Energy efficiency: A gateway to big smart cities initiatives

Wed, 2015-03-25 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

Looking for money to help fund a smart cities initiative? You may already have it. It just may be going down the drain.

Itron CEO Philip Mezey told participants at the Council's Smart Cities Now forum in Charlotte, North Carolina this week that North American cities waste $39 billion of energy. Every dollar that you stop losing is a dollar that can be applied toward something that’s beneficial to your community. Technology to pinpoint that waste is readily available.

“Resource savings are really investment engines for investing in our urban communities to make them more vibrant and safer,” Mezey said. “This is a target-rich environment and an environment where we can make steady progress.”

In the case of water, about 30% of it vanishes between the time it enters the distribution system and arrives at customers’ homes or businesses. And that’s water utilities have already paid to treat, adding to the loss. Itron, a Council Lead Partner, helps utilities monitor and control their energy and water.

Charlotte shows infrastructure investments pay off
Even though it’s a relatively small city, Charlotte has a long track record of making big bets in infrastructure, starting years ago with its international airport. That airport is now the sixth busiest in the U.S.

Charlotte Mayor Daniel Clodfelter says those infrastructure investments are drawing more companies and people to his city. It now has a population of about 800,000 ­­– and 150,000 of them have arrived just since the recession. He says a few decades ago, people used to move to his city because their company moved there. Now they’re coming on their own.

“Increasingly they’re saying, ‘It’s an exciting place to live. I’m not sure what I’m going to make of it, but it sounds like a place of opportunity,’” Clodfelter said.

The city’s attractiveness is growing as its pace of infrastructure investment grows. Outside the convention center, construction crews were clearing ground for Charlotte’s new passenger rail system. In 15 years, it plans to have a major rail network that stretches to all key areas of the city. It’s also working with Google on a fiber network.

Strong community engagement
And the community sees the value of the investments as well. One of the city’s projects strives to cut energy consumption at some downtown businesses by 20%. Of the 64 businesses in the target area, 61 signed on for the voluntary program, which requires them to display their energy use in their lobbies, among other things.

As with any smart city, Charlotte now runs on data. The city hands over the data to researchers at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who uncover insights and work with the city to encourage people to change their ways for the better.

Amy Aussieker, executive director of Envision Charlotte, a public-private organization that promotes sustainability, says they start by working to change behavior, since that’s largely free to change. And people, she says, have been willing to change.

“When you have every stakeholder at the table,” she says, “you can get anything done.”

A region of innovation
Charlotte is part of what’s now a region of innovation. Representatives of several nearby cities talked to Smart Cities Now participants about various projects they have tried.

Raleigh has worked to make it easier for citizens to access government services. City Councilman Bonner Gaylord told participants his goal was to make the city function more like online retailer Amazon: Even with a variety of departments, the city should function as a cohesive unit.

Raleigh has redesigned its website to take the mystery out of who to contact for what. An app that helps people find parking is an award winner. SeeClickFix lets people report problems and see when the city fixes them. The city has also created a hackathon-like event called CityCampNC that brings people together to brainstorm. A wiki project in its original incarnation was less successful; citizens saw it as requiring too much effort for too little return. That project was revamped into an easier online poll, which is providing the city with valuable information for its current rezoning project.

Meantime, Spartanburg is trying a couple of different things to raise money to replace water pipes that are well past the end of their lifespans. It’s generating some power, which it is selling to the energy utility, making use of a river it already has to manage. It has also gotten into the ice business, which has brought in $1.5 million in revenue.

“We’re just taking our high quality product and making it colder,” said Sue Schneider, CEO of the Spartanburg Water System.

Mooresville dramatically cut operations and overtime costs within its water and wastewater department by plotting its trouble tickets on a map. When it first started using the system, it was repairing a significant number of lines three or more times a year. Now, almost everything is fixed with a single trip. Even though the fixes in each section were different, that visualization helped the utility see where the biggest problems were and allowed it to take truly corrective action.

“Our maintenance budget has dropped 40% and overtime is down 80%,” said Alan Saine, an engineer for Mooresville’s water department. “We accomplished dramatic results with just a small project like this – giving iPads to our guys in the field.”

Technology is only one component
One recurring theme is that technology by itself doesn’t make a city smart. It’s all about how the city uses it.

“A smart city is about smart operations and smart citizens,” said Pierre Brunet, vice president of business development for cities for Veolia, a Council Associate Partner. “Coaching is critical. It’s not just providing data in real time, but also providing coaching on how to reduce consumption, for example.”

Charlotte is certainly one example of that. In its efforts to boost energy efficiency in a business core, much of the savings have come through education. The local utility, for example, came in to talk to office workers about unplugging chargers when their cell phone batteries are full.

Partnerships are key
Another key theme is that it’s impossible to accomplish much by yourself. Partnerships are vital. Representatives of several utilities told participants that we’re in a relationship economy now, and it’s important to treat every relationship like a personal relationship.

“The biggest mistake people make is that they dive into an idea and rush quickly to a solution,” said Roger Woodworth, vice president and chief strategy officer of Avista. “That leaves no room for anyone else to express their ideas. Where is the consideration for the alternatives? Where is the collaboration?”

And think about your friendships. Are you friends with people who only call you when they want something?

“It’s hard to make a deal with someone you don’t know,” said Fidel Marquez, senior vice president of government and external affairs for ComEd. “The time to make partnerships is when you and the utility don’t need anything. Build relationships and nurture them over time. Through that process you will find partners who are like-minded and have a shared vision and it becomes a lot easier.”

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Kevin Ebi is a staff writer and social media coordinator for the Council. Follow@smartccouncil on Twitter.