online alerts about excess demand and asks them to switch off certain appliances to prevent power interruptions.

The smart grid idea also can include multiple communities. In western Austria, the Smart City Rheintal initiative seeks to achieve regional carbon dioxide-free energy autonomy by 2050. One component of the program is a cluster of solar power systems that are pooled together for communities in a region. The initiative uses technology that measures the amount of energy the solar systems generate. It also monitors weather forecasts to anticipate how much sunlight the systems might be able to gather the following day. In addition, a group of entities that includes Bosch Software Innovations is developing a “virtual power plant” for Smart City Rheintal to monitor and manage power generation and demand.

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