Energy and water are the lifeblood of modern society – of our day to day activities at leisure and in business, and of life itself.
With electric and water utilities building out increasingly sophisticated networks with smart technologies as they become increasingly concerned over reducing inefficiencies and becoming more customer facing, it is obvious that they should have a prominent role in the development of smart cities.
“In many smart city developments, energy and water are foundational,” Russ Vanos, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Global Software, Services and Smart Cities at Itron, told Engerati in an exclusive interview. “In fact, I would say you can’t have a smart city without energy and water.”
Indeed, in one of the more advanced and most highly recognized developments in the US, Envision Charlotte, it was the utility, Duke Energy, that brought the vision and initiated and played a leading role in shaping the project. Liking what was being done, Envision Charlotte in turn has formed the basis for the White House’s Envision America initiative, in which 10 US cities in 2016 are being supported on the smart city development track.
Steps to a smart city
Vanos says that a smart city development should start with a vision of what the city is trying to achieve, which should then be translated into a roadmap and technology outlook.
“Ultimately a smart city is about building economic vitality and sustainability and this will be based on multiple pillars,” he says. “For example, in Charlotte, in addition to energy and water, there are pillars on waste and the environment, whereas in Spokane there are pillars on transportation and healthcare.”
For Itron, which has automated tens of millions of endpoints in electricity, gas and water, the smart city opportunity is about building on this experience to enable technology to play its role from a strategic perspective in the roadmap.
“If one starts to automate millions of endpoints for energy and water, one has a very robust network, which can then be used for other applications.”
Smart city technology requirements
Key is the use of open standards and interoperability, marking a shift from the single purpose legacy networks of the past to enable multi-purpose networks – in part because of the costs of a network but also because of the limited real estate to install multiple networks.
Another important component is edge intelligence, using meters, sensors or other devices to make decisions and take action at the edge of the network.
“We need technology that can connect quickly, reliably and efficiently, and that in some cases can run apps and make decisions right there at the edge. And we need to take the data and marry it with other data to conduct real analytics. For example, a utility might need to increase back-up generation because the weather is hot and there are a lot of people in town, or the traffic lights need to be adjusted because a sporting event is just finishing. Whatever those decisions are, they need to be made and acted on in real time. It’s moving us to an outcomes-based economy.”
A fundamental difference from the legacy model is the ownership and management of a shared network. Vanos says this could vary but one model that is proving successful in Charlotte and Spokane is that all the partners have a share in the ownership, from the local municipality or government to the utilities, academic institutions and private sector players such as Itron.
“Utilities know how to deliver large capital and construction projects, so they are well set to deliver large scale smart city projects and are a key player. But their role may be limited by the regulatory model. In such cases, a third party could take on a management role – it also depends on the local politics,” he says.
“Those regulatory aspects need addressing but we can’t wait on them and we need to find new business models involving the local participants. The technology is there and so this is potentially the biggest challenge. This is an area in which Itron is willing to step forward and take a lead.”
Some smart city projects
Itron is involved in several smart city projects, most notably Envision Charlotte and the Spokane initiative, in which the utility Avista is also playing a leading role.
Vanos says that in the case of Envision Charlotte, good results are being achieved in the energy and waste reduction packages but the water and air quality improvement programmes are still at earlier stages. As a pioneering project, while it was based on a “grand vision,” its progress to its current point has been based on smaller steps, adding additional programmes over time.
Those experiences are now feeding into the Envision America cities’ programmes. [Engerati-Envision America – Ten Smart Cities Take Shape] In contrast in Spokane, where the initiative is at the beginning of the technology roadmap rollout, a good deal of effort has been put into developing that rollout plan. Similarly, in other cities that were selected in the programme, including San Diego, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh, Itron is working with these cities to develop their roadmaps and is building out either OpenWay or OpenWay Riva platforms for energy and/or water. [Engerati-The Grid Edge – New Utility Opportunities]
The company is also involved in some projects in their early stages elsewhere, including the OpenWay Riva deployment for Tonga Power in Tonga – which includes smart island goals and renewable integration. [Engerati-The Island Energy Challenge]
“While we are being responsive to smart city projects around the world, we are currently most active in North America as we figure out how to operate in this market. We need to be efficient and laser focused in our approach.”
Smart city applications
From Itron’s perspective the specific smart city applications it is focusing on currently are aimed at utilities, Vanos reports.
For electricity these include detection of diversions, unsafe grid conditions and outages and transformer load management. For gas they include system integrity and methane sensing. For water they include water leak detection and remote disconnection.
However, he promises that with the recent formation of the Itron Idea Labs, more consumer facing apps can be expected as the various initiatives evolve. [Itron Sights Internet Of Things]
“With the Itron Idea Labs, we can take ideas and do quick, agile development. We will be working with communities and businesses to discover where the magic is in order to make people’s lives more efficient and informed.”