Executive Insight, Policy & Regulation, Smart Grid

Smart Utilities Enabling Smart Cities: One Last DistribuTECH Takeaway

The wise utility belongs to the smart city.  And vice versa-if it’s done right.

A group of leaders and consultants argued their case at DistribuTECH in San Diego that utilities need to position themselves for opportunities in the hyper-connected Smart City-Internet of Things realm. For them, the future was now, as several represented companies showed they were already at work on those type of projects.

Many things go into smart-city initiatives such as massive lighting, meter, senior and wireless communications. So while the utility truthfully wouldn’t own all of that, they will find ways to be integral to those connections.

“A utility can help because it commits networking, SCADA…assets in the field, boots on the ground and operational data analytics,” John Gibson, distribution system manager for Spokane, Washington-based Avista Utilities, said during the “Smart Utilities Enabling Smart Cities” session at #DTECH2017 in San Diego last month.

Smart cities, like Rome, are not built in a day or alone. They take partnerships with vendors, municipalities, the educational system and other utilities.

“How do you bring partners into smart city projects?” Gibson asked. “I think it starts with engaging projects.”

One massive smart-city undertaking in Avista’s own backyard is the Urbanova Project. Announced in September 2016, Urbanova’s partners include Avista, Gonzaga University,  Itron,  McKinstry, Washington State University and the University District in Spokane.

The “living laboratory,” as some Urbanova proponents have called it, will take front and center as the 770-acre district is developed into a smart city space. Open analytics, standards-based open data and research will interconnect with new energy technologies such as microgrids, solar, storage, building management systems and control and communications networks.

David Sandel, co-founder of Innovation Neighborhoods, which contributes to develop smart cities pairing universities with utilities, said the industry has developed a deeper understanding of the potential since Google first announced it had chosen Kansas City—on both sides of the Missouri River bordering Kansas and Missouri–to build the high-speed fiber network. The rise of what he called “Innovation Districts” will incorporate millions of devices within common networks and aiming toward energy efficiency and other positive byproducts.

The key to smart cities is not to think about them as giant single pieces but made up of millions of moving parts working together. Customers, otherwise known as “people,” make up a big part of it.

“Smart city convergence: Less is more, tiny is huge,” he quipped in his DistribuTECH presentation. “High-impact smart cities are 90 percent sociology and 10 percent infrastructure.”

Other utilities are diving into smart city projects in big ways. Philadephia-based PECO deployed its Smart Grid/Smart Meter initiative through a $650 million investment completed several years ago. The effort, which was built around Sensus’ FlexNet platform, brought together more than 2.5 million “end points”—from Advanced Metering Infrastructure to distribution automation.

“We may be further along than we realize” in the smart city revolution, said Glenn Pritchard, manager of advanced grid operations for Philadelphia-based PECO. “The potential challenges for smart city initiatives include regulatory, system governance and asset life-cycle management.”