Three reasons smart cities need smart utilities

Three reasons smart cities need smart utilities
Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Behind a growing array of intelligent streetlights, substations and energy meters that light, power and analyze our world, there are electric utility companies leveraging the latest Internet of Things (IoT) technologies to solve tomorrow’s challenges and help cities thrive. 

Electric utilities and cities share a unique alignment—their success is collaborative, cooperative and indelibly linked. From community boards to council gatherings, utility directors and planners are embedded in the fabric of the city and often work side by side with elected officials to restore order when extreme weather threatens or natural disasters occur.

Above all, cities and utilities have a goal to serve the public equitably and efficiently and to be accountable to all citizens. This requires infrastructure that can be a platform for communities to grow and prosper, and for over 100 years, utilities have built electric grids that deliver power to millions of customers, enabling countless businesses and individuals to generate their own successes every day. With this in mind, here are three reasons smart cities need smart utilities:

1. Bigger Populations Require Better Problem-Solvers 

The latest United Nations estimate places 55% of the world’s population in urban areas—a figure that’s expected to increase to 68% by 2050. As the global population swells, sustainable development depends increasingly on the successful management of urban growth, and this has smart utilities thinking about how to stay ahead of the curve. 

“Our customers are changing, where they live is changing,” says Christine Primmer, smart cities strategy manager at Georgia Power. “In the heart of Atlanta, we’re expecting another 2 million people over the next two decades, which is going to put a dramatic strain on infrastructure on top of the issues we’re already dealing with.” 

Primmer explains digital technologies can enable electric service improvements and efficiencies as more people connect to the grid. Georgia Power’s advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) system, for example, allows the utility to remotely read a customer’s meter without having to visit the property. The information received from the meters also helps the utility company speed up power restoration to its customers in the event of an outage. And as the city grows larger, the system can scale in size to accommodate new demands. It’s one way that Georgia Power is helping Atlanta prepare for a smarter future, but it’s not the only consideration. 

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“Extreme weather events such as hurricanes and flooding are also causing cities to think differently about the concept of resiliency,” Primmer adds. “Smart infrastructure that can monitor the environment, sound alarms or direct people to safety in an emergency is important, along with solutions that help reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality. Cities like Atlanta are looking to radically elevate all aspects of urban living, and we have a responsibility to assist.” 

Clearly, electric utilities can play a leading role in smart city development due to their infrastructure offerings like smart meter networks and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, as well as wide geographic coverage of vital infrastructure, including streetlights, distribution poles and rights-of-way. 

Furthermore, utilities can help cities access the capital that is required to deploy IoT technologies at scale and can be instrumental in lining up public-private partnerships that get projects off the ground. Just as important, utilities can accelerate the digital transformation of cities through skillful diplomacy with decision-makers and community leaders. 

2. Utilities Already Own the Most Critical Asset

No one knows city infrastructure better than electric utilities that already have relationships with thousands of customers. Utilities own the rights-of-way, hold the franchise agreements and know where the lines are buried. They also have the equipment and crews necessary to deploy, operate and maintain smart city technologies.

Georgia Power, for instance, owns more than 850,000 streetlight poles across the state that can serve as prime real estate to host IoT devices for data extraction. Importantly, the utility is backed by a robust logistics network ready to support intelligent infrastructure growth, such as upgrading streetlight poles with connected nodes that can capture and share data in near real time. 

Many cities also own streetlight poles but lack convenient access to the experts that make intelligent infrastructure work seamlessly. To solve this problem, utilities have spent years cultivating a broad ecosystem of solutions providers ready to respond to the challenge—partners committed to making meaningful contributions to city efficiency, economic development, sustainability and citizen welfare. As a result, many electric providers are now strongly positioned to introduce new smart city applications.

“About half our LED streetlights are connected through network controls, making it easy to switch them on and off or to adjust the intensity of the light when it’s appropriate,” says Primmer.

Primmer also points to cameras for serving up public safety options, crosswalk sensors tied to traffic signals and attention-grabbing digital signage as potential add-ons to intelligent infrastructure, including stormwater detection and flood monitoring devices.

Ultimately, smart utilities can help city departments align their strategies with community priorities using an ever-expanding array of IoT applications, many of which can be directly tied to existing streetlight infrastructure that is ubiquitous across all urban centers.

3. It Takes Someone to Bring Everyone Together

Smart cities require cooperation across the public and private sectors, and utilities can be at the center of it all, helping department leaders, technology partners and citizens see the greater vision for how transformation will play out in their communities.

It can be hard to know when and where to get started, again putting the focus on forward-looking utilities. The hurdles that must be overcome to launch a smart deployment can be prohibitive to swift, decisive action without a champion to spearhead the project.

“We’re really excited about our sensor-data deployment in Atlanta because it touches multiple city departments and outside organizations,” Primmer explains. “This program is unique because it pulls together many functions inside Atlanta—public works, traffic management, public safety and IT.

“It’s powerful because getting these groups together around new collaboration objectives will help carry us through the innovation process. So often it’s an open exchange of ideas that leads us to the “Ëœaha’ moment or an opportunity that wasn’t as obvious before. Creating intelligent environments starts with creating dialogue because technology can’t fix everything. You still need clear goals and group alignment to achieve success.”

Just as critical, adds Primmer, is that smart utilities create consistency across government transitions, such as when a new mayor is elected. This helps ensure the city’s vision is carried through from administration to administration, even as parties and politics change.

Stronger Together 

Once counted on to simply keep the lights on, many utilities now offer myriad ways to intelligently manage cities’ needs, and a peek at Georgia Power shows how utilities can also be instrumental in bringing city departments together while building public support for digital infrastructure. 

Utilities offer the infrastructure, insights and incentive to see their territories grow and prosper, and their involvement in the day-to-day operation of the city can amplify excitement for new projects and programs. Smart cities need smart utilities to monitor emerging technologies, drive innovation and rally the community to a greater cause. 

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Denise Pucilowski is the Director of Innovation for Intelligent Cities at Current, powered by GE. Within her role, she leads strategic initiatives to drive market adoption and deliver desired outcomes for all Utility and Municipality segments, while helping the sales teams to build a long-term partnership with the customers. Prior to the current role, Denise served as the Sales Operations Manager for all Utility, Municipality, and Department of Transportation supporting on a number of strategic initiatives including designing and developing commercial programs, aligning internal stakeholders to support market and customer needs, and improving customer experiences.

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