The shift from utilities as infrastructure project managers to utilities as market facilitators is in motion. In the US, this shift is being realised through innovative projects involving both community and partners. One such project is ‘Urbanova’ in Spokane, a city of some 210,000 people in the foothills of eastern Washington state.
Harnessing utility data
“Urbanova is an organic collaboration between companies and universities, the city and public organisations centred in Spokane, Washington,” says Kim Zentz, Co-Director of the Smart Cities Initiative at the Washington State University. “The purpose is the harness data, empower people and solve urban challenges in new ways”.
The project is led by Avista, an investor-owned utility with 370,00 electric customers and 350,000 natural gas customers across a 30,000 square mile service area, taking in Washington State, Idaho and Oregon.
Partners include Itron (who were borne from Avista), Washington State University, Spokane city government and engineering firm McKinstry.
“Innovation in our DNA,” says Heather Rosentrater, Avista’s VP of Energy Delivery. After 128 years of operation, the utility is keen to keep to keep evolving by leveraging collaboration and technology trends.
“Historically, we’ve looked for trends and identified what opportunities are coming from them.”
The genesis of the Urbanova project was the idea to use Spokane as a “smart city proving ground”, and specifically the 770-acre university district, as a mode of urban regeneration.
Smart municipal infrastructure
In the US, municipal infrastructure is more often utility-owned, as is the case with street lighting in Spokane. With a reduction in the cost of sensors, this provided opportunity to collaborate. According to Rosentrater, Avista posed the question; “We have access to power and access to a network. What else could we be doing with that?"
One answer was provided by their collaborators at Washington State University, who wanted to use sensors to measure air quality at pedestrian level; a solution that works for Avista, who are of the view that the best way they can grow the utility is by creating healthier community and safer neighborhoods.
It would also stand to reason that the closer a utility is to the community, the greater the likelihood of unlocking new, organic opportunities.
Embracing the sharing economy
Urbanova also incorporates a sharing energy economy pilot, recognising the trend in distributed generation.
Avista wants to build a transactive grid with solar and battery storage and integration with building management systems. “The goal is to optimise a neighbourhood rather than individual buildings,” Rosentrater says.
It’s this kind of joined up thinking, willingness to collaborate, and interaction with the community that keeps some utilities not only relevant, but also realise the ambition to be an active market facilitator.