EDF smart cities: a holistic systems approach to urban sustainability challenges

Wed, 2013-08-07 06:06 -- Jesse Berst

Q&A with Pascal Terrien, Director for Sustainable Cities Program, EDF Research and Development

Pascal Terrien, EDFPascal Terrien leads the sustainable cities effort at French giant EDF, a Smart Cities Council Lead Partner. The EDF Group is a world-leading electricity company with operations spanning power generation, trading and distribution in both regulated and deregulated markets. It is Europe's leading electricity producer with revenues of 73B euros and EBITDA of 16.1B euros in 2012. The EDF Group has a strong commitment to the environment and to carbon-free generation – in 2012 84.7% of its power production was carbon-free. Its French transmission and distribution subsidiaries operate 100,000 km of transmission (high-voltage) lines and 1,285,000 km of distribution (medium-voltage) lines serving nearly 28 million customers in France. It also operates utilities in other parts of the world. The EDF sustainable city initiative is global in nature and seeks to define the ideal role of a utility in urban environments where 75% of the world’s population will reside by 2050.

After an engineering degree from Ecole Centrale Paris, Pascal became increasingly intrigued by energy efficiency, first at Air Liquide and then at EDF. In the mid-2000s, he founded Ecleer, the European Centre and Labs for Energy Efficiency Research with leading scientific partners in Europe. Ecleer today has approximately 50 PhD students and an R&D portfolio of roughly $20 million.

EDF researchMore recently, Pascal's group has collaborated with Veolia to invest in a research program to build a sustainable urban approach. The team is studying energy, water, environment and transport systems to address city challenges. The partnership recently announced a major partnership with Singapore. Together, the partners will create a decision support tool based on advanced modeling and simulation, along with a research-oriented Centre of Excellence. The Singapore projects builds on EDF's smart city experience in France. Similar projects are under study in the United States.

On the personal front, Pascal takes a special interest in architecture, "because it is such an interesting mix of culture and local specificities and innovation." He cites Vancouver, British Columbia with its green culture and San Francisco, California with its innovation culture as two cities he particularly admires.

Our conversation covered a wide range of topics. I learned, for instance, that:

  • EDF is particularly strong in holistic systems thinking, a heritage from its long past managing highly complex electric power systems.
  • Better planning is one solution to the financing challenge. There are often many synergies and savings to be found if you start by planning at the systems level.
  • The first thing EDF does when it looks at a city is to assess energy supply, in particular renewables. From there, it turns its attention to the demand side, in particular energy efficiency and smart grid.
  • EDF sees buildings and transportation as the low-hanging fruit for many smart city projects.

Continue reading for these and other insights from one of Europe's leading experts on energy efficiency and sustainability. – Jesse Berst, August 2013

Why the increased interest in smart cities?

Hong KongIn the next 40 years we will double the number of people in cities. We cannot build cities as we did in the past. There are resource limitations we must address. We need to rethink and redesign the totality of infrastructure for the cities of tomorrow. The infrastructure decisions we make today will be in place for a very long time. So we need to build the foundation for the next 40 to 100 years.

Do we have the technology we need for smart cities, or is there more to invent?

There is a long list of technologies that still need work: solar PV, energy efficiency, better insulation, better batteries. And one big gap is in system planning, holistic planning. We also need to get better at integrating all these new information and communications technologies.

But some of the gaps are related to people not technology. For instance, cities often operate as separate organizations with little interaction among departments. So to address systemic questions we need to change the culture, change the organizations, change the policies that impact smart cities.

Are there ways to overcome the financing challenge?

Better planning. At the very beginning of the project we have to think about optimzing the investment. There is a big potential for savings, for reducing the impact on the budget. Energy efficiency, waste-to-energy, the water-energy connection, so many more.

And one part of the solution is to invent more and better public-private partnerships. For instance, digital cities need to share their data with citizens and with private partners who can use it to build new services.

What areas of the world are leading the way?

When you start looking at smart city projects there is something interesting in all parts of the world. We chose to work with Singapore because we think it is a leading city in Asia. They've had great success since the 1960s in developing the city and the economy. And Singapore is very visible to China and Southeast Asia.

There is a crucial need for exchange of experiences between cities and for discussions between private and public stakeholders. And not just the mega-cities. Many smaller cities have great ideas too.

How important is the smart cities market to EDF?

EDF energy The smart grid is core to EDF's strategy today. It is an opportunity to give cities the benefit of our long-standing expertise in energy. The smart city is very important to EDF as a future market. That said, there are still some questions. Exactly what jobs will we be asked to do? What will be the funding models? So we are still investing to learn, still in the planning phase.

What does EDF do better than any other company?

First, we have strong expertise in energy, nearly 70 years of experience. And not just for one part -- we do generation, transmission, distribution, end use and energy efficiency. And we do it in many countries. We understand how energy impacts a city and how urban development impacts energy consumption and CO2 emissions.

Second, we have strong research activities to pave the way for innovation. Not only on the supply side but also the demand side. We perform many pilots and gather lots of real-life feedback.

Third, we are able to take the holistic, systems approach. It's in our genes. In the electric power world, we need at every second to balance that complex system, to balance supply with demand, so we are always thinking systemically.

Tell me about your new project in Singapore.

SingaporeSure, it's my favorite topic. We are using our expertise in innovative, state-of-the-art modeling. There are only a few organizations in the world able to use these tools for advanced planning.

The first thing we do when we look at a city is assess its potential for renewables -- wind, PV, biomass, hydro, heat pumps, geothermal. What is the potential for local supply? Then we look at the demand side, especially buildings and transportation, which consume the bulk of the energy. For buildings, how do we maximize comfort while minimizing resource consumption? How do we couple buildings to share heat? What about cooling and waste collection? For transportation, we want to understand the impact of electric vehicles on emissions and energy consumption. And the impact of mass transit on quality of life.

As part of the effort, we are creating a Centre of Excellence to better serve Singapore but also to address the Chinese market. We are not just researching technology but also the social economic components.

What is the single most important thing a city leader should do to position his city for success?

First, think systemically, holistically. Consider all the stakeholders, the organizations, the governance, the public-private partnerships, the citizens. Get away from silo thinking.

Once that is done, start defining the specific issues for your particular city. There is no single smart city concept, no off-the-shelf solution, every smart city must be tailor made.

Once you know the issues, then you can use the new technologies to solve them. You can use computer power and expert help from suppliers to set up and operate the system in a better way.


Jesse Berst is the founding Chairman of the Smart Cities Council. Click to subscribe to SmartCitiesNow, the weekly newsletter highlighting smart city trends, technologies and techniques.